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9/11 And The Collapse Of Western Realpolitik – Analysis


By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

The biggest victim of 9/11 was the realpolitik that was the bedrock of America’s immensely successful foreign policy. While anecdotal evidence suggests that the Bush administration had always been intent on creating a world in America’s image, 9/11 and the body of international opinion emerging from it gave precedence to ideology over cold hard realpolitik. The psychological impact, and America’s fury was so great that a certain dubious legality was conferred on a whole host of ideological options from ‘regime change’ to ‘humanitarian intervention’. In many ways 9/11 saw to it that any fruitless, unprofitable and strategically dubious military intervention when disguised as a democratization endeavour would gain significant support since the belief was that a democratic world was a safe world. Note how countries like China which espoused ‘Panchsheel’ one of whose cardinal clauses involves non-interference in the internal affairs of another country, had very little qualms in approving the Libyan intervention based on non-existent ‘evidence’ of ‘massacres’. Similarly Qatar which can by no stretch of imagination be called a bastion of democracy provided combat aircrafts and funding to instil democracy in a fellow Muslim-Arab state.

Yet while conferring such liberties on the American-led West, these same after-effects of 9/11 have also destroyed the hardnosed base on which America’s incredibly successful foreign policy had been built. Take for example the justified Afghan intervention and the retrospectively legalized invasion of Iraq-the net result of which have been the bankrupting of the US. Combine this with Europe’s self-inflicted economic woes, and you have the core of what constitutes the ‘West’s’ financial incapability to sustain any form of intervention requiring a long engagement. Yet the ideological force that democratization has become post 9/11 saw to it that NATO plunged headlong into a possibly ruinous jaunt in a country best described as an institution-less confederacy of warring tribes, without the safety net of a clearly defined exit plan.


Such interventions as time has proven are mostly strategically counter-productive since they seem to produce a string of unintended effects. First, as the impetus to forcibly democratize countries gains momentum the counter-current ensures a steady impetus among ‘rogue states’ to go nuclear-something that is possible today thanks to the lowering of technological thresholds to even the most impoverished of countries. Second, increasing instances of humanitarian intervention have now skewed defence budgets to focus excessively on the same low intensity conflicts (LICs) that have dragged the American economy into the doldrums. As a result money to fight high intensity conventional conflicts is likely to get scarcer (and the cost escalation of high-end weapons like the f-35 does nothing to ease fiscal pressure) endangering the role of the US as an offshore balancer-and thus erode its reliability as an ally. Third, should economics win the day, any intervention that becomes too expensive will merit a withdrawal (like Afghanistan) leaving in its wake a dangerous vacuum ripe for non-state actors to operate from. Fourth, these same vacuums will either be exploited by terrorists to attack western interests, effectively trapping the West in a permanent low intensity action-reaction cycle, possibly supported by nuclear rogues against whom punitive action will be next to impossible.

In light of this, analyzing China’s realpolitik provides a striking contrast. While it was largely assumed that Chinese nuclear proliferation had stopped with its transfers to Pakistan in the late 80’s a UN report earlier this year claimed that China had been acting as a transit point for illegal nuclear shipments to and from North Korea. In effect this could mean that China enabled North Korean nuclear exports to countries like Syria, Iran and possibly Myanmar. Combine this with Kissinger’s assertion that the Chinese view foreign policy as a permanent zero sum game, its at best lukewarm support of Pakistan and North Korea, and acquiescence to Western-introduced UNSC resolution seeking permission for humanitarian interventions, and a clearer picture emerges of Chinese grand strategy. China does not seek to burden itself with liabilities as its primary dependants are failed or failing states. Proliferating by proxy therefore allows China to set in motion a number of rogue vectors to damage the status quo without being seen to damage it. This also enables the emerging power vacuums to be used by these failed/rogue states (which are anyway protected by nuclear deterrence) as proxies to direct attacks against western interests. In effect what the West sees as its brave new democratization endeavour is merely exacerbating this trend and falling into a Chinese grand strategic trap.

It is of course arguable if this indeed a Chinese ‘grand strategy’ at play or mere coincidence-given how crude and jingoistic Chinese foreign policy tends to be. On the other hand if one were to adopt Kissinger’s (overly Sinophilic?) view of an ancient and powerful wisdom at work it would certainly seem plausible. What is undeniable however is that this phase of do good interventions makes no realpolitik sense, and good intentions are no substitute for good policy. Ultimately if Pax Americana is to continue, humanitarian interventions must stop.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

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IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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