Most of the world noticed long ago the existence of a fundamentalglobal economic asymmetry between North and South. But with the demise ofthe Soviet Union and the degradation of Russia’s military capacity, planners in the U.S. see a new kind of asymmetry. No country can challenge militarily the supremacy of the single superpower.

Well-connected analysts are looking hard at the implications of asymmetryfor U.S. defense posture. They are calling into question almost every part of the defense establishment: training, tanks and other equipment, division into services,size and type of operational units and communications systems. Most importantly, they are proposing a new doctrine to govern the changed art of war.

The new doctrine calls attention to a new kind of enemy, one that is detached from state structures and devoid of conventional military weapons and tactics.The enemy is terrorism.

All big industrial powers have military machines that are overwhelmingly more powerfulthan any terrorist group. Terrorism cannot threaten their military superiority. The danger of terrorism for the big powers is economic and political disruption.

Disruption is not military defeat, but it jolts the economy, tarnishes the reputation of the government of the day and interferes with its ability to extend its economicand cultural influence around the world.

The governments of big powers are making major efforts to do something about the risks of terrorism. The question is: what can they do? Experts in asymmetric warfare think they have the answer in a new military posture…

What the war on terrorism does

For governments the war on terrorism fills a void thatappeared with the end of the Cold War and the spreadof neo-conservative views that governments shouldshrink and scale back their programs. It gives governmentssomething important to do and supplies a readyreason to strengthen instruments of internal securityand to monitor or restrict potentially troublesomepolitical movements.

The fight against communism or imperialism wasreason enough in Cold War days for governments toexpand their power. With the demise of state communismthe U.S. reduced support for repressiveanti-communist regimes. Democracy movements andcompetitive politics spread widely in the uni-polarworld. Democratic movements are often disrespectfulof sitting governments and they can generate conflictthat brings political order itself into question. Manygovernments discovered reasons to fear democracy.The war on terrorism gives them the opportunity toplay on the widely-felt sense of vulnerably to reinforcetheir power. Governments the world over are beefingup police and intelligence agencies and implementinglegislation that curtails political liberties and reducesprotection against arbitrary arrest.

The war on terrorism draws attention away fromissues of global inequality and degradation of livingconditions that are important in their own right andremain important causes of conflict. Instead internationalbodies are swamped by issues of security. Theglobal movement for economic reform finds its scopefor action more limited. In the industrial North it findsgovernments are less open to discussion about economicjustice. The public is encouraged to see theSouth more as a source of danger than a region in needof international economic and social reform. Activistshave to commit energy and resources to defendinghuman and civil rights and opposing the worst of thenew security legislation. A coalition that might cometogether on many aspects of global economic reformand environmental defense is more divided whenforced into dealing with issues of security and terrorism.

Debate about globalization is being choked off at atime when a new generation of activists is responding tothe changing constellation of power and wealth in theworld and participating in vital cultural changes andconflicts. Lively debates are under way on fundamentalissues such as the political role of Islam, Christianity andJudaism; appropriate political structures for multiculturalstates and alternatives to orthodox marketsolutions to issues of stalled development and incomemaldistribution. These debates need wide publicity andbroad participation. Liberal secularists need to debatewhy modernization is failing so many of the world’s people.Instead they are caught up in arguing about themorality of putting huge amounts of money intoweapons. Religious believers need to discuss how theycan adapt their beliefs to a pluralism of faiths butinstead are forced to defend their religion’s basicmorality.

The politics of fear and power replaces a politicsof intellectual challenge and practical give and take.The war on terrorism includes a well-funded and skillfully directed information component that raises thefear level and keeps attention on security. It sucks energyfrom other discussions and forces basic issues to themargins of public dialogue. The way the war on terrorismenables the U.S. to shape the political agenda withinthe U.S., in international discussions and in many othercountries may be its most impressive quality.

