Raymond Seitz: The tree of terrorism is watered by despair

From the Hansard lecture, given by the former United States ambassador to Britain, at the University of Southampton
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The Independent Online

What were the proximate causes of 11 September? Certainly the political dementia of Osama bin Laden is near the top of the list. The vacuum which the West, particularly the United States, left behind in Afghanistan once the Soviets had been expelled, is another cause.

The Gulf War of 1990-91 had ramifications we didn't fully grasp at the time. Although the war was fought by a coalition that included Arab nations, the order afterwards has been policed almost entirely by western nations. This has required a substantial presence, especially an American presence, in Saudi Arabia. As it is the prime duty of the king to protect the holy sites of Islam, the presence of infidels within his borders has been seen by many as a gross defilement.

The Hundred Years War between the Israelis and the Palestinians must also feature on the list. Americans are here seen as less than even-handed, and while the West Bank may not mean much to Osama bin Laden, the bitter resentment it causes in the Arab world makes the message of al-Qa'ida much more digestible.

There is one more cause, we are told, a little more vague and more formless than the others: 11 September is also seen as an act of rebellion against globalisation, a revolt of the have-nots against the haves, of the exploited against the exploiters. There can't be much doubt that the tree of terrorism is watered by despair.

We live in a world where the gap between the fortunate and the unfortunate is being stretched like a concertina. This is true within countries as well as among countries, and there is much about the human condition that should shame us all.

But it really doesn't make sense to blame this unhappy state of affairs on what is awkwardly called globalisation. Demographics and the population explosion are equal factors. So is the technological revolution, especially in computer-driven communications. Moreover, the end of the Cold War a little more than a decade ago saw the open market treble in size almost overnight. Most serious debate these days is not about the open market economy versus the command economy – that is a bankrupt argument. It's about the shape or model of a market economy, and how governments can best protect their societies from the disruptive and dislocating impact of growth. How has Singapore managed it? Chile? Turkey?

That said, the fact remains that the rich get more and the poor get children, and the fundamental inequity in the distribution of benefit in the world breeds discontent, resentment and, ultimately, a search for alternatives which may be violent.

US power is often seen as overbearing or erratic or corrosive or a kind of stealth imperialism. There is a deep unease, especially outside the English-speaking world, that America entertains calculated pretensions to world hegemony, and that globalisation is merely a euphemism for Americanisation. For much of the world, there are too many Sylvester Stallone movies, too many Microsoft programmes, too many hedge funds, too many Big Macs.

It is a fact of international life, however, that not much of lasting merit gets done without the active engagement of the United States, so to vote down the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, for example, or to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocols without a credible alternative leaves the rest of the world dismayed and disenchanted.

It often seems that only when our interests are directly threatened, as they were and are by 11 September, is there a genuine focus in our national attention. But it is another fact of life that America historically has not achieved much of lasting international value without the co-operation of others. And here, I hope, is the vital lesson America will learn from 11 September. Power alone can assure our dominance, but not our leadership, and no matter how powerful we are, we cannot be secure on our own.