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A member of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front gestures in front of a portrait of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a pro-U.S. rally as the group celebrates bin Laden's killing, in Noida in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh May 5, 2011. (PARIVARTAN SHARMA/REUTERS)
A member of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front gestures in front of a portrait of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a pro-U.S. rally as the group celebrates bin Laden's killing, in Noida in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh May 5, 2011. (PARIVARTAN SHARMA/REUTERS)

Chrystia Freeland

America should cash in the bin Laden peace dividend Add to ...

Osama bin Laden is dead. Now it is time for the peace dividend. That's a phrase you may remember from the early 1990s, when Soviet Communism, the big existential threat of the second half of the 20th century, collapsed. Today, the United States needs a peace dividend even more than it did 20 years ago. But cashing it in will be a challenge.

That's partly because, as in 1991, the death of Mr. Bin Laden should be the trigger for a much broader rethinking of U.S. foreign policy. That will be tough to initiate. Since 1941, the United States has defined its role in the world largely in opposition to an unambiguously evil foreign enemy: first the Axis powers, then the Soviet bloc, and, for the past decade, al-Qaeda and its allies.

This kind of foreign policy was expensive - but it had the virtue of intellectual and moral clarity. One measure of how comforting this Manichean approach was came from the speed with which the threat posed by al-Qaeda came to be equated with the dangers of Soviet communism.

Recall an important essay published in January, 2002, by Daniel Pipes, titled "Who is the Enemy?" For Mr. Pipes, radical Islam was the 21st century's version of Soviet totalitarianism, and it was every bit as dangerous. In his Commentary magazine essay he said: "The situation ... is grim. But it is not hopeless, any more than the situation at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union was hopeless. What is required, now as then, is not just precision and honesty in defining the enemy but conceptual clarity in confronting it." Even in 2002, that equation of the danger posed by the scraggly, stateless guerrillas of al-Qaeda with the nuclear-armed, oil-rich, territorially vast Soviet bloc was a stretch. Today, with Mr. bin Laden killed in a commando raid and with tweeting democrats on the rise in much of the Muslim world, the fear that militant Islam was this century's version of Bolshevism seems even more far-fetched.

When the euphoria over his death subsides, Americans will realize the foreign policy challenge it faces is not quite as extreme, but much more intellectually complex - figuring out the rules of a new world order that is governed neither by a single, dominant hyperpower nor by the balance of power created by duelling superpowers.

The big international questions today are economic. Now that the superpowers aren't duking it out for global supremacy, the bloodiest power struggles are within countries, not between blocs. But what we haven't figured out yet is how to manage economic relations between one another.

The United States is still the world's largest economy and, more than any other, it is the country whose economic system has served as a model for everyone else. It is inevitable - and essential - that it should play a leading role in the foreign policy challenge of sorting out a new global economic order.

But there are two big obstacles to that sort of energetic, international U.S. economic leadership. The first is its massive deficit and government debt: It is hard to be a leader when you are in the red. The second is the enfeebled state of its middle class. The United States is a true people's democracy, and it works best when Main Street is prospering. That's not the case today.

That's where the peace dividend comes in. The United States will be the real winner if the death of Mr. bin Laden can be the beginning of the end of the war on terror and the start of a focus on the problems of the world economy.

Performing that pivot won't be easy. After the Second World War, Dwight Eisenhower warned of the political perils of what he dubbed the military industrial complex: "The total influence - economic, political, even spiritual - is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government." The war on terror has its own military-industrial-intellectual complex and already its advocates are insisting that Mr. bin Laden's death does not kill the threat posed by militant Islam.

One reason Americans are rejoicing this week is because it is nice to have such dramatic evidence that their state can be competent. An even tougher mission for that state will be to use this week's military triumph to position the country for long-term economic success.

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