11 September and its aftermath

Keith Best

By Keith Best

We have been told on innumerable occasions that the world is very different after September 11. Before the phrase creeps into popular mythology we should examine objectively how the world has changed, if at all, and from the subjective point of view of key players on the international stage. My own belief is that the view of the world from the Oval Office of the White House has not changed much. The effect is far more profound on the American people as I shall indicate in a moment. President Bush’s description of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an evil axis may show that he has read President Reagan’s speeches but is not global diplomacy. If there is to be a sustained so-called war on terrorism then there appears to be no plan and no strategy. Wars generally have clearly defined goals even if they are as stark and uncompromising as Churchill’s “victory at all costs.” We have not defined terrorism against which this war is to be waged nor have we attempted to identify clearly the nature of the enemy. The danger is that it becomes a pretext for dislodging any regime which is seen to be inimical to the foreign policy interests of a small group of western states. If people are to die, as they will, we should be more certain for what they will be required to make that sacrifice. We should be prepared for the backlash both morally and militarily and against individuals and hostages.

There is an appalling level of ignorance in the West about one of the world’s major religions, Islam. If we cannot distinguish between Sunni and Sh’ite Muslims, between the teachings of the Koran and the Hadiths then we can hardly complain if those of other religions think that there is little difference between Baptists, Jesuits and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We do not condemn Christian fundamentalists, even though some of us may disagree with them, so why should we condemn Islamic fundamentalists? Such followers of their religions are not synonymous with those who pervert their religion into a self-appointed authority to deny others their human rights through the bullet and the bomb. The former are religious fanatics, the latter are terrorists: we should be careful how we define our terms. I am reminded of the moment in the film “Gandhi” where the English vicar travelling on top of the train is greeted by a Hindu who tells him “I know what you Christians do every Sunday: you eat flesh and drink blood.” It is an axiom to state that ignorance leads to fear which leads on to hatred and killing. We must all learn to confront ignorance of other beliefs and customs, especially in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society which ought to be a cause for celebration of diversity rather than one of concern at sublimation of one culture by another. It is our World Federalist Movement President Sir Peter Ustinov who so simply but effectively describes federalism as the only political system which allows us to enjoy the differences between us.

We should think back to what perpetrated the outrage of September 11. Inexplicably to most Americans, who see large amounts of their money being spent in developing countries, they are targeted by extremists around the world. We should not forget that in the corrupted mind of Osama Bin Laden the greatest offence has been committed by the Saudi royal family which has allowed the infidel on to their land. The USA was a secondary target, identified mainly because of its seeming uncritical support of Israel against the Palestinians. Let us remember the anger we in Britain felt towards the activities in the United States of Noraid and US citizens who, gullibly, thought they were contributing to the welfare of Belfast children in stead of the purchase of Armalite rifles. The two, of course, are not analogous but both attitudes display a fundamental misunderstanding of another point of view. One of the lessons of September 11 is that we must never assume that our actions are understood or appreciated simply because we see them as inherently right. A failure to appreciate the other argument is the most basic error of practitioners in my own profession, the law, and it is sad to see it replicated so often in the sphere of international diplomacy. Ignorance and arrogance are very great evils indeed.

It was summed up by US Attorney-General John Ashcroft when describing the capture of the US citizen who had chosen to fight with the Taliban. “We may never know,” he intoned “what may have persuaded him to reject our values and way of life.” Precisely, Mr Ashcroft, that is the problem. Until Americans take time to work out why collectively they are so disliked and mistrusted by so many nations despite being the most generous aid donors and despite, in my judgement, being individually some of the most benign and humane individuals then they will not begin to address how September 11 came about. Until the blinkers are taken off from the perception that the USA always sides with the Jews against the Arabs and that their foreign policy is based on an arrogant assumption that their might is right then they will not be understood by much of the Muslim world. In a terribly tragic way the carnage of 11 September has brought home to Americans the reality that has faced us in Britain for many years throughout the troubles in Northern Ireland, namely that no-one is safe entirely from the threat of terrorism and that it can reach into the very heart of what might be regarded as comfortable territory. If that brings a greater sense of realism and a desire to confront terrorism not just at the military but at the intellectual and emotional level then the world’s economically and militarily most powerful state, the remaining superpower, will have moved on.

Globalisation is with us to stay whether we like it or not and we should embrace it. One of its features is a global labour market which makes certain restrictive immigration policies of states, based on old and now offensive parameters of maintaining ethnic purity and the integrity of a culture, whatever that may mean, appear not only thoroughly out of date but also inimical to the best economic interests of their citizens and economic growth. The UK is a case in point. For the last thirty years UK immigration policy has been based on legislation of the 1960s and 1971. That was a time at which the Labour Government produced a White Paper referring, in terms which now would be regarded as deeply insensitive at least, to the need to control “coloured” immigration in the interests of domestic race relations. Government officials have continued to operate such a policy – the difference between refusals of, say, working holiday makers in the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth is striking – the former are few and the applicants are white and the latter are many and the applicants are black. In the forthcoming White Paper within the next two weeks for the first time I detect a seed change in which, at long last, UK immigration policy will have an emphasis on facilitating migrant workers and be governed by the economic needs of the country rather than the public and political prejudices of the past. The demographic argument has been overwhelming for some time: in order to sustain our position as the fourth largest economy with an ageing population with labour needs for both skilled and unskilled workers which cannot be met from within indigenous human resources we must import labour. I can understand a Government treading warily in view of public concern on the old myths of incoming workers stealing the jobs of our sons and daughters but so long as it moves in the right direction I shall not complain. Interestingly, the White Paper will also contain a section on how the community as a whole should welcome new immigrants – after a period in which officially (but obviously inaccurately) we have had zero primary immigration for the last thirty years.

The move towards globalisation, however, should not imply that all is well in the global village. There remains serious conflicts on religious and ethnic grounds and the desire for self-determination of national groups which do not recognise the arbitrary territorial boundaries which fate and history have delivered. There remains profound ignorance. Where wars break out in this new century it will be for one or more of these three reasons. That gives us a chance to prepare. We have had plenty of experience of the obscenity of genocide which has almost been sanitised into the description of ethnic cleansing. Calling to account those individuals who perpetrate these crimes is one response. Creating a climate in which there is greater tolerance based upon breaking down the barriers of ignorance and celebrating diversity is a more durable one. We world federalists have a political solution which enables minorities to be safeguarded and their voice heard in a structured way. Every society should bear in mind the essential truth that there will always be a minority and one day it might be your own group! With globalisation and greater facility for travel and labour migration there is not only increasing interdependence between states requiring management at the supranational level but also the realisation that every society will become diverse ethnically and religiously. That will be seen as a threat by some who will fight a rearguard action but it should not deter the rest of us from accepting the axiom and making a virtue of it.

There is much nonsense spoken about maintaining the essence of a culture when every culture is evolving unless caught in a timewarp. The idea of preserving the noble savage in a state of ignorance and undevelopment is both patronising and harmful to human interests. Appreciating history and human development is not the same as trying to fossilise it. Appreciating cultural diversity does not mean compartmentalising different cultures along artificial lines but assimilating the best of all of them in an omni-culture. In reality, this is what happens when cultures meet. Seldom do they maintain their total integrity other than in exceptional circumstances, such as the Armish in America, but tend to assimilate. The new generation of British Asians may well want to maintain their religion and social mores such as arranged marriages but may reject the shahwar kamis. One sees that often the greater conflict is between generations in one culture rather than between cultures themselves.

If these trends are inevitable in a globalised world how can we ensure that any conflict is minimised? It can be encapsulated in the term “community.” A community is one in which individuals are interested in each other, in what they can learn from one another, in debating openly the benefits and demerits of particular habits and practices. It needs an open mind and a lack of prejudice. It is difficult but not impossible to achieve and may need catalysts such as support for artistic expression.

Such movement of people, goods, capital and services requires management at the international level: something which was realised a generation ago by those who master-minded the EEC. The international community is moving towards such norms and institutions but cautiously and not always effectively. The achievement of this, of course, presupposes a universal acceptance of such norms. This has emerged only recently in some areas. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressed certain inalienable rights applicable to all human beings and has been followed by other instruments on economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights. Yet it took some time for these to be accepted by the global community. The founding states of the United Nations numbered only 50. Some of us will remember the conference in Bangkok many years ago when some Asian states attempted to rubbish human rights as being some kind of neo-colonial invention of the Western world designed to beat them with. Mercifully, that argument has been consigned to the place of ignominy which it deserved.

