Ten years on from 9/11: Why can’t the west believe in itself?
I had this on Labour Uncut earlier this week.
As the national transitional council’s (NCT) grip on Libya tightened, I wondered: What do the Muammar Gaddafi loyalists in their last redoubts want? Having refused the NCT’s generous reconciliation offer, do the Gaddafi loyalists really think that they can recover the whole of their country? As this is implausible, it must be that they remain loyal enough to their barbaric, ego-maniac, delusional leader that they’d rather die in his name than accept Libya’s new reality.
Belief held so absolutely has become alien to most westerners and, thus, inherently terrifying. Willingness to fight to the death is beyond the ken of people unwilling to fight for much besides the TV remote. That’s why it wasn’t just Tony Blair and George W Bush who were mortified by Al-Qaeda. We all were. These ingenuous people would go to any lengths, including sacrificing themselves, to destroy us. What wasn’t to be afraid of?
Well, much less than it seemed. We thought Al-Qaeda’s appalling idea could attract ever more active backers. We suspected that many people, possibly millions, absolutely believed things utterly out of kilter with what we believe fundamentally. And they believed these things with the passion of newlyweds, while the passion of western citizens for the defining values of their states is that of the long married. Not non-existent, but not obviously burning.
While the passionate beliefs of Gaddafi loyalists now bemuse western eyes as much as the passionate beliefs of Al-Qaeda have done, these passionate beliefs are very different, of course. Gaddafi comes from a tradition that starts with Gamal Nasser and hopefully ends with Bashar al-Assad. Upon these strong men Arab states were personalised. Gaddafi was Libya and Libya was Gaddafi. And that just seemed the way things were.
This appeared almost as otherworldly to western eyes as Al-Qaeda, who hoped to replace the secular despotism of the Arab dictatorships with an Islamic caliphate. Ten years after 9/11, revolutions have come, but not those anticipated by Al-Qaeda. Modern freedom was more attractive than returning to the seventh century.
In bravely rising up, the Arabs showed themselves to be not so odd after all. They’ve hungered for the same things that Al-Qaeda want to destroy. Not western values, but universal human values: liberty, democracy, the rule of law, the absence of arbitrary power. Now the Arabs are for the long march through the institutions but with what Hegel called weltgeist on their side. Ultimately, they will arrive at states embodying the universal values for which the Arab Spring strives.
The rise of the rest, particularly China and India, is often taken to mean that weltgeist is passing from west to east. But, while the values championed by the Arab Spring are universal, they have their fullest expression in the west. The power of this advantage is overlooked in the rush to proclaim western decline. Western countries are not convulsed, as China and India are, by the protests of expanding middles classes, no longer prepared to have their rights trammelled upon. Trade with China has often been justified in terms of Chinese economic freedom being a precursor to a more assertive Chinese middle class, which would demand political freedoms.
This argument for Chinese trade is a confident western argument; an argument that believes in the potency of values upheld by the west. Yet, just as the Arabs are inspired by the same values that this now emerging Chinese middle class demands, so underlining the universality and appeal of these values, western confidence seems nowhere.
This diminution was encouraged by needlessly betraying the values that Al-Qaeda assaulted (Abu-Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay). As well as an economic crisis in which the commanding heights of private capitalism were massively subsidised by the taxpayer and, subsequently, banking practices remained unreformed amid widespread public and private deleveraging and horribly anaemic growth rates. But these post 9/11 mistakes and the financial crisis were self-inflicted western wounds. From which we could recover strongly with a fraction of the resolve that the Arab Spring has required.
It wasn’t always so. Britons once volunteered to fight against those who would crush universal values. They believed, as strongly as the Gaddafi loyalists who now cling to their wrong-headed beliefs, that if they could shoot Welsh rabbits then they could kill Spanish fascists. The spread of universal values that the Arab Spring and the rise of middle classes in China and India portends, hopefully, means that we won’t have to fight as the International Brigade did for these values.
Certainly, this spread means that the west should have more confidence in our capacity to build a world that would make these universal values universally enjoyed. A confident west would, amongst other things, now be offering the same kind of carrots and sticks towards enduring democratic change in the Arab world as were offered to Eastern Europe twenty years ago.
It doesn’t just matter that the values that shape the west are universal. It also matters that the west believes in them enough to act upon them.