12 September 2003

9/11 two years later: Modernity and its discontents

Prof. Mackubin Thomas Owens of the Naval War College in Newport, RI, undertakes to analyze the animosity between the west and the islamic world in "The End of the 'End of History'". He properly skewers the "end of history" crowd, that is, those, such as Francis Fukuyama, who believe that the spread of liberal democracy and free trade will make war obsolete. This was precisely the misconception of the naive optimists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their illusions were shattered in August 1914.

Nevertheless, I wonder whether his own prescription for international order is really all that different, except that for him democracy and capitalism do not spread peacefully, but are imposed by a global superpower. Drawing on an article by his colleague, Tom Barnett, Owen writes:

9/11 revealed an emerging geopolitical reality: that the world's most important fault line is not between the rich and the poor, but between those who accept modernity and those who reject it. In a controversial article for Esquire (entitled "The Pentagon's New Map") and a series of briefings, my colleague at the Naval War College, Tom Barnett, has described a world divided between a "Functioning Core" and a "Non-Integrating Gap." The former, where "globalization is thick with network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, and collective security," is characterized by "stable governments, rising standards of living, and more deaths by suicide than murder." The latter, where "globalization is thinning or just plain absent" is "plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty and disease, routine mass murder, and — most important — the chronic conflicts that incubate the next generation of global terrorists."

The assumption is that the acceptance of secular modernity, in its various manifestations, is the solution to the problems of the "Gap." Osama bin Laden and his ilk see their premodern worldview threatened by the liberal democracy and capitalism emanating from the United States. They must be confronted and, it seems, eliminated, not simply managed. Over the past two years American policy has had to change:

The post-9/11 strategy is based on the idea that the only way to effectively deal with the dangers arising from the Gap is for the countries of the Core to intervene in the Gap with the goal of reducing it. The president seems to accept [the] contention that ignoring the Gap or, at most, seeking to "manage" it merely reduces further what little connectivity the Gap has with the Core and renders it more dangerous to the Core over the long haul.

This is, of course, a variation of the secularization thesis and is not really all that different from the views of Fukuyama, Alexandre Kojève and even, paradoxically, Canada's own George Parkin Grant. It views modernization as a single unidirectional movement sweeping up in its homogenizing path all of the particular cultures of the world. But now it is backed by the coercive force of the state.

That the world might be moving in a desecularizing direction, as observed by Samuel Huntington, Philip Jenkins, Paul Marshall and many others, appears to have escaped Owens' notice. If, as Owens urges, the US turns towards the imposition of a global hegemony by the "Core" over the "Gap" to protect its own vision of modernity, it will be engaging in a fruitless effort to fill the spiritual vacuum in the nonwestern heart with something that will ultimately fail to satisfy.

"Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee." Augustine, The Confessions.

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