Bin Laden made news, not history

The real significance of the last decade: The world is more interconnected than ever – yet no one is in charge.

Osama bin Laden
BRIC meetingepa02686856 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (2-L), Chinese President Hu Jintao (3-L) gestures as they chat while Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L), Brazilian President Dilma Vana Rousseff (2-R) and South African President Jacob Zuma looks on at a joint press conference during the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Sanya, Hainan Province, China 14 April 2011. Leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa held talks on 14 April aimed at coordinating their positions on the global economy and other international issues, host nation China said. EPA/HOW HWEE YOUNG / POOL
Since 9/11, Western economies have stagnated while the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India, and China – are surging [EPA]

Ten years after 9/11, the instant history is being written. In the French newspaper Le Monde, a highly intelligent commemorative supplement dubbed the period “The Decade of bin Laden”. But is that right?

In the ten years since 9/11, the combined GDP of Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the BRICs) rose from 8.4 per cent of the global economy to 18.3 per cent. Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism crashed.

Moreover, it was the decade when Internet access went global – from 360 million people in 2000 to more than 2 billion people today. It was a time when the war in Iraq divided the world, but also when a civilian surge for freedom finally hit the Middle East, as millions of Muslims turned for inspiration to democratic governance, not global jihad.

None of this was the doing of Osama bin Laden. To be sure, al-Qaeda was (and is) a new and serious kind of threat. Born of 30 years of tumult in the Muslim world, al-Qaeda has a worldview, not just a local view. It aspires not just to change, but to revolution.

Indeed, the notion of a “war on terror” in reply was misguided in part because it allowed people to think that al-Qaeda was just another terrorist group like the IRA, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, or the Red Brigades. It wasn’t – and isn’t. But it also aggrandised Bin Laden’s claim to be a world historical figure.

The fight – led by the United States, with the rest of the West providing lower-key support – has weakened Al Qaeda’s influence and capacity. But it has also been an enforced detour from the vital diplomatic task of building new rules and institutions for an interdependent world.

I don’t see any alternative to our determination, in 2001, to drive the Taliban from control of Afghanistan. The tragedy is that, once that battle was won, the peace was lost. The Bonn Conference of December 2001, which was called to draft a new Afghan constitution, excluded the vanquished. Whereas the US built its own democracy from below, on federalist principles, Afghanistan had imposed upon it one of the most centralised states in the world – despite being one of the world’s most decentralised societies.

Tragically, the signals from former Taliban in their southern Afghan stronghold of Kandahar were misread. The Taliban, who demanded to be left alone in exchange for staying out of politics, were driven into Pakistan, where they reconvened. The new security threat called for a military response, though the struggle should have been predominantly political and diplomatic.

The best way to understand the current situation comes from an analogy offered by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Foreign policy during the Cold War, she says, was like steering within the Panama Canal; after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was like steering within the English Channel – plenty of water on all sides, but land visible, too. Today, foreign policy is like being on the open seas, with no rules beyond countries’ 200-mile maritime borders, and no land in sight.

If that is right, we face urgent tasks – the first being to reassert diplomacy’s place in international politics. The late US statesman Richard Holbrooke once said to me that the United States since 9/11 had suffered a “militarisation of diplomacy”. We now need the opposite. In a world of asymmetric threats, we should follow the US defense department’s field manual: In counterinsurgency, politics require primacy.

Second, we must rethink our notions of a balance of power, because they no longer concern just states, but also peoples. As the Arab Spring has shown, the ubiquity of information means that future coalitions need to be formed at the micro level, in the villages and valleys of places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, rather than only at the macro level of managing the global system.

Third, we are entering an era of resource scarcity. Aside from the atomic bomb, this is the most dangerous security development in two centuries. If you think the blame game in Europe over Greece is bad, just wait for arguments about who is causing drought and food-price inflation. These are not just “environmental” questions. They are questions of justice and responsibility, and stronger regional and international institutions are needed to address them.

Finally, the West must rediscover the joys of multilateralism and shared sovereignty. That is tough when, in Europe, nobody wants to pay Greece’s bills. But multilateralism is a global insurance policy against abuse of power by any state. The problem is not that the European Union and other multilateral institutions are too strong; it is that they are too weak. Indeed, regional institutions in the Arab world, Africa, Latin America, and East Asia are still in their infancy – and need to grow up fast.

Over the past few centuries, there have been three systems of international order: economic and military domination; a balance of power; and shared sovereignty. They can coexist, as they more or less did in the years after 1945 in various parts of the world. But the US today is on the back foot, economically and militarily. New powers like China and India are rising, not risen, mixing assertiveness with emphasis on their continued “developing” status. Europe, where shared sovereignty has been embraced, is struggling to solve its own problems, never mind becoming a global player.

So no one is in charge. This is all the more problematic at a time when the world’s states and people are more intertwined than ever, as ideas, information, finance, migrants, and problems flow ever more seamlessly across borders.

A century ago, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Angell argued in The Great Illusion that economic security enables military expansion, not vice versa. In fact, neither is achievable without political vision. That is the most important lesson of the post-9/11 decade.

David Miliband, Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom from 2007-2010, is a Member of Parliament.

A version of this article first appeared on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.