A marker of how far the world has progressed down this route is the progress towards ratification of the International Criminal Court. I shall not deal with the history of this institution as time does not admit but it is very exciting and one in which the World Federalist Movement and I have been closely involved from the outset: indeed, we put together the largest ever coalition of more than one thousand NGOs throughout the world to promote the idea of the Court. Suffice it to say for my purposes today that it was opposed originally by several states, including the UK, which then did a volte face and supported it. There remains the reluctance of the USA, for wholly spurious reasons, although Bill Clinton was able to slip in the signature to the Statute in the closing days of his Presidency. It now seems inevitable that the sixty requisite ratifications in order to make the Court operable will be achieved this spring in advance of the anticipated time in the summer. It would be nice to think that some states have been stimulated into accelerated action as a result of the events of September 11. What is remarkable is that in order to ratify some states have had to change their domestic constitutions in order to exclude exemption from prosecution of heads of state. That is a true international achievement.

There is another area in which the world has moved on. The territorial integrity of the sovereign state has been regarded as sacrosanct and inviolable for a long time. This has manifested itself since the Second World War as the inability of the UN to intervene under Chapter 7 in peacekeeping operations unless it is invited to do so by the state itself – which is often the perpetrator of the threat to international peace. This was broken in the case of Somalia on the basis that there was no effective state to be able to do so. It was more questionable to intervene in Kosovo and in East Timor (arguably, a generation too late when the UN failed to act as also in the case of Goa, in response to naked territorial aggression by a neighbouring state). The doctrine of sovereign inviolability is, de facto, dead. Afghanistan is the latest proof. It is now inconceivable that were a serious conflict to erupt in another part of the world there would not be international intervention: maybe India and Pakistan should realise that in respect of Kashmir.

There is now an increasing realisation that present state territorial boundaries do not coincide with the community interests within them. That is why we shall see more attempts at self-determination based on ethnicity, language and culture. When we remember how these boundaries have occurred it is small wonder that they are arbitrary: territorial aggrandisement, taken by main force, traded by treaty. In Potsdam Castle the visitor can see on the walls the maps of Europe on which towards the close of the Second World War Churchill, Stalin and Trueman quite literally drew large lines of new proposed boundaries with little thought of the communities through which they went. One of the least meritorious legacies of the British Empire in Africa was to leave emerging countries with borders drawn along lines of latitude and longitude, unidentifiable on the ground and often cutting through tribes or juxtaposing tribes in an unnatural way. Many could have predicted that the Shona and the Matabele would vie for pre-eminence. I had many Tswana friends who felt it anomalous that three quarters of a million of them north of the Malopo river should constitute a sovereign state, Botswana, yet many millions south of that line were part of South Africa. Many of these tensions can be contained within semi-autonomous structures and federal principles but it will be many hundreds of years before those with a common identity will rest satisfied with their own borders. This, of course, is another reason for greater migration.

Can the European Union become a model international, multi-cultural community? There are already many common historical themes. As European integration grows so national differences will become less important. We have seen already considerable migration within the Union. I live in central London in the midst of a large Portuguese community, most of whom choose to speak their native tongue when among themselves. The local community is richer as we have seen the advent of Portuguese tapas bars, cuisine and food stores. Spain is famous for its British expatriates. Many British second homes are in France: a friend of mine and her husband have just moved there permanently. We shall see more communities being established across national boundaries. We shall need the framework: effective race relations and non-discrimination legislation throughout the Union. It is an exciting time as Europe is returning to its roots, to the time several hundred years ago before the birth of the power of the state and Machiavelli’s celebration of it when there were no passports, people travelled freely between countries and where there was a sense of pan-European identity and a common language – although this is not likely to be Latin in the future!

These trends were occurring before September 11 and that tragedy has not interrupted them. Maybe those events, however, may be seen as a wake-up call for us all to work harder at greater understanding and conflict resolution within the global village and focus our minds that the enemies of community are ignorance and arrogance and are manifested in hatred and perversions that have no universal national, ethnic or cultural characteristics but can be found where there is a sense of injustice and an inability to change it through peaceful means.

This speech was given at the seminar “Democracy in Europe: the role of the constitutional convention” on 2 February 2002 by Keith Best, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the World Federalist Movement and a former Conservative MP. He can be contacted at keithbest@hotmail.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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