Bruce Anderson: The age of post-imperial confusion

To the poor and the discontented, Islam offers comfort, an explanation, and an enemy
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At the moment, there is an unlikely similarity between the US and India. A comment which shrewd Indian politicians often make about their own country is equally applicable to the US. "Every generalisation about India is true. So is the opposite."

Thoughtful Americans are unhappy. The political system seems broken. The President may be desperately unpopular, but there is no commanding alternative. America's international standing has never been so low. Although a few brave, or foolhardy, neocons still insist that the US is the only one marching in step, there is no rush to reinforce that burning deck. America's enemies are undeterred: Iran, North Korea, Hugo Chavez. High oil prices are enriching the bad guys and punishing the American motorist, who now has to pay around 90p a litre for gasoline (not many Europeans will be signing books of condolence).

Iraq is a mess. Instead of democracy fanning out from Baghdad, an Iranian-sponsored Shia crescent stretches from Southern Lebanon to the Gulf. Since the days of the Shah, Iran has tried to become the regional superpower. With American help, it may now have achieved that goal. I have still to hear a realistic military or diplomatic strategy to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear capability.

There are attempts to find plausible strategies for Iraq. Among the foreign policy elite, and even among some of those who opposed the war, there is a widespread belief that withdrawal is not a sensible option. But there is a problem. That elite view is increasingly disconnected from public opinion. A continuing US military presence could be effective only if it was clear that the Americans had the will to sustain it indefinitely, whoever was president, whoever controlled Congress. That is not the case.

Yet none of this means that every thoughtful American is luxuriating in pessimism. The economy is growing steadily. By boosting tax revenues to record levels, Mr Bush's tax cuts proved that the Laffer curve works. Lower rates can mean higher takes. Testimony to the underlining strength of the US economy, this explains why there are so few anxieties about the deficit.

Despite steady improvements in productivity, unemployment is down to 4.5 per cent. In practice, this means that every American who wants a job can have two of them. It also helps explain why there is so little threat to the free trading system on which the world's prosperity depends. American opposition politicians, especially Democrats, are often tempted to indulge in populist calls for protectionism. Today, there is less of that than at any time in American history. The US is a strong and prosperous country. Most of its people enjoy an enviably high standard of living.

That said, there is one grave anxiety which dominates the thinking of almost everyone concerned with foreign policy: the threat from Islam. In 1914, old Europe was blown apart by war. That war to end all wars turned out to be the war to spawn endless war. The First World War did not end in 1919, but in 1990. In its aftermath, the first President Bush proclaimed a new world order. That sickly infant lived for only a decade. In 2001, the first global war began, and it is not clear what would constitute victory. It really could turn out to be the war to end all wars - by ending mankind.

The First World War lasted so long because of the malign consequences arising from the destruction of Empires, especially the Austro-Hungarian one. We are still living in a world of post-imperial confusion. Indeed, given that much of this arises in the former Ottoman Empire, it may be premature to declare that the First World War is over.

The end of an empire is rarely a benign process. There are exceptions: India, the US after the War of Independence and the former Soviet possessions in Eastern Europe. In general, however, from the decline of the Roman Empire onwards, the retreat of an imperial tide has been a melancholy, long-withdrawing roar, leaving behind mud flats of stagnation and failed states: the perfect terrain for ignorant armies to clash by night - and day.

This need not always be a threat to civilised western interests. Most of the former Spanish colonies in Latin America vegetated for a century and a half without troubling the rest of mankind. But a failed state is a standing temptation to the West's enemies and is vulnerable to a dangerous ideology. Hence Cuba, now followed by Chavez.

Much of post-imperial Africa also seems to have dropped off the map of history, especially after the end of the Cold War. There too, however, a failed state is not just a humanitarian theme park. Even if every other part of the economy falls apart, this will not be true of the laboratory of political toxins.

The latest of these is militant Islam. It has adherents in every continent (Iranians have been turning up in Venezuela). It can exploit the unending appeal of religion to the human psyche, especially as it offers the clarity and discipline sought by many of those drawn to faith and which is harder and harder to find in the orthodox Christian churches. To the poor and the discontented, Islam offers comfort, an explanation and an enemy.

Not all Muslims are fundamentalists. Not all fundamentalists are drawn to violence. But when large numbers are involved, a fraction of a fraction can be a deadly force. The Islamic world will continue to engender such deadly forces.

It is by no means clear what we can do to counter this. Although the US military could not be better equipped to win a conventional war, its order of battle has little relevance to the first global war. I once saw a giant scorpion overwhelmed and killed by a column of ants. Its slashing, envenomed sting, so terrifying to other foes, was quickly reduced to a quivering, dying impotence, by tiny creatures a minute fraction of its size.

Although we will always need smart weaponry, the West must invest a great deal more money in smart intelligence and smart diplomacy. It may be that in the longer run, only liberal democracy cures the underlying problems of failing states. In the short run, however, we need to find an accommodation with many of those states to prevent them from being overrun by our implacable enemies. At the high tide of neoconservatism, containment seemed to be a discredited doctrine. It is now apparent that containment has its uses. We need a Hegelian synthesis between neocon idealism and neo-Kissingerian realism.

After the fall of the Shah, the Foreign Office conducted an internal enquiry. Why had this not been predicted, and what could be done to ensure stability in the Middle East? Sir Anthony Parsons, the final ambassador to the Shah, defended his record and castigated his critic's naïvety. Great events were often unpredictable, he argued, and as for stability, there was no such thing. There were only degrees of instability. That will remain true for the foreseeable future.