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A Decade of Change?

Commentary, 2 September 2011
Counterinsurgency, Global Security Issues, Terrorism
By Professor Jack Spence<br>There is something new and distinctive in the the way the West has responded to the 'new' threats of international terrorism but it is not a fundamental shift.

There is something new and distinctive in the the way the West has responded to the 'new' threats of international terrorism but it is not a fundamental shift.

By Professor Jack Spence

9/11 Retrospectives: This commentary is part of a series of contributions from eminent policymakers, academics and commentators offering their thoughts on the significance of 9/11.

NYT Bin Laden Headline

Did 9/11 'change everything'? True, over the last decade apocalyptic terrorism of the kind represented by Al-Qa'ida has combined with so-called 'new' threats to international peace and security, debate about the relevance of orthodox deterrence and defence strategies to deal with these threats, and new conventions for managing crises such as the current upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East. There is also concern about all these developments with respect to the maintenance of civil liberty in mature democratic states.

Now, of course, it could be argued that all these phenomena are hardly new and unique to the post-9/11 world. Terrorism has always been with us, and so-called 'new' threats are not particularly so. And governments had few scruples in revoking civil liberties in the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Yet there does seem to be something new and distinctive in the international system, albeit differences in degree rather than fundamental shifts.

Firstly, there is a new belief in the political class that the principle of sovereignty can be brushed aside where massive abuse of human rights occurs. Liberal humanitarian intervention is justified in terms of a new emerging norm - the responsibility to protect (even if more often honoured in the breach). What is new about this tendency in the first decade of the twenty-first century is the willingness to intervene to deal with alleged terrorist threats, as both Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrate.

Secondly, governments once went to war reasonably secure in the knowledge that their publics would unite behind them, with relatively little protest when enemies of the state were locked up without due process and when enemy cities were flattened from the air. The media were well controlled, limited in what they could find out and what could be reported. Nowadays, the domestic dimension of the War on Terror is new. As security services combat home­grown terrorists, this has inevitably led to conflict between the judiciary and the executive arm of government about the continuing relevance of once-sacrosanct legal principles like habeas corpus. Furthermore, resort to armed intervention abroad - for whatever reason - is reinforced by real-time media reporting of events at home and abroad, and this inevitably provokes debate about the merits of such intervention.

Thirdly, while doctrines of deterrence and defence retain some traditional utility, new actors have to be incorporated into bureaucracies designed to complement time-honoured orthodox strategies. Thus bankers, customs officials, immigration officers and police forces are all seen as having a key role to play, especially in an era of ever-increasing interdependence. And all these actors together with national intelligence agencies have to learn the virtues of co-operation across national boundaries to deal with the variety of threats that confront us. All of these developments - it could be argued - amount to a qualitative change in both the structure and process of international relations.

Finally, one crucial facet of state activity - diplomacy - retains its importance. The skills of negotiation are timeless, although the issues have changed over time as the line between the domestic and the external concerns of the state have eroded. Diplomacy has also been increasingly concerned with technical issues, requiring a high degree of specialist knowledge in fields such as arms control and international trade. Nothing new here.

But post-9/11, the question that preoccupies governments and their diplomatic servants is negotiation with the new breed of terrorist. It was one thing to negotiate with nationalist movements in the 1950s and '60s. The objective on both sides was clear and precise. Nationalists wanted statehood; their masters to be free of the expensive burden of colonial rule. But how to negotiate with Al-Qa'ida? With whom, when and what about? This task is a new one, full of uncertainty. In the past, negotiation was possible when followed by talks was a likely outcome. It is hard to see this old model replicating itself in the medium term.

So perhaps the last word might be left to the late Fred Halliday: 'it would be as foolish to assert that everything has changed or, indeed, that nothing has changed'. ¡

Jack SpenceProfessor Jack Spence OBE is Professor of War Studies at King's College London. His most recent book is Ending Apartheid, co-authored with Professor David Welsh (Longman, 2010).

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