The War on Terror: An Uphill Battle for Global Support
Tony Blair with George Bush. Blair has begun to downplay terrorism when at home in the UK.

By Geoffrey Garrett

The War on Terror: An Uphill Battle for Global Support

Is terrorism an important issue beyond the borders of the United States?

During the presidential campaign, John Kerry and George Bush worked hard to highlight their differences to win favor with voters -- especially when it came to the issue of Iraq. But they agreed completely about the critical role that the battle against terrorism plays in the future of the United States and the world.

And yet the war on terrorism is a much less prominent part of the political landscape outside the United States. Just look at two of America's strongest allies, and how they positioned their first elections since the Iraq war. British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted at his party's conference in October that in the elections expected next spring, his government should be judged principally on its domestic "opportunity society" agenda, and not on its Iraq policy. Australian Prime Minister John Howard called an election, held on October 9 -- earlier than originally planned -- to insure against ripple effects from a possible defeat of President Bush on November 2. Though the temptation in the U.S. has been to judge Howard's re-election as an affirmation of the war on terrorism, the election campaign was waged almost exclusively on domestic issues.

Although the international coalition in Iraq includes 30 countries, only 20,000 of the 160,000 foreign troops stationed there are from countries other than the U.S. In the face of widespread popular opposition, the major partners stay in the coalition because their leaders consider doing so either a moral imperative (as Tony Blair does) or appropriate recompense for America's support of their countries (notably Poland and South Korea, with Poland announcing its troop withdrawal for late 2005). According to a recent survey by the German Marshall Fund, more than twice as many Europeans believe that the European Union should become more independent from -- not more closely linked to -- the U.S. in foreign affairs.

What explains the disjuncture between the U.S. and other countries? Certainly, dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq has played a significant role. But the broader context of global terrorism and America's role in the world is arguably more important.

The most tangible and shocking impact of terrorism -- the number of resulting fatalities in the U.S. and other countries -- tells a large part of the story. According to State Department-gathered statistics, 6,943 people worldwide died as a result of international terrorist attacks from 1996 through 2003 (thus not including the Madrid bombings and the Beslan siege in 2004). Of these fatalities, 3,189 people -- 46% of the world's total -- died in the United States on September 11. The next highest number of terrorist fatalities among the remaining rich democracies during this period was 414 in Israel. The State Department reports 11 fatal terrorist victims in Britain, France, and Germany combined.

Put differently, 12 people died on September 11, 2001, for every million people living in the U.S. The figure for Israel, sadly but not surprisingly, was even higher -- 69 people per million of its population died from terrorist acts between 1996 and 2003. But the comparable ratio for Britain, France, and Germany is about one-twentieth of a terrorist fatality per million.

Outside of the western world, there were about 3,000 deaths from international terrorism during the same period, with the most fatalities in India followed by Kenya. Of course, in these and other countries, terrorism is often merely one element in civil wars that constitute the fundamental threat to security in the developing world. According to the International Rescue Committee, more than 3 million people have died since 1998 as a result of the civil war in Congo (formerly Zaire) alone.

George Bush, John Kerry, and the 9/11 Commission as well as most Americans would say that these statistics understate the global terrorist threat. In the United States, the September 11 attacks are viewed as harbingers of things to come, the tip of a very large iceberg of Islamic extremism bent on attacking the American way of life as well as freedom and modernity all around the world.

September 11 indeed changed everything, in the United States at least. Americans' sense of physical invulnerability was shattered. From the White House to Main Street, Americans believe that their way of life and all it stands for are under attack, and that there is no other course than to take the fight for freedom to the enemy. Shifting justifications for the war on Iraq and restrictions on civil liberties at home are widely tolerated, although grudgingly, because they can be subsumed as part of the broader war.

But many people outside of the U.S. believe that when the terrorists condemn western excesses, it is the United States that they think about first and foremost. American global hegemony, not only in terms of military power but also in politics, economics, and culture, is a fact of contemporary life -- the Americanization of the world.

There are good reasons to think this way. The recent Madrid bombings and the Beslan school siege were among the deadliest attacks in history, suggesting that September 11 may well have been a turning point in the scale and scope of terrorism. And who knows how many more large-scale attacks have been thwarted by the heightened vigilance of the U.S. and other countries since September 11?

In addition to these differences in the magnitude of international terrorism, the identity of the perpetrators -- and hence the perceived nature of the threat -- also differs between the United States and much of the rest of the world. For Americans, as well as for Israelis, the war on terrorism is a war against Islamic extremists. But in the rest of the world, only about half of the deaths from international terrorism since 1996 have been attributed by the State Department to Islamic militants.

It should not be surprising if other countries are reticent to join what they view as principally America's war. The Spanish response to the Madrid bombings is particularly telling. Knowing how unpopular his support for the Iraq war was, Spain's Prime Minister Aznar initially claimed that the bombers were from ETA, the Basque separatist group. When it became clear that Al-Qaeda was the far more likely suspect, the Spanish people threw out Mr. Aznar in favor of a new government that promptly got their troops out of Iraq. The reasoning was simple: Spain has enough problems of its own; why increase the risk of terrorist attacks by fighting in America's war?

Taking all the evidence into account, there is no reason to believe that the United States will have an easy time building a broader-based and more deeply committed global coalition supporting the war on terrorism. The September 11 attack on the United States generated global sympathy. But the enduring impact of 9/11 -- materially and psychologically -- continues to be concentrated in the United States. Translating global sympathy into an effective global coalition, first and foremost in Iraq, will remain an uphill battle.

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Geoffrey Garrett is dean and vice provost of the UCLA International Institute, and director of the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA. This article will also appear in a forthcoming issue of College Report, the magazine of UCLA's College of Letters and Science.

Published: Monday, November 08, 2004