Skip to main content

by John Hillen

The following commentary, timely in the extreme, first appeared on 9/11/2002 in the “National Review Online”( We are able to present it through the courtesy of “National Review” and the author, along with the good offices of the Foreign Policy Research Inst.—Ed.


“For the United States to retain its power and guard its many interests, it will need a curious and creative mix of the high tech and the low tech, the traditional and the revolutionary, the mandarins and the idiosyncratic thinkers.”

The phrase “the world is 10 years old” comes from a famous Merrill Lynch ad run at the height of the “Asian Flu” crisis in the fall of 1998. As Tom Friedman noted in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, the Merrill Lynch ad was meant to calm jittery investors about the ups and downs of the great new defining idea—economic globalization.

But even though there were to be ups and downs on the road to globalization, we were told that the post-Cold War world was still fundamentally about globalization—this was the time of Davos man. Friedman told us innovation would replace tradition, the speed of commerce and communication would be the defining measurement of power, and the web would replace the Wall as the icon of the age. Friedman wrote:

“If you want to understand the post-Cold War world, you have to start by understanding that a new international system has succeeded it—globalization. That is “The One Big Thing” people should focus on. Globalization is not the only thing influencing events in the world today, but to the extent that there is a north star and a worldwide shaping force, it is this system. What is new is the system; what is old is power politics, chaos, clashing civilizations, and liberalism.”

But, as September 11 reminded us in the most spectacular and tragic fashion, power politics, chaos, and clashing civilizations die hard, if ever. A rampant focus on “its the economy, stupid” and this “One Big Thing” led us to a decade of naivete and misdirected energy, especially in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy. It was okay in the ’90s to speak about all the various challenges to globalization, but if you talked about how they could be disruptive and chaotic, or could lead to social division and violent political upheaval, you were branded—as Sam Huntington was—a misanthrope, by both Left and Right. Worse still, if you pointed out how the United States was ill-prepared to combat the threats spun off by the post-Cold War disorder, you were dismissed in salon society as Clancy-esque, a fear-monger and headline-chaser, as we were on the Hart-Rudman Commission.

To my mind September 11 merely returned us to what I understand to be mankind’s general state of nature—turbulent, in a continuous state of disruptive social, political, and economic change, and prone to both random and organized violence—especially directed against major powers. As Michael Howard’s brilliant little treatise War and the Liberal Conscience showed, liberal societies like ours want to believe that every brief period of peace after a major conflict is not in fact a respite from conflict, but a condition likely to endure. So, we showed once again that we have trouble breaking out of our own optimistic history. Moreover, and I’ll return to this later, that bit of strategic escapism over the last decade has diluted and stalled the badly needed changes we are only now making to take on a security environment far removed from that of the Cold War.

September 11 did not teach us, of course, that the economic and technological forces that shaped the world in the ’90s do not matter still. But what it did serve to remind us was that these forces of globalization—or any such “modernizing” forces—do not themselves create the conditions for peace. Before September 11 we took the inherent “progress” of the world for granted but the events of that day have since led us to question whether globalization has made us more or less secure. Has the unprecedented spread of an economic ideal (free markets), a political standard (pluralistic democracy), a modernist consumer-based culture (McDonald’s and Hollywood), and a technological creed (faster, smaller, smarter, cheaper, better) made the world a more stable place or one prone to unpredictable fractures, disruptions, upheaval, and violence?

Is democracy truly universal—and to be encouraged everywhere as a matter of state policy? The U.S. government may say so, but apparently does not think so, as we support authoritarian undemocratic regimes from Algeria to Kyrgyzistan in order to keep populist and potentially radical Islamic democracies at bay. Similarly, do we really believe our long-held creed that economic growth is the key to a sustainable development and therefore universal peace? We have reason not to. First, we recognize that every period of sustained global economic development accelerates the gap between rich and poor societies and between rich and poor within societies—leading to resentment, despair, and anger at the reworking of the political order and remaking of power relationships. The gap gives us the rapidly growing urbanized poor who provide fodder for nihilist movements who in turn are led by the disenfranchised of the middle class and others who have lost power and legitimacy as a result of American-inspired globalization. Second, as Sam Huntington charted in his classic Political Order in Changing Societies, states or other groups that are economically ascending can be as or more unstable and warlike than those that are disintegrating. Economic progress does not guarantee peace.

Will technology shrink the world and knit it together—creating the global village we’ve heard so much about? Perhaps more than we could hope. But these same forces will also allow individuals and small groups of malcontented operators to gain and wield incredibly destructive power. Similarly, the consumerist Western culture that represents modernity will gather many more converts, but will also produce more violent backlash ranging from the relatively harmless teenage anarchists at WTO meetings to the aspiring jihadists being produced in fundamentalist schools and societies—both at home and abroad.

Globalization, modernity, and the United States present much to be against—indeed to take violent action against. Their engine is free-market capitalism, their governing method is democracy, their culture is American consumerism, their doctrine is technology, and Friedman tells us their goal is to have “innovation replace tradition.” Will everyone see that as progress? Certainly not those dislocated by the forces of globalization and modernity. Certainly not those disenfranchised—however rightly—by the fraying of the economic, cultural, and political bonds that define social cohesion and order in their societies. As Fareed Zakaria has noted, September 11 reminded us that “for Western intellectuals, modernization is seen as largely benign and, in any case, as inevitable. But in large parts of the world modernization is a grueling, alien process that threatens to denude cultures and disrupt settled ways of life.”

Looking forward, it is absolutely essential that the United States and her allies develop institutions, systems, and leaders attuned to the disruptive forces of the modern world—and the violent or chaotic ways in which those being disrupted will react. Prior to September 11, author Robert Kaplan described the world as “bifurcated”: “Part of the world is inhabited by Hegel’s and Fukuyama’s Last Man, healthy, well fed, and pampered by technology. The other, larger part is inhabited by Hobbes First Man, condemned to a life that is poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” It is to this world we must redirect some attention—and in very creative ways.

While the wrong lesson to draw from September 11 is that this world of Hobbes’s First Man represents the sum total of our security challenges in the future, we should recognize that not enough of our energy is focused here. We prefer, instead, to operate in our comfort zone—the world of the fat, smart, and happy. Our institutions—governmental, academic, commercial, and intellectual—are much more comfortable with the world of Last Man than First Man. Just look at the imbalance of the relative resources allotted by our State and Defense departments to the handful of Western democracies versus the 150 other states in the U.N., not to mention all of the non-state entities increasingly wielding substantial power. This was not simply an intellectual choice; this misalignment of intellectual energies and institutional resources over the past decade or so was one driven by bureaucratic momentum and a cultural resistance to change. We are, in many respects, living in the past and unwilling to change that.

Our diplomatic and political institutions are set up for cosmopolitan Last Men to consort with each other in a world of measured expectations and stratified norms. Our intelligence systems are structured to gain incremental advantages by knowing in advance the actions of other actors much like us. Until last October when we attacked Afghanistan, our legal systems treated terrorist attacks entirely as a law-enforcement matter, not an act of war. The vast majority of our massive and admirable military forces are still organized, equipped, and trained along the lines of World War II and the Cold War—with billions going into incremental improvements on the tanks, ships, and planes intended to fight other tanks, ships, and planes under generally accepted rules of engagement. Our intellectual establishment—think tanks and universities—churn out a remarkable orthodoxy of thought in which debate features mostly disagreements in scale, not in kind.

This is not a call to flip our attention completely to the world of Hobbes’s First Man—although dire trends in demographics, resource disparity, disease, migration, weapons production, urbanization, social upheaval, and political disintegration in much of the world makes a compelling case to do so. To address those issues, a reconfiguration of many—but certainly not all—of our institutions and systems is badly needed.

For the United States to retain its power and guard its many interests, it will need a curious and creative mix of the high tech and the low tech, the traditional and the revolutionary, the mandarins and the idiosyncratic thinkers. The military will need to concentrate in equal measure on stealthy, unmanned, long-range precision systems and training old-fashioned crawl-on-the-ground warriors with new political, cultural, and language skills. The State Department will have to establish links that do not just represent the Westphalian system of similarly acting states—but are plugged into the currents of power actually moving the world. The intelligence agencies will need to quadruple or quintuple the miniscule single-digit percentage of the intelligence budget spent on human intelligence. More importantly, they will need to shed the bureaucratic restraints taken on since the Church Committee of the 1970s that have prevented effective intelligence work against truly ruthless opponents.

Finally, the intellectual fringe of think tanks and academe that provide so much of the debate that shapes American policy need to undertake a period of intense self examination. In the past 30 years they have not only bred a remarkable orthodoxy of sophisticated thinkers that “missed” the end of the Cold War and the kind of world that can produce a September 11, but poured enormous intellectual energy into making precisely the opposite cases—that the Soviet system was sustainable and legitimate and that in the modern world the currents of power revolved around trade deals, environmental summits, and the latest release of a Windows operating system. A Ronald Reagan, Robert Kaplan, or Ralph Peters would never get a hearing at any “proper institution” and yet at the end of the day they were right and the establishment was wrong.

The challenge to us then, is for our establishment to become anti-establishment and that is a very hard thing to do, indeed.End.

John Hillen, Director of Foreign Policy Research Institute ( National Security Studies Program, is chief operating officer of Island ECN and an National Review contributor. Hillen is an Army veteran of the Persian Gulf War, where he was awarded a Bronze Star. This piece is adapted from a speech given to the Center for Emerging National Security Affairs.


Comments are closed.