The worlds of industry and science are affected bythe war on terrorism. They are turned significantly inthe direction of creating technologies to defendagainst terrorism and to take effective action againstterrorists. The new knowledge and new weapons maystrengthen counter-terrorism, but they will eventuallyalmost certainly add to the weapons and techniquesavailable to terrorists. Already the fruit of anthraxresearch designed to improve defense against bioterrorismhas been turned against U.S. politicians andmedia. Bystanders have died in these attacks. Whenthe Russians used a new kind of incapacitating gas tosubdue Chechen hostage-takers in Moscow it alsodemonstrated to terrorists a new way to attack civilians.All the talent and money invested in securing U.S. militarycommunications and in mining globalcommunications to eavesdrop on terrorist planningare pulled away from other endeavors. They mighthave been used to find ways of conserving energy andwater, one way to address a major source of conflict inthe world.

The war on terrorism also draws attention away fromarms control and arms elimination projects. Efforts toreduce the availability of land mines, light automaticweapons and explosives might have a direct effect onthe frequency and deadliness of terrorist actions.Control of the production and distribution of nuclear,biological and chemical weapons (NBC) would lowerthe chances of terrorists making use of such weapons.These efforts are weakened and displaced by enlargedmilitary budgets and accelerated production ofweapons systems for possible counter-terrorist use.

The shift from politics to warfare in dealing with terrorismis not total. In several cases local terroristmovements have seen the new global rigidity in the faceof terrorism and decided to abandon their moreextreme claims and enter a process of political bargaining.The LTTE in Sri Lanka, the IRA in Ireland, FIS inAlgeria, ETA in Spain and Kurdish groups in Turkeyhave all moved (some quite tentatively) in this direction.These are all movements with a strong popularbase that will serve well in the transition to a more politicalform of struggle. The governments with which theynegotiate may take a more flexible political positionbecause they see the benefits of the support they receiveas collaborators in this war. These cases demonstratethat a response to terrorism that responds to its politicalchallenge is not a pipedream. It has practical potential.

A better response

If the major powers stopped regarding terrorism asprimarily a military matter, they might begin workingtogether to change the conditions that give rise to terrorism.A promising start would be joint efforts toreduce the number and size of the ungoverned andchaotic areas of the globe, improve the conditions ofliving in the world’s megacities and diminish othersources of social crisis. Still dangerous terrorist organizationswould continue to exist and make plans tostrike. Several of them are well-established institutionswith a drive to survive and effective modes of operating.The conditions out of which they grow and theconflicts they reflect will not soon disappear. Someoutbreaks of terrorism are bound to occur even ifglobal action diminishes their frequency.

Citizens are right to demand retaliation against terrorists.Governments are right to take action to assurethe security of their citizens, with special effort to preventthe acquisition and use of NBC weapons byterrorist organizations or by states. Few dispute thenecessity of a response, but the question of how torespond provokes controversy. There are strong reasonsto reject the language and actions of a war on terrorismand to regard terrorist acts as crimes against humanityrather than acts of war. To do so avoids many of thenegative anti-political effects of the war. It deprives terroristsof assuming the mantle of the heroic warrior andtreats them instead as lowly criminals. Terrorism,whether committed by a state or group, is a crime inevery country and is often on a scale that counts as acrime against humanity. The pursuit of terrorists ascriminals requires action to uncover and abort terroristoperations. Police and special forces will have to domore than react to terrorist crimes once they are committed.Good intelligence is critical.

Diplomatic work to reduce conflict in all the regionsthat are caught in cycle of terrorism and counter-terroristresponse could make a large impact in thetotal amount of terrorism committed. Some can beresolved and others can be diminished. When passionis removed from local violence and moved into politicalnegotiation and confrontation the energy availableto sustain terrorist efforts can be diverted. Work is alsonecessary on reducing state terrorism, decommissioningstate-terrorist institutions and retraining formerstate terrorists.

Unfortunately the war on terrorismprovides a ready excuse to retain and expand organizationsof state terrorism under the guise ofcounter-terrorist services.

The work in policing, intelligence and diplomacythat targets terrorism directly should not be allowed todraw attention from the other vital tasks. Work onadapting democracy, reforming the national and internationaleconomy, limiting and controlling weaponsand organizing popular political action remain importantfor their own sake and are key ways to reduce thetensions and causes on which terrorism thrives.

The world will have to continue to live with terrorism.Governments and citizens can do a lot to limit itsincidence. We badly need to curtail the damage it doesto popular action and governmental work on the lifeand death political issues that face humankind.