A World Is Born

The palindromic year now closing is palindromic only if you count by the arithmetic of the Christian era, and in few years has it been more evident that these numbers (written now in Arabic instead of Roman script) are relative. The past 12 months have been filled with war, and with rumors of war. In many Western conversations, a reference to "the war" must now be clarified, as to whether it refers to the last war or the next war or the semipermanent war. In some non-Western conversations, the term jihad has acquired much of the same ambiguity.

Truly, the oft-stated prediction of the previous year has come true: we live in a different world. And the tensions of 2002--not just between Islam and the West, but within the West itself--were its growing pains. It is clear now that we all inhabit the same interconnected planetary economy; not even the anti-McDonald's protesters can or do truly think otherwise. It's also clear that we're all part of the same interdependent nervous system, so that if an "ally" like Pakistan helps an "enemy" like North Korea to acquire the sinews of violence, everyone on earth is compelled to register (whether knowingly or not) a similar shock. But that knowledge raised a different question to the fore this year: are we all to be members of the same global society, with equal rights, duties and mutual obligations?