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Bin Laden — Promoter of Globalization?

Did the September 11 attacks achieve the exact opposite of what bin Laden had in mind?

November 28, 2001

Did the September 11 attacks achieve the exact opposite of what bin Laden had in mind?

Critics from around the world were thus standing ready to blame the United States not only for their own economic problems. Worse, they were also inclined to place the cause for the downturn right at the doorstep of the supposedly U.S.-led and inspired process of globalization.

Even before the terrorist attacks, the fall in U.S. demand ripped holes in the economies of its trading partners from Mexico to Taiwan. Countries in Latin America and Asia especially felt that they were on the short end of the stick. It was a classic case of a sneeze in the United States (that is having a mild recession) making the rest of the world catch pneumonia (in the form of a severe recession because of their dependency on exports to the United States).

It was Osama bin Laden’s attack on the United States which has changed all of the dynamics of that blame game. Much of the pointed criticism of the United States and globalization has now either been toned down considerably — or come to a halt.

The historical record will now likely read that the coming global recession is the consequence of his horrendous act of global terrorism — and not the fault of the United States. It is, in effect, an unintended and peculiar gift to U.S. diplomacy on a wide variety of fronts.

This development works both ways. As the Al-Qaeda network is seen as threatening the entire world, many countries that have substantial differences with the United States in other matters — Russia and Iran come to mind — are suddenly willing to cooperate. At the same time, the U.S. attitude has changed considerably.

Prior to September 11, the United States was indeed embarking on a unilateralist course in foreign economic policy. It was a course that was essentially anti-cooperation, in that it placed U.S. interests before any attempt to dialogue or compromise with others. But the need for cooperation in the fight against terrorism has trumped the Bush administration’s economic isolationists.

As a result, globalization — and not just economic globalization, but globalization in all its facets — is the emerging order of the day.

As an example, consider the long-standing U.S. hesitation to strengthen and enforce international efforts to combat money laundering. Now, even those conservative hardliners in the U.S. Congress who used to view this initiative as a “global tax police” recognize that effective enforcement of money laundering laws is an integral part of fighting global terrorism.

The likely result: cooperation on stopping financial activity by criminals will ratchet up a notch. Better yet, it will move the world closer to a true global financial regulatory regime.

The benefits of this wake-up call will go far beyond denying terrorists their financing. In areas like Latin America, money laundering has played an important role in criminal activity and the drug trade.

Moreover, the experience — and globe-spanning willingness to cooperate — which was developed in fighting the terrorists can easily be turned to other issues that are not directly related to counter-terrorist efforts.

There will likely be movement in the U.S. position on other fronts as well. One example are the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions, where the Bush administration faces growing pressure at home to accept the proposed enforcement mechanism which it has long resisted as imperfect.

Also, the U.S. government has backed off any unilateral cancellation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty — and now wants to find a negotiated solution as to not alienate the Russians.

A similar concession could come on the issue of the International Court for War Crimes. This court could conceivably be used to prosecute war crimes committed by the Taliban and members of Al-Qaeda — or even to put Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants on trial.

Within all these developments lies the great irony of the terrorist attacks. Bin Laden and his supporters are strongly opposed to a world economic, political and cultural system led by the United States. Until the attacks, the U.S. role in the global economic system was, in fact, itself coming under attack.

The country’s own leadership failures had left it with a somewhat unsavory reputation. And a global recession led, or caused, by a U.S. downturn would have been a crowning argument that the United States was not competent to provide the leadership the world needed.

Unless it acts in a grossly irresponsible way, the United States has a temporary opportunity to reassert its leadership in areas way beyond security. The rest of the world, frightened by the scope of the attacks, has been eager to respond to the new U.S. openness on all types of cooperation — and especially economic cooperation, since that might be a potent anti-terrorist weapon.

Both U.S. leadership and the ideal of a world that is economically, politically and culturally better integrated can emerge from the current recession. And all of it, perversely, thanks to people who would kill themselves to damage those ideas.