Anders Mellbourn Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Sweden in the Post-9/11 World: Conversation with Anders Mellbourn, Director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, April 19, 2004 by Harry Kreisler

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International Relations

Let's have you put on your hat as an international relations person now, and talk a little bit about how the world was changed by 9/11. What do you see as the nature of the new threats posed by al Qaeda and events such as 9/11?

We had talked about the new threats after the Cold War during the nineties, and we had mentioned terrorism and all those things, and we had experienced global terrorism. Of course, in Europe, we had quite a lot of terrorism during the Cold War, in Germany and Italy in the seventies and early eighties and so on. But what I found most striking with 9/11 is that terrorism took the magnitude of a military attack. The attack in New York was like a blitz night during the Second World War, which meant that the difference between warfare and terrorism is now very blurred. The size of the action that can be taken has now a war-like dimension.

Of course, the other thing was that the United States was attacked on its own soil. This, at the height of its power, this paradox, when the U.S. was seen as the totally dominating superpower, it was vulnerable on its own soil. Even Pearl Harbor -- Hawaii was not a state at the time of the Pearl Harbor [attack]. Maybe there are certain nineteenth-century parallels, but in modern history ... that is, of course, what is so obvious for you, but for us observing the U.S., living with the U.S., having our relations with the U.S., that's something that we have to realize is very different, because America has exercised its superpower position on other continents. The idea that this was an island of bliss, the continent isolated by two oceans, and so on -- those fundamentals are, of course, very different.

Many people in Europe do not share my view of accepting the language that this is now a war on terrorism. Others say, "No, terrorism is still a police thing." But if this is a war on terrorism, it's a war that has to be pursued by other means. That has even been said by the Bush administration several times, but the practice has been falling back to very traditional wars, and a new belief that war is possible. The first success in Afghanistan, and the first months of success in Iraq a year ago, reinforce this view that maybe you can use war now when the threat of nuclear war is not there in the same way with a superpower confrontation. That is perhaps a folly, or one of the dangerous lanes now, which we have to get back from again.

Is this because it's a state-centric view of the world, that the causes of terrorist acts must emanate from a state that is failing or has malintentions?

Yes, the response is state-centric, as you see. At the same time, the UN was very flexible, as you know, just after 9/11, saying that a terrorist attack by a nonstate actor could now be seen as a threat to international peace and security, which was not the original language of the UN Charter. So we have realized now that this is [true]. But our behavior is very state-oriented. In my opinion, in Iraq it's dead wrong because Iraq was a problem, but not as relating to the terrorist situation, This is a rather common viewpoint, although it was not the viewpoint of the White House.

What is the basis, the foundation of this new set of threats? Do you buy the notion that we're in a "clash of civilizations" or a clash of ideas between the West and parts of the Islamic world?

That is obviously part of it, but I think that it is an attack against the more universalist, globalist, globalized world that we have seen developing so fast in the nineties, and, in many ways, so successfully. It has not solved poverty -- well, it has solved some poverty problems, and it has created an awful lot of wealth, not the least here, but also in Northern Europe, and it has meant a tremendous change in Asia, in China and other countries. But we are living through this globalized development where the U.S. is the dominating power.

The image in the nineties was that we had one dominating power, and it was rather benign, to use that language which is popular now in the analysis. I've said in a short essay that the attacks on 9/11 were more against America as it was conceived under Clinton in the nineties than against Bush. It makes the situation so complicated when we now talk bringing in the UN and making this a multilateral effort. It's true, we should do that.

Most parts of the world are united in a system where we believe there are gains for us all, and which we were still trying to make work, but it is dominated by America. There are certain forces that used religion, or rediscovered religion in this [act of terrorism], but it's basically people who have not been a part of the system. It's not the most pure, we know that. The people in the planes on 9/11 had engineering degrees from Germany, or ...

The terrorists.

Yes, the terrorists, the active terrorists. But it's [indicative] of disenchantment, that "we are not getting our part of it." And then you are open to apocalyptic ideas and things like that, which makes it very frightening.

The irony you're finding here is that the emphasis on soft power in the Clinton administration and a globalized world, transforming the world economically and culturally and so on, is what generates the opposition to that world and creates the threat.

Exactly -- which frightens me even more, because when I said this was not done against the Bush administration, I meant that the Bush administration, at least when it came in, its rhetoric was that we had to limit the American national interest, there is overstretch. There was a certain retreatist rhetoric. That was different. But now we've got this overstretch in military terms instead, as a late response afterwards.

What really frightens me is that the terrorist attacks are against the new world that many of us with liberal views or views left of center find attractive. I mean, we see many problems in it, that it doesn't solve the inequalities in many ways, but we still believe that there are new chances to get growth and prosperity for many people. But there are groups who find their values or their positions threatened by it. This globalized world of soft power and soft relations is, of course, vulnerable to small, individual attacks, as we have seen. So you have this tremendous contrast between the power of the system and its vulnerability to attack even by people with, of course, sophistication that they have learned within this system, but still, not that many resources.

This new threat turns civil society and freedom on its head, in the context of the alienation and the reaction created by what we see as positive forces in globalization. What do you make of the threat posed by terrorist cells, rogue states, failed states? Talk a little about this nexus between the old state system and its failures and this new opponent, who has mastered technologies and who "doesn't have an address," as Kissinger used to say.

We really don't know this. We have had this emphasis on failed and failing states; we have the case of Afghanistan, which is interesting. Many people don't remember, but the Taliban government was not recognized by the UN. There had been resolutions against Afghanistan as a source of terrorism even in the late nineties. We tend to forget that. It was a haven then, a training ground. That's certain. But it's dangerous to think that if we get at all failed states, we will get this under control.

State failure is basically a phenomenon in Africa, and there it probably has a direct relation to HIV-AIDS and the diffusion of that, which is also a threat. But if we talk about the terrorist threat and its connection to Sierra Leone or Liberia, I don't see that that's so obvious, and that could be a problem in the analysis.

If we take the case of Iraq, of course, Iraq was an abusive state that has now been made to fail by the invasion. It was not a failed state under Saddam Hussein. It was a very controlled state -- that was part of the problem. It was also a state with limited sovereignty after '91. With the inspection regimes, and the sanctions, and the oil for food program, it was an interesting case of limited sovereignty, and where, in my view, containment worked. It was not good for the Iraqi people, that is true ...

But it dealt with the security problem.

But it dealt with the security problem. And now after intervention, we have the security problem.

You're suggesting that the new threat is a phenomenon that emerges out of globalization, and that it would be an error to confuse that with the violence and decay and oppositional groups that you may have in particular settings, for example, in failing and failed states in Africa. The Bush administration clearly is saying the two are linked, and wants to assert that we should be acting all over the world, and treating these various oppositional groups as one.

Yes. It is one of things that I find hard with the Bush administration's analysis, and many other Europeans do as well. At the same time, this has created certain good things: you now have a rather extensive anti- HIV-AIDS program run by the Bush administration in Africa, which is a very good thing, and the administration must get credit for that. That is part of the new threat, but it's not the terrorist threat.

Even though I said I could accept this term, "the war on terrorism," because terrorism now has warlike aspects, the problem is there's no exit strategy. There is no definition of what is in it. If it is as broad as the president said, it will be very hard to get out of it, and you can find a rationale for doing very different things that do not fit together. This is a challenge: you cannot know where it will go, but you have to be much more sophisticated.

I'm not trying to say that I know the answers; perhaps [being] cautious and careful, and living with some of the threat, and trying to limit it. But it will not be credible to put the whole Western world on war footing against this for decades. I don't think that will work for us.

You're suggesting that the formula that the Bush administration is using does not offer a defined universe...

Yes, your language is much better.

Where we have to act is indeterminate, and that requires intelligence, evidence about where the threat is. As we know from the buildup and then the Iraq war, the evidence that the administration was acting on about whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was not valid, which suggests an error that could be repeated elsewhere.

Yes. If you are going to go for preemption, of course, intelligence is extremely important, because then you base [your actions] on something that is not openly [known]. Maybe if you had had [the right intelligence and] a very strong counter-power, you could have been able to mobilize against Nazi Germany in 1937, when there were so many signs. That could be a case for preemption. But the preemption we are talking about requires very sophisticated intelligence. The intelligence is one of the complicated points.

Otherwise, the war on terrorism's problem is there is no exit strategy. The lessons of Vietnam, and [the military doctrine of] Secretary Powell suggest that when you start a military action, you have to have an exit strategy. There has been nothing with Iraq, which is one of the scary things at the moment.

The problem with a war-on-terrorism analogy is that terrorism is method. It's not like the Soviet Union, it's not an alternative society that wants to compete.

It's a tactic.

It's a tactic, yes.

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