A lethal superpower

What makes 2002 such a potentially dangerous year for humanity is not an American failure in Afghanistan - most critics of the war, on the left at least, never expected or predicted failure - but a resounding success. True, Osama Bin Laden himself has not been found (though the only reason may be that he is dead), but the government that protected him, and the fighters who supported him, have been utterly routed. The American performance, military and diplomatic, has been awesome. No US soldier has been lost on the battlefield. No government has dared openly to criticise the US campaign or to refuse co-operation. Arab street protests, such as they were, have faded away. The continuing US bombing raids - with the usual claims and counter-claims about civilian casualties - scarcely attract comment, much less questions as to what precisely they are now supposed to achieve. And nobody seriously doubts that the US can, and probably will, overthrow Saddam Hussein whenever it wishes.

Thus, 11 September, which initially seemed to reveal a new American weakness and vulnerability, has actually heralded a new, and quite alarming, American strength and confidence. It is based on two developments which, together, create an unprecedented situation. The first, apparent since the end of the cold war, is that Washington policy-makers see America as a global superpower which tolerates no rivals, not even friendly ones. The American security umbrella, in the form of Nato, must therefore continue to protect western Europe even though the threat to it no longer exists. It must continue to supervise the Middle East even though its interventions prolong rather than resolve conflicts. It must continue to discourage Japanese military self-sufficiency, even though there is not the remotest possibility of that country ever again posing a threat to American interests. This is why the US now spends more on its armed services than the next nine powers put together; why it remains so aloof from the United Nations and so opposed to international treaties on such issues as war crimes and arms control. The US sees itself as the only adult in a children's playground, believes that it alone has the right to resort to force, and trusts nobody else, apart from a few obedient prefects such as Tony Blair's Britain, to keep order.

The second, more recent, development is a democratic superpower that need have no qualms about public opinion. We are accustomed to great powers - Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, imperial Japan - that wage aggressive war while stilling domestic dissent through direct repression or control of the media. But modern liberal democracies, we thought (with Israel an arguable exception), were naturally peaceable, partly because of voters' reluctance to sacrifice the lives of young compatriots, partly because of their squeamishness at enemy casualties on CNN; 11 September has removed both those constraints, with the result that the US has virtually no dissent that needs stilling. A war has been prosecuted with nil US casualties. And the scale of the 11 September outrages leads Americans to contemplate with equanimity any number of deaths on the other side, believing not only that they balance out 3,000-plus US deaths, but also that they will prevent, largely through the old principle of pour encourager les autres, thousands more.

No power in history, therefore, has been in the position that America now enjoys: no rivals abroad and no dissent at home. Add the profound paranoia induced by 11 September (and paranoia, as numerous his- torical figures show, is perfectly compatible with power and con-fidence) and you have a lethal com-bination. Perhaps the US will act with restraint; but there is no pressing reason why it should. Moreover, there is no reason why restraint should be recommended to anybody else. Having bombed Afghanistan because it harboured terrorists, the US can hardly complain if India bombs Pakistan or Israel invades the West Bank for exactly the same reason.

A good thing, too, you may say. A world without terrorism will be a better world. But the dreadful truth is that the kind of deracinated individual who becomes a terrorist must always be a characteristic figure of global capitalism. Market capitalism offers salvation only through the individual's own drive and enterprise; it promises nothing beyond that, either in this world or the next. It offers no consolation for disappointment, as Marxism and most religions do; yet disappointment, for some at least, is built in to the capitalist way of life. This is a war that can never finally be won. Even as US troops hunt down Bin Laden, somebody in the streets of Cairo or Karachi or London, who has found that the streets are not after all paved with the promised gold, will be plotting revenge. All governments can do is to keep cool and step up security and intelligence. Alas, as we enter 2002, there are few signs of cool heads in Washington or Delhi or Tel Aviv.

The euro: a third way

The comedian Harry Enfield once proposed that we should all simply get ourselves paid in Deutschmarks. Then we would automatically become just like the Germans, driving BMWs, walking down clean streets and wearing expensive overcoats. Some commentators reckon that British entry to the euro will come about in exactly this way. If enough of our retailers accept euros, then, given the mobility of the middle classes, forever trotting off to business conferences in Frankfurt and for long weekends in Tuscany, demand for salaries to be paid in the new currency would be irresistible. But there is an alternative: that the rest of Europe, if the euro proves to be the disaster its critics predict, demands to be paid in sterling. So let us leave it all, in this way, to consumer choice. Then we can be spared the tedious and largely impenetrable arguments: David Owen can be silent, Denis MacShane can lay down his pen, and nobody need bother to decipher Gordon Brown's five economic tests.