Terrorism and the New Security Dilemma

By Cerny, Philip G. | Naval War College Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Terrorism and the New Security Dilemma


Cerny, Philip G., Naval War College Review


Since 11 September 2001, the primary focus of American foreign policy has ostensibly been the "war on terror," although the George W. Bush administration has also given priority to other objectives, such as Iraq and national missile defense. This emphasis on the threat of terrorism is extremely valuable for analytical purposes, because it draws attention to key aspects of security today-in particular the central paradox of how to deal with the increasingly diffuse character of threats with the means available to state actors, in what is still to a large extent an interstate system. There are at least two aspects to this problematic. The first is assessing the appropriate or most effective role of states and great powers in reacting to and dealing with terrorism and other direct forms of violence. The second is the relationship of contemporary forms of violence to wider social, economic, and political issues characteristic of the twenty-first century-issues that themselves are becoming increasingly transnationalized and globalized.

GLOBALIZATION AND INSECURITY IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

With regard to responding to threats of terrorist violence, on the one hand, terrorism is portrayed as a phenomenon unlike previous generalized threats. Although specific instances of terrorism in history are legion, they have been sporadic and geographically circumscribed. However, terrorism, like other security issues, has in the twenty-first century become a more and more transnational form of violence or warfare. Today it involves networks and patterns of violence that do not resemble the kind of "international" warfare among states that has dominated the international system since the seventeenth century. In particular, the quasi-random targeting of civilians rather than military forces is widely seen as a fundamental, bottom-line element of the very definition of terrorism. The development of terrorism as a cross-border, nonstate, network-based phenomenon goes contrary to the general perception in "realist" international relations analysis that the most significant threats to international security come from states rather than from nonstate actors. On the other hand, American policy makers today still see terrorism as depending crucially on states for its spread and impacta perspective that fits with realist preconceptions and is seen to call for traditional national, great power-based military responses. As a recent authoritative analysis of contemporary American foreign policy has argued, the "link between terrorist organizations and state sponsors became the 'principal strategic thought underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism,' according to Douglas Feith, the third-ranking official in the Pentagon." Thus "while terrorists might be described as 'stateless,' they ultimately depended on regimes like the Taliban [in Afghanistan] to operate."

At the same time, the underlying causes and principal motives of terrorist violence are framed by the identification by American policy makers of terrorists themselves as "evil," motivated only or primarily by a hatred of freedom and of America's role in spreading freedom.3 Its state sponsors are seen to form an "axis of evil" and to have become the chief threats to world order. Therefore the underlying structure of the threat that terrorism embodies for international security is believed by key policy makers in the Bush administration to be fundamentally mediated through and determined by the structure and dynamics of the states system. Indeed, the "hegemonists" (as they have been called) in the Bush administration have integrated terrorism into a state-centric view of international relations and have prescribed unilateral, state-based American leadership as the appropriate response.

In contrast, this article argues that terrorism is merely one dimension of a wider phenomenon that is transforming the international system and domestic politics too around the world-neomedievalism, a phenomenon that is leading to the emergence of a new security dilemma in world politics. …

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