Laurence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (2006) opens with the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayed Qotb to the US and culminates with the 11 September 2001 attacks, after which the world was “no longer the same as before”, as was widely observed at the time. The book takes us through the organisations and ideologies that came to pose a global threat that went largely unnoticed despite the many harbingers and even concrete intelligence. That is why sweeping change was inevitable.
The world definitely did change. Terrorism superseded superpower conflicts and even regional wars as the main threat to international security. As recurrent bouts of violence took their toll, commentators and analysts began to speak of transnational “non-state” actors undeterred by border patrols and passport controls. Terrorism emerged as the greatest challenge to the world order and its building blocks: sovereign nation states. Meanwhile, successive technological advances lent their stamp to new thrusts of globalisation. If the US spearheaded the process it soon incorporated other countries, including Russia and China, into global trade, service, manufacturing and even social systems and networks.
The result of the two trends were twofold. The world began unravel at the level where the terrorists played, benefitting on the one hand from spasms of popular uprisings, anarchy and sectarianism that plagued the Middle East, and on the other from the fluidity that globalisation created along national boundaries, allowing extremist ideas and espousers of violence as free a passage across borders as goods and services. At the same time, the great powers at the pinnacle of the world order were growing closer together. Russia and China’s admission to the WTO was not the only landmark here. A more important one occurred when these two powers sat together with the US at the same side of the table to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, which sat alone on the other side as a representative of the forces of violence and extremism. The two sides of the table represented globalisation in one form or another.
These days, it was not an aerial attack against twin towers in New York that changed the world but rather a virus emanating from Wuhan, a Chinese city that few in the world may have even heard of before this virus reached all corners of the earth, infected more than three million people and killed more than 300,000 (as of time of writing). In The World: A Brief Introduction, Richard Haas, president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, recounts the events of September 2001 when a group of terrorists from Afghanistan armed with box cutters hijacked four passenger planes and used them to kill 3,000 people. He also relates how a band of hackers in Russia tampered with the 2016 presidential elections in the US and how, in 2008, bad mortgage practices by US banks and insurance companies precipitated a global fiscal and economic crisis that took several years to overcome. Peering into the future, Haas pictures the natural disasters that will devastate the planet and wreak havoc on everything human progress has achieved. Equally as bleak, he fears scenarios in which terrorists manage to get hold of weapons of mass destruction and try them out in the context of their universal proselytising mission. Given the workings of such disasters, globalisation is the first “tower” that Covid-19 struck.
The US — globalisation’s doppelgänger — was the second tower. With the third largest numbers of infections and deaths as the result of the pandemic, the US has sustained severe material wounds. Its international standing and prestige as the sole superpower since the end of the Cold War has also eroded further. True, Washington had begun to recoil from the world, even before Covid-19 struck, starting from the areas where it has military engagements and the areas it has historic and civilisational allies.
The US’s locking horns with China certainly didn’t start with the virus from Wuhan. A trade war was in full swing long before this, despite how it conflicts with the huge mutual dependency between the US and China which has dollar reserves that rival those in the US Federal Reserve plus a trillion dollars-worth of US Treasury bonds. But the US has sustained some of its greatest losses at home, on the domestic front. Never before has the US experienced such turbulent friction between the White House, the heart of the federal government and the states, between the White House and other federal institutions, and between the president and the press. The virus has not only infected American lungs, it has infiltrated the core of the US government.
China has also sustained major human and material losses due to the Covid-19 crisis. But it has also been hit in its capacity as an emergent superpower because the globalisation that the pandemic struck served as China’s ladder to the top. By virtue of cultural, geographical, demographical and historical factors, China is the “middle kingdom” to which the world comes but which rarely reciprocates the visits. The Maoist evangelical approach to Marxism was, in fact, a rupture with a long history of insularism and with a culture that was self-sufficient and able to rely on its vast market bound by a common language spoken by millions. It is no coincidence that China received 40 per cent of global investments destined for the Third World, or that it was the country to which transnational firms such as Apple turned to produce their products, or that China (and Wuhan in the middle of it) became the locus for the primary and intermediary phases of major global manufactures.
Despite its proximity to the conflicts in the Korean Peninsula, Vietnam and Afghanistan, Beijing has always been conservative in its approach to these crises. This even applies to those that affect China directly, such as Taiwan today and Hong Kong and Macao in the past. Nor is it surprising that when China decided to go abroad, it built industrial islands in the South China Sea that had the rest of the world scratching its head over the question of sovereignty. Today, as China contemplates the world at one of its least globalised moments, it has yet to make up its mind what it will bring to the world. But even before this, it has to determine whether, in coming out, it risks losing its unique “strategic latency” that enables it to benefit from all the ideas the world produces while persevering in its own particular tastes and interests.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly