Be careful what you sow

Share this page on:

Post-September 11 Reflections: Towards a More Civilised World

By El Hassan bin Talal*

Globe and Mail, Thursday, October 10, 2002.

Many lives were shattered on September 11. Many more have been torn apart since then in Afghanistan, Palestine and Israel. In fact, almost the entire 'arc of crisis' is simmering, a region that spreads from Sub-Saharan Africa westwards through the Middle East and Israel on to Central Asia and India – home to 70% of our planet’s oil and 40% of known natural gas reserves. The Palestine issue is but one explosive element in this wider region where peace has remained elusive. What is at stake now is not just the question of Iraq and Palestine. It is the very nature of the global system, the role of seemingly absolute power within that system and the inherent moral dimension. “Politics is about the balance of power”, writes Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity of Difference, “But what of those who have no power? …There is no escape from the wider issues of morality; and if we ignore them, history suggests that they will return in the form of anger, resentment and a burning sense of injustice”. 

The very nature of global power is now at a defining moment in world history. If the scales of justice are not equitably weighed, if the world’s course is not charted according to a human code of conduct built on the universalisation of human values and not just material interests, we will remain floundering in a dangerous world. Surely force should then be the last resort; in the words of Erasmus: “Sweet is war to those who know it not”.

Francis Fukuyama now writes of a West that ‘may be cracking’. Global powers and their foreign policy may become the focus of international concern. “An enormous gulf has opened up in American and European perceptions about the world, and the sense of shared values is frayed”. Any unstudied move from deterrence to active pre-emption might be ill advised. Surely it would be preferable for democratic legitimacy to “flow from the will of an international community much larger than any individual nation state”. Former US Secretary of State James Baker has recently spoken of American interests within such a context, advocating that the US would “occupy the moral high ground” if it turned to the United Nations Security Council for authority on the question of Iraq, preliminarily through advocating a resolution for arms inspections, as part of its move against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the absence of respect for the consensual system represented by the UN, military dominance by any one nation will fuel world disorder and the politics of chaos, which further tempt the growth of terrorism within a culture of hate and fear, rather than global ‘rapprochement’. 

Thus, when leaders seek International Legitimacy for their actions, they must remember that the actions of sovereign nation states have to be subject to moral as well as legal accountability, notwithstanding any argument about the necessity of the use of force in a given context. To talk of international legitimacy without accountability in a world of shared ideas, shared problems, and shared solutions, is profoundly wrong. 

George W. Bush’s speech at the UN General Assembly this month showed the sort of restrained determination that should be positively acknowledged as a step away from the heretofore characteristic threat of unilateral militarism that so many “on the other side of the divide” often interpret – for good reason – as blatant hegemonism. I congratulate the president for recognising something that I myself have repeated like a mantra in almost every public engagement over the last decade or so, that “our commitment to human dignity is challenged by persistent poverty and raging disease”. But in recognising this in public, and in front of representatives of nations for whom poverty and disease prevent them focusing on other areas of human concern, namely international security, the US must do more than offer the carrot of returning to UNESCO. It should honour that commitment to human dignity by dignifying humanity through mutual consultation and enterprise. The US must see itself as part of a wider world rather than that the world as part of it. 

The absence of accountability that is characteristic of, “outlaw groups and regimes that accept no law of morality and have no limit to their violent ambitions”, must not find a mirror image in the actions of responsible states that uphold the great legacies of civilisations past and present. What separates man (insaan) from animals is the gift of intellect, of rationalisation, of reasoning. We must not allow ourselves to degenerate to the level of automatons waving this flag or that flag merely for the sake of it, or indeed the animals that wrought such death and destruction on September 11, 2001, and who promoted hatred and suspicion of the very faith they so hypocritically claimed to have been adhering to. There has to be a response to evil but that response has to be within a matrix that pays due regard to the imperative of consultation, a considered and human response that does not tolerate potential human victims as mere collateral damage. 

Following a wise tradition of leadership in Jordan, as a stable, moderating force within the region, His Majesty King Abdullah II has been among those who have sought a greater American role in revitalising the entire Mideast peace process, saying that “we need to move the Arab-Israeli issue forward if we are going to have a chance of eradicating extremism and terror around the world”. The settlement of the Iraqi issue through dialogue instead of the threat of force; and end to the suffering of the people of Iraq; and respect for Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity are of paramount importance. Efforts should be centred on trying to bring Iraq back into the international community.

Within the Arab perspective, the Arab world’s predicament is not entirely made up of what has been termed ‘home-made problems’. People here do not see that their “crises are being exported to the rest of the world”; but that the ambition and interests of others have been at play in this region for far too long at far too great a cost. The ‘culture of violence’ is not made in Arabia. 

At the moment the world seems to be at a loss with how to deal with our bitterest sources of conflict. In the words of Aldous Huxley: “The most important lesson that history has to teach is that men do not learn from history”. It is more imperative than ever before that disputes should be peacefully resolved. In a post cold-war unipolar world, militant unilateralism and the accompanying race of arms is a dance of death, depleting resources available for economic and social development that could direct humanity to the safe harbour of ‘soft security’; that is, human dignity, and the fulfilment of human needs. Sustainable development, as a necessary factor in the progress of mankind, is the key to our common future. Is it inconceivable that this historical part of the world could become the focus of a renewed and reinvigorated dialogue of civilisations once again?

In this context, it was heartening to read Colin Powell's speech to the World Summit in Johannesburg (WSSD) offering a vision of America’s commitment to a better world: “The American soul has always harboured deep desires to help people build better lives for themselves and their children…we have reaffirmed the principle that sound economic management, investment in people and responsible stewardship of our environment are crucial for development”.

Such examples of leadership by the powerful are crucial to a better future, moving on from a present in which much of the global population is left out in the cold. As President of the Club of Rome, I am convinced that it is important to remain creative, innovative and persistent in our search for solutions to the looming problems confronting mankind. That has been my constant message throughout my decades of public endeavour. For example, one of our greatest challenges is poverty alleviation. Poverty now is not just about hunger and low income; it is also about the lack of information, training and expertise and, above all, opportunity and a say regarding one’s own future. There have been examples of projects for sustainable development and poverty alleviation all over the world. If the energies placed behind military solutions today were put into solutions for poverty alleviation tomorrow, we would all be far better off.

One of the tragic outcomes of combative ‘solutions’ to human tensions has been the intensification of the global refugee problem as people migrate from one conflict-torn region to another, in search of safety and a decent human environment in which merely to exist if not to live. 

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a major contributing factor to global instability. The manner in which the Middle East region as a whole could be allowed to achieve peace will be crucial to the welfare of mankind. The pursuits of peace are noble; but the means to achieve them must be based on principles – as opposed to doctrines – that uphold rather than undermine international rules and practices for conflict resolution and good governance.

*His Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Talal is the Moderator of the World Conference for Religions and Peace; Patron and President of the Arab Thought Forum and President of the Club of Rome