A rare opportunity for world to unite

September 17, 2001|By Derek Chollet

WASHINGTON - Some say that out of every tragedy, something good may come if you look hard enough.

Sept. 11, 2001 may be remembered as a turning point for global diplomacy, when the world came together and joined the United States in a historic struggle against a common enemy.

Terrorism has been on the international agenda for years. In March 1996, after Israel suffered four suicide bombings in two weeks, the leaders of 26 countries met in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to promote cooperation against terrorism. They pledged to shut down terrorist networks, but the results were modest.

After the August 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, American leaders again tried to rally global action. On Sept. 21, 1998, then-President Bill Clinton used his appearance before the U.N. General Assembly to deliver a powerful speech on terrorism. The issue should "be at the top of the world's agenda," he said, because "it is a clear and present danger to tolerant and open societies and innocent people everywhere ... no one [is] immune."

Despite the best of intentions, the international response unfortunately has lacked sustained resolve. Each terrorist act was treated as a one-time event, and therefore was met with a similar response: Immediate retaliation against the perpetrators, a call for further cooperation, modest preventive actions and then a return to complacency.

Sept. 11 changed everything. The scale of the horror is unprecedented - even modest estimates of those killed are worse than the combined toll of the worst terrorist attacks of the previous 20 years. And in an era of instant communications, never has such horror been captured in so many voices and images and seen around the world.

This is one of those turning points in history where normal politics becomes unhinged and new opportunities are possible. The chance for creating a global coalition to fight a sustained war against terrorists and those who harbor them has never been greater.

The world's response has been remarkable. Already, America's 18 NATO allies have for the first time evoked Article V, declaring that the attack was against every member of the alliance. The European Union's foreign ministers and the U.N. Security Council have pledged to help.

The Bush administration is working to build an even broader international coalition. It understands that, like after Iraq's August 1990 invasion of Kuwait, the United States has enormous leverage to galvanize international action. States that frequently try to play both sides between the West and those forces determined to destroy it - like Syria and Pakistan - now have to decide whose side they want to be on.

There is also an important opportunity to enhance the U.S.-Russian relationship. Both countries have an interest in stabilizing Central Asia, where the terrorism threat emanates. And both can make this tragedy a way to strengthen political ties and open new avenues of cooperation, possibly in intelligence and counter-terrorism. Just as the Soviet Union's support was critical to the success of the gulf war coalition 10 years ago, Russia's partnership will be an indispensable part of the U.S. response.

Over the short term, a broad international coalition will ensure that the United States can respond against its enemies with as much legitimacy and firepower as needed.

More important, a strong coalition will enable us to do what it takes to win a long-term war against terrorism.

Derek Chollet is a visiting scholar at George Washington University. He served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

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