Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

Newspaper Columns


24/12/02 Local Government
10/12/02 Reflections on the US
26/11/02 Election aftermath
12/11/02 US mid-term elections
29/10/02 The Washington Sniper
15/10/02 The Democrats
01/10/02 American Elections
17/09/02 The American mood
03/09/02 Unions
20/08/02 The media
06/08/02 Immigration
29/07/02 Whatever Happened To National?
09/07/02 Inflation
26/06/02 MMP
12/06/02 Apologies
29/05/02 Dirty tricks?
15/05/02 Health
04/05/02 Don Brash
01/05/02 Welfare
17/04/02 National's Predicament
03/04/02 Self Help
20/03/02 John Banks
06/03/02 Health is a Killer
23/02/02 Jim Anderton
20/02/02 Luck
06/02/02 Treaty of Waitangi
23/01/02 GE
09/01/02 Floating dollar
26/12/01 Health Care
12/12/01 Margaret Wilson

The American mood

As I watched the United States commemorating last year's September 11 outrage, or "Nine Eleven" as it's called here, I keep thinking of the country I came to as a graduate student 41 years ago. It was a simpler world, but no less consumed with America's emerging world dominance. The Cold War was at its coldest, and President Kennedy was leading the charge against the Soviet Union's recent erection of the Berlin Wall. Efforts to bring about a regime change in nearby Cuba had collapsed ignominiously at Guantanamo Bay, but honour was regained in 1962 when Kennedy obliged the Russians to remove from Cuba missiles aimed at the American heartland. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were on everyone's mind. A craze developed for constructing bomb shelters, some so crude they were laughable. A parody of an official message from the Department of the Interior did the rounds. The cover portentously read: "Emergency Procedure in case of Nuclear Attack". Inside, one word: "Hide".

Over the following 40 years there was no attack on the US mainland. Its economy grew steadily, and its capacity to dominate global developments marched in lockstep. Not only did the only serious rival, the Soviet Union, collapse in 1989, but the promise of socialist solutions to world problems that had inspired so many of us in earlier days had already shown itself to be a chimera. Some enthusiastically, others reluctantly, adapted to free enterprise and the disciplines of the marketplace. The progress countries made seemed to depend on the speed with which they shucked off earlier mistakes.

For some around the globe, the choices were more difficult. Authoritarian regimes, many of them in Muslim countries, feared democracy, the necessary handmaiden of the market place. Institutes of learning were circumscribed by a paucity of new thought. In the whole of the Muslim world last year fewer new books were published than in any one major European country. A glimmer of democracy in the sixties and seventies in Africa gave way to tribalism and corruption, a rapidly rising birth-rate and collapsing economies. A large slice of the world either couldn't or wouldn't come to terms with the requirements of market-led globalisation exemplified by the West. A decreasing minority within all countries kept opposing globalisation. Ominously, the more corrupt and oppressive the regime, the more likely it was to fund terrorism aimed directly at success.

"Nine Eleven" was an attack on modernity by the forces of reaction, by those who would enslave everyone to mediaeval doctrines rather than come to terms with individual free will. That's what makes it so much harder to deal with than Khruschev's 1961 wall around communism or his missiles in Cuba. In 2002 one is stuck by the fact that the US is a country at war, but against whom? Foreigners experience considerable difficulty at airports; everyone seems to need identification papers or a Social Security number for simple daily requirements; there are regular public warnings to maintain vigilance; briefings about how to handle an anthrax or germ-warfare attack are freely available. The Washington Post captured some of the frustration about the present situation when it wrote recently: "We are at war, but against no nation; we have an enemy, but it wears no uniform; we are pledged to victory, but may not recognize it when it is achieved". The rules of warfare 40 years ago seem to have evaporated, leaving a heavy sense of domestic frustration.

Behind the commemorations of the victims, and the extraordinary acts of valour of one year ago lies murkiness, seemingly endless shadows. Americans nevertheless want results. There is public debate about what next. But because no evidence is yet compelling, there is more willingness blindly to follow the leader than probably at any time in US history. President Bush's Democratic opponents have no better suggestions about how to counter global terrorism, but want to delay any unilateralism until after the mid-term elections in early November. Internationally, the Bush administration's crusade to invade Iraq enjoys little support. This bewilders, even hurts Americans. Some whisper privately that they wish Europe had been forced to share the pain of Nine Eleven.

There is danger ahead. No one doubts that Saddam Hussein is an international menace and had more to do with Nine Eleven and most of the other terrorist acts of the last decade than he has ever admitted. But the rest of the Muslim world languishes in the twilight of authoritarianism and might collapse into a heap of administrative rubble, metaphorically not too dissimilar to the World Trade Centre. That could produce a crisis beyond America's capacity to manage; greater even than the European collapse after World War Two. No one doubts that regime changes across the Arab world are long overdue. But will unilateralism produce anything better than what currently exists? Forty years ago, the issues were so much more straight-forward.

Michael Bassett is currently Fulbright Professor of New Zealand History at Georgetown University in Washington DC.