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Making sense of changed lives

Worlds in Collision, in bringing together a range of scholars from across the spectrum, is an indication of the directions that intellectual debates have taken since `9/11', says PRANAB DHAL SAMANTA.

SEPTEMBER 11 unsettled a lot! From the privileged executive in the World Trade Centre towers to the forgotten opium farmer in Afghanistan, lives changed; from the splendid architecture of the World Trade Centre towers to the barren landscapes of Afghanistan, a war commenced; and from economic globalisation to fighting terrorism, global agendas were rewritten.

As these transformations took place — reported, analysed and presented on television screens and newspapers across the world — another lot of people grappled endlessly, sometimes within and sometimes among themselves. This was the world of thought, of intellectuals and academics who interpret, understand and explain the world to us.

Many a cosy presumption about world politics were shaken, thoughts rattled and interpretations questioned. Each had a view to present but no single explanation could explain what had gone wrong. Just how could this happen to America, the world's greatest power? Were the policies pursued subsequently justified in the light of evidence collated? Where would morality figure in this melange of questions?

Ken Booth and Tim Dunne make this their starting point. As the title suggests, Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order is a book about colliding world of thoughts. The Introduction by the two editors of the book identifies the chief contours along which post-September 11 intellectual debates have been going on.

The two scholars argue that the divergence of views in many ways symbolise the set of difficult questions which the spectre of September 11 posed. Sub-sections like Islam and the United States, the West and the Rest, Terror versus Dialogue, Force and Law in the Introduction magnificently set up what is in offing for the reader.

Arranged, rather innovatively, in three sections — Terror, Order, and Worlds — the book brings a set of writers who have rarely been stapled together in a single volume. Noam Chomsky to Kenneth Waltz, the book boasts of a range of famous scholars from across the spectrum. This in a sense sets the book apart from the numerous publications on the September 11 strikes.

After an easy-to-read and engrossing Introduction, Francis Fukuyama takes the reader through his understanding of September 11 as a manifestation of what he calls "Islamo-Fascism". Holding on to his famous "End of History" thesis, Fukuyama argues that liberal democracy and market-oriented capitalism would continue to call the shots despite this "desperate backlash" against the modern world.

Then is the Lawrence Freedman chapter on what he sees as a new form of warfare. Striking, in his view, is the combination of a modern force and a primitive army, i.e. the United States. and the Northern Alliance. Noted scholar Steve Smith follows this up with a unique set of 10 very factual questions, each of which is yet to be fully answered by the U.S. In a way he questions the justification of the American response, framed and acted upon, without a fuller comprehension of what the September 11 strikes signified.

The ball rolls on along expected lines with chapters on the intelligence dimension of the attack and possible areas of improvement, financing of terrorist operations and other analyses on the American response. All varying more in degree than in form.

James Der Derian's chapter, however, introduces an interesting twist. This brilliantly structured analysis focuses on the way American media represented September 11 to Americans and the world. By way of a sophisticated argument, Der Derian charges the American media with trying to create a form of hysteria that lacked depth but prepared grounds for policy makers to talk in terms of either "us" or "them".

This along with Michael Byers' piece, which warns of double standards in the application of international law, serve as a good prelude to Chomsky's chapter, "Who are the Global Terrorists?" In his distinctive style, Chomsky makes ethics or "moral truism" the centrepiece of his argument.

Listing several cases like Cuba, he criticises the U.S. Government of selectively applying its own official definition of terrorism. Many U.S. policies towards less powerful countries, he argues, would qualify as terrorist acts if judged by the very standards the U.S. has set post-September 11.

The next section on "Order" takes the reader through a series of articles on the possibilities of a changed world order. Studded with case studies like those of Afghanistan and West Asia, this section also has two very important contributions from the Indian perspective — one by Amitav Acharya on Asia and the world order, and the other on South Asia by C. Raja Mohan.

Acharya focuses on how many recent international conventions on terrorism have armed some Asian States to quell domestic discontent. On the other hand, Raja Mohan views the U.S. intervention as one holding more promise for South Asia than its earlier involvement in Afghanistan.

While Acharya fears an imbalance (favouring Asian States) in State-Society relations, Raja Mohan forecasts the strengthening of democratic institutions and a sidelining of fundamentalist voices in the future. Read together, both these articles reflect the difficulties in assuming that American support in this part of the world is total, despite loud endorsements by many governments.

Most scholars writing in the last section of the book — Worlds — approach the issue from varying perspectives but end up suggesting a dire need to create a global civil society based on certain shared values. Notable in this regard are chapters by Andrew Linklater, Patricia Williams, Chris Brown and Bhikhu Parekh.

The book, however, concludes rather unexpectedly with Kenneth Waltz, who, in contrast to the passionate pleas for a global civil society, claims that September 11 has far from transformed international politics. If anything, he argues, the terrorist strikes have only strengthened the realist ways and methods of the American empire.

In all, the book is educative and insightful. Laudable, in particular, are the efforts of these two scholars from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, to have compiled such disparate views in a single volume. In fact, a discerning reader might just detect a certain logic in the way these articles have been arranged and presented.

Booth and Dunne, it can safely be said, do achieve what they set out to in their Introduction. May be they set out to do quite a bit, but that would be nit picking. For all their academic orientations, the contributors have kept it both simple and palatable for the reader. Finally, the book's greatest strength is that it shifts the spotlight on to a range of questions that have been marginalised, sidelined and kept outside of policy discourse by governments across the world.

Worlds in Collision: Terror and the Future of Global Order, edited by Ken Booth and Tim Dunne, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, hardback 40, paperback 14.99.

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