The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Terrorism as a social movement

August 11, 2006

An addendum (and yes, I still have internet access) to my post on progressive foreign policy. Ron Suskind, in his interview with Salon, gets it mostly right:

One of the things that I think is clear about the moment we’re in now is that in a way this is a new kind of war, a new kind of conflict we’re fighting now, with a kind of global insurgency. We know insurgencies, we’ve seen many of them through history, and very often it’s the case where gleaming armies come down from on high with banners waving and march in to some homeland or other to fight insurgents. It almost never works.

Whatever moral claim that the army has made as the trumpets blare soon sinks into the ugliness of destruction, especially amongst civilian populations. In Iraq, in the Israel-Lebanon situation, and in other parts of the globe — in Afghanistan, to a certain degree — we are seeing precisely this model. If in not thinking with, let’s just say, next-era clarity about the nature of these enemies and what best to do about them — where we are not involved solely in tactics, which is mostly what has been driving us, tactics where we’re often running around like a chicken with no head, and instead thinking about strategy, where actions fall into a larger good, a larger model that essentially bespeaks progress — we are going to create more and more people around the world who are angry at the United States. The fact is, by virtue of our power, our authority, that’s always going to be the case. But if that group, that angry mass of people, grows and grows, and some percentage of them, in this era, are apt to turn to violence, we could be facing a very difficult situation.

If one out of 1,000 people who are angry turn to violence, maybe that’s a manageable number. If it’s 10 out of 1,000, well, that’s a lot of people. If it’s 100 out of 1,000, we’re facing an army beyond anything we can challenge in terms of even our vast capabilities, especially in an era when individuals, based on the extraordinary power of the information age, can carry the destructive power that was once reserved for nations. That’s a very troubling combination, and it becomes a troubling combination if we are creating armies of people who are bent on destruction and violently angry at the United States. If our tactics are creating a metastasizing, a growth of that number, then our tactics are not working, plain and simple.

Some commentary:

1. This is less of a “new kind of war” than Suskind thinks. While technological change and other factors certainly make his “global insurgency” different than past trans-national and trans-regiona violent movements, these kinds of developments are far from unprecedented in the history of international politics, let alone in hegemonic and imperial systems; consider the anarchist movement, international communism, certain kinds of nationalist movements, religious social mobilization for hundreds of years before than, and so forth. This is a point I make in my own comparative-historical work on empires and composite political communities.

2. I still don’t think the “war” frame is expedient, for reasons I elaborated in the aforementioned post.

3. Suskind probably underestimates the potential success of counter-insurgency campaigns.

4. But he’s dead right about viewing contemporary terrorism in terms of, in effect, social movement dynamics. The US will never be able to extinguish a certain hard-core violent element, but we can work to (1) decrease the size of the recruitment pool and (2) isolate that element from the concentric circles of supporters and potential supporters that surround them. Which is one of many reasons why restoring the legitimacy of the American hegemonic order–and institutionalizing that order to survive in the face of relative American decline–numbers among the fundamental foreign-policy challenges the next administration will face.

Filed as: , , and

website | + posts

Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.