Expert Commentary

Terrorism's Impact on International Relations

Wagner discusses how the war on terrorism has changed our world and the impact that unpredictability of future events has on global politics and economics.

Political Risk
March 2003

Enhanced Security?

In the 18 months that have passed since the events of 9/11, the world has changed in many profound ways. A small band of terrorists, a tiny fraction of a percent of the global population, have succeeded in changing most of our lives, perhaps forever. Questions of security now permeate our lives. When considering a business trip or holiday, we now routinely factor into the equation whether a destination is considered ‘safe', what is the least potentially dangerous route and method of travel to get there, and what additional time must be added to account for the now ‘routine' enhanced security checks.

While the 'security apparatus' in place at airports is much more thorough and sophisticated than it was two years ago, it is truly shocking how large the gaps in security in other modes of transportation are, and how vulnerable to attack we remain. There is virtually no meaningful security on trains and buses, outside cities, or for 'soft' targets. And the 'cyber' risks to our civilian and military communication networks are enormous, the impact of a successful attack being too catastrophic to contemplate. These vulnerabilities will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, for the costs associated with seriously addressing the gaps are exceedingly high. No matter how good security becomes, it will never be good enough to thwart all of the terrorist threats we face.

It is not just security procedures that have in some cases become more sophisticated. Complicating the fight against terrorist organizations is their increasingly sophisticated nature, not just from an operational perspective, but also in terms of how they are funded. For example, Jemaah Islamiah—the Indonesia-based terrorist organization—has created at least 50 commercial businesses in Asia that provide a plethora of sources of finance for its operations. Hence, law enforcement and intelligence agencies must now identify these sources of funding in order to destroy their ability to operate.

The Impact of Globalization

Indeed, terrorist organizations have "harvested" the globalization process to improve their methods of operation. They often refrain from using factory-made explosives, for example, and instead use materials that can be easily obtained from local sources (such as ammonium nitrate). And, ironically, locally-made materials are being used with greater frequency to achieve terrorist objectives. Perhaps the best example of this is the fact that Al Qaeda (AQ) used locally-sourced American-made materials (Boeing airplanes) to destroy American targets on September 11.

Going forward, there is an increased risk that smaller terrorist groups will develop the ability to carry out attacks that will cause mass death. Coming attacks are likely to be similar to those in Bali and Mombasa, and it is highly likely that suicide attacks will be the preferred method of attack in the near term in the United States and Europe. Complicating the landscape further is the fact that so many tools of achieving mass death that were previously difficult to obtain, are easier to obtain. For example, there are 22 million antiaircraft missiles in existence, many of which are dated and are sold relatively inexpensively on the black market. An unfortunate reality is that anyone who flies on a commercial airplane is at risk, as the failed attempt to take down an Israeli aircraft demonstrated in Mombasa.

The global reach of AQ is a source of great concern. More than 3,000 of its members have been arrested in 98 countries since September 11, evidence that AQ exists in at least half the world's countries. AQ's tentacles may, in the end, reach into virtually all regions of the globe. It is questionable whether the civilized world's law enforcement, intelligence, and military apparatus will ultimately be successful in removing the AQ threat in the near term. On a 5– to 10–year horizon, their chances are much better.

A Changed World

There is no doubt that we are at a pivotal moment in history. How the world's civilized nations collectively fight against terrorism will determine the future course of international relations. The stakes are extremely high in a war on Iraq, for a variety of reasons. If the United Nations Security Council is unable to reach a majority consensus on the best path for eliminating the threat of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq, it stands little chance of achieving the same where North Korea and other “problem” nations are concerned. That the UN passed a series of resolutions demanding the disarmament of Iraq over the past 12 years, that Iraq ignored them, and that there was no consequence for having ignored them, raises the question of the relevance of UN-sponsored diplomacy. As was the case in the 1990s, when the UN failed to impose an effective, acceptable solution to the atrocities in Rwanda and Bosnia, the organization risks becoming irrelevant in determining the course of international affairs today.

There has already been a significant shift in bilateral relations between the United States and Europe, Russia, and China as a result of the debate on the war on Iraq. At issue where Europe is concerned is the fissure that has arisen in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). France and Germany's opposition to a U.S.-led war against Iraq has brought into question the very essence of NATO. By thwarting NATO's ability to protect Turkey (a NATO member) against attack in the war, France and Germany have broken a central tenet of the NATO Charter—that an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all NATO members. While attempting to create a counterweight to U.S. power, France and Germany may succeed in shattering an alliance that the Soviet Union could not destroy. This may have serious consequences in the West's ability to wage a war on terrorism, and on future actions involving NATO. What is likely to emerge as a result is an enhanced role for individual European countries in international affairs, while the role of NATO could diminish with time.

The Middle East

Ultimately, the war in Iraq is less about oil and more about influencing the course of events in the Middle East. The United States has historically been forced to try to influence events in the region from the “outside”—relying on diplomacy to deal with subjects such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the Kurdish question. This will change once Saddam is overthrown. The United States will become the dominant military power in the region and will seek to influence events through direct action, as well as through diplomacy. This could result in a more meaningful impact on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the resolution of which could, in turn, hold the key to a changed view of the United States in the Muslim world.

The impact of the change in international relations in the region that is likely to result from U.S.-led regime change in Iraq will be profound. Iran will be flanked by a pro-U.S. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. Syria will be surrounded by a pro-U.S. Iraq, Israel, and Turkey. Once the Iraq war is over, Iran and Syria will find it more difficult to pursue policies that support international terrorist organizations. In Iran's case, continued pursuit of its nuclear ambitions could elicit a strong response from the United States. A question mark hangs over the future of bilateral relations between the United States and these two countries. Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, will be under increasing pressure to revise their method of governing, whether from emboldened domestic political sources or from direct pressure applied from a pro-U.S./anti-terror alliance of countries.

One very interesting question is what will happen with Pakistan. Pakistan is currently a crucial ally in the war on terror, as made evident by its support in eliminating the Taliban in Afghanistan and the recent arrest of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. However, elements of the Pakistani government support AQ and the United States is finding this increasingly difficult to ignore. The United States will ultimately have to address this issue head on. The ramifications are at best uncertain. Given how close the Islamist parties came to achieving an electoral victory in Pakistan's presidential elections last year, any future action taken to reduce or eliminate governmental ties with AQ will need to be handled delicately. This also implies a possible shift in U.S. foreign policy in the region—against Pakistan and toward India.

The war against Iraq will also create a sea change in how prominent a role human rights plays in America's future foreign policy. Both Russia and China have benefited from the war on terrorism because it has granted legitimacy to both countries' actions against indigenous opposition movements. In the case of Russia, the United States is now turning a blind eye to Russia's ongoing actions in Chechnya. The same is true of China's actions in the province of Xinjiang, which the United States is now more inclined to accept as an internal security issue. Russia is likely to benefit from an increased share of the global oil market once the war is over. And China's growing international prominence meshes nicely with the evolving United States view of the world. It will benefit from enhanced political and commercial relations with the United States.


The real “wild card,” in my view, is what happens on the Korean Peninsula. Kim Kong Il may just be posturing with his latest nuclear antics. That is what history would suggest. But the United States is less likely than before to succumb to Kim's blackmail and Kim is probably more likely to lash out as a result. His regime is increasingly desperate for cash and more restrictions will inevitably be placed on North Korea's missile and weapons exports. Kim has already terminated the nuclear monitoring regime of the International Atomic Energy Agency; he has threatened to nullify the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War; and he has restarted the nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. Backed into a corner, with an increasingly hungry population, fewer and fewer financial resources, more bellicose rhetoric, and a raised ante, it is not inconceivable that Kim will cross the line and elicit a harsh response from the United States. Should this happen, a very serious situation would develop on the Korean Peninsula, which could turn catastrophic.

The Unpredictable Future

The war on terrorism has, in a very short time, changed the underpinnings of the post-cold-war geopolitical arena. What is perhaps most significant about the changes is the genuine unpredictability of future events, and the extent of their significance on global politics and economics. We are witnessing a structural change every bit as significant as what occurred in 1945 and 1989. The difference is that these changes have already altered the way most people in the world live, and they promise to impact our lives in ways we have not even imagined.

1The views expressed herein are the author's and do not reflect the opinions of Asian Development Bank or any other organization.

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