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Untimely Reflections Upon the State of the World

Editors’ Note: Historian Arno Mayer wrote this powerful essay for Le Monde a few days after the 9/11 attacks. We think it has a new relevance following the global reaction to the shootings in Paris. — JSC / JF

This is a time to reject the temptation or superstition of fixing on a single cause for the loss of America’s ‘splendid’ invulnerability and exceptionalism on Sept. 11, 2001. The infamous terrorist attack, presumably masterminded by Osama bin Laden, a Muslim zealot, is no more the causa causans of the crisis in this early dawn of the 21st century than the assassination by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian zealot, of Francis Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary, was the causa causans of the twilight crisis of the long 19th century in July-August 1914. As Washington chooses to treat this horrific crime as an act of war, it is well to remember that it takes at least two (states) to fight a war. And any war raises the question of the relative responsibility of each side and its allies for the underlying and precipitant causes of conflict.

Of course, in 1914, the leaders of the opposing but equiponderant Triple Entente and Triple Alliance knew who the prospective enemy was, even if they could not foresee the consequences of their diplomatic decisions and military actions, which spiraled into catastrophe. Today, quite apart from the nebulosity of the “enemy other” there is not even the semblance of a balance of military power and even without allies America has the military capability to “make the law,” which is not to say that the consequences, both immediate and long-term, will be any less fraught with imponderables.

But the temptation of war in 2001, not unlike in 1914, calls into question Montaigne’s axiom, grounded in Aeschylus and Aristotle, that foreign war is “a milder evil than civil war” and that to resort to external war to avoid internal war is “a bad means for a good purpose.” Presently this prescriptive formula is being revised to say that the violence of international war is also less wicked than the violence of terror. Indeed, we are witnessing the incipient collaboration between, in Arnold Toynbee’s words, an “an external and internal proletariat” against an overweening imperial ascendancy. This battle will take the place of yesteryear’s international civil war.

Chateaubriand challenged the millennial wisdom that foreign war is “morally superior” to civil war. In fact, he posited that a civil war might actually be “less unjust and revolting,” as well as more “natural” than an external conflict. In any case, Chateaubriand invited reflection on the degree to which foreign and (un)civil war may, in fact, be two sides of the same coin of violence.

Except in America, the Second World War radically narrowed the dividing line between heroic fighting men and blameless civilians. This ideologically and technologically conditioned transformation of the realm of war removes one of the main reasons for preferring military over civil conflict in the moral economy of — pace Kant — perpetual violence and war. The growing place, since 1945, of women in the armed services, in the strategic elite and in key economic sectors further reduces the boundaries between civil and military society in times of foreign and civil war, as well as in moments of terrorist violence.

The blurring of the line between the battlefield and the homefront is rendered all the more lethal by the absence of doctrines and laws governing irregular and indirect warfare. Tellingly, there is no treatise on civil war equal to Clausewitz’s On War. To date, civil war has been essentially blind and wild, in part for being impregnated with vengeance and re-vengeance. The same is true for terrorist violence. Nor is there anything comparable to the “laws of war” for civil and terrorist warfare, except the embryonic laws and courts to punish genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. And they are likely to be no more effective than the Geneva conventions during the Thirty Years’ War of the 20th century. Incidentally, taking the long view, the warning of cross-border wars between and among states in favor of ethnically, religiously and culturally fueled civil conflicts is a return to the historical norm — to before the emergence of the sovereign state and the attendant international state system.

Until now, in modern times, acts of individual terror have been the weapon of the weak and the poor, while acts of state and economic terror have been the weapon of the strong. In both types of terror it is, of course, important to distinguish between target and victim. This distinction is crystal-clear in the fatal hit on the World Trade Center: the target is a prominent symbol and hub of globalizing corporate financial and economic power; the victim the hapless and partly subaltern work force. Such a distinction does not apply to the strike on the Pentagon: it houses the supreme military command — the ultima ratio regnum — of capitalist globalization, even if it entailed, in the Pentagon’s own language, “collateral” damage to human life.

In any case, since 1947 America has been the chief and pioneering perpetrator of “preemptive” state terror, exclusively in the Third World and therefore widely dissembled. Besides the unexceptional subversion and overthrow of governments in competition with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Washington has resorted to political assassinations, surrogate death squads and unseemly freedom fighters (e.g., bin Laden). It masterminded the killing of Lumumba and Allende; and it unsuccessfully tried to put to death Castro, Khadafi, Saddam Hussein (and bin Laden?). These “rogue” actions worsened local political and economic conditions and were of a piece with equally unscrupulous blockades, embargoes, military interventions, punitive air (missile) strikes and kidnappings, always in the name of democracy, liberty and justice. To be sure, for some of these actions America secured the sanction of the United Nations and the collaboration of NATO allies. At the same time, however, Washington refused to pay its dues to the United Nations, defied the nascent International Criminal Court and condoned Israel’s violation of international agreements and UN resolutions as well as its practice of preemptive state terror.

Having implanted a subculture of state terror in the world system, the United States at once upholds and undermines the established rules of international statecraft in pursuit of its imperial interests. Indeed, the United States is an empire, not a superpower, exceeding the Roman empire in its hegemonic reach and mastery. America may not be, as its catechism proclaims, the most beautiful, the most democratic and the freest country in the world. But it is, without a doubt, the mightiest empire in recorded history, as measured by its military and economic power as well as its ideological and cultural influence. This globalizing imperial ascendancy is all the more impressive and unique for being exercised indirectly and informally, except for the extraterritorial military, naval and airbases which girdle the globe. Not surprisingly this unprecedented and unrivaled omnipotence sustains an uncommon arrogance of power. America’s reaction, both foreign and domestic, to the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001 is potentially so very violent and so disproportionate precisely because they are experienced as a blow to this overbearing pride.

Whereas the rest of the First World, as a full if competing partner in this imperial hegemony, intermittently cringes at America’s hubris, much of the Third World resents and bears the brunt of it. In particular “the wretched of the earth,” evoked by Frantz Fanon, are ready prey for political leaders who blame the stillbirth of the post-colonial Eden on the new imperial domination in the guise of American-led economic and cultural globalization. Indeed, these downtrodden, at this time primarily in the Arab and Muslim worlds, may be said to constitute what Nietzsche conceived as the ever more numerous, cunning and impoverished social classes seething with a resentment fired by not only a festering impotence but also an acute fear of defeat should they — “the slaves” — once again rise to break their chains. More than likely this condition of disempowerment and pent-up rage is the seedbed for the recruitment and support of terrorists, with America’s partiality to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict serving as kindling and catalyst.

The geopolitical context and international environment of the increasingly cunning terrorism of the weak and the poor is such that it cannot be contained, controlled or eradicated by decapitating one or several of its masterminds or operatives. To use state terror — in the form of military blackmail — gilded with financial bribery — in the form of loans and cancelled debts — amounts to killing the messenger of bad fortunes rather than attacking their economic and cultural root causes. To boot, to put a price on the heads of suspects to be brought in dead or alive is to weave the lawlessness of the Wild West into the fabric and practice of imperial rule.

Yesterday’s Cold War between Capitalist freedom and Communist totalitarianism, of which today’s terror is one of many troublesome sequels, is about to be reborn as a battle between absolute Good and absolute Evil. With Manichaeism riding high on both sides there will, once again, be somber times for independent-minded spirits and, as always, for the wretched of the earth.

Arno Mayer is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton. He can be reached at



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Arno Mayer is the Dayton-Stockton Professor of History, Emeritus, at Princeton. He can be reached at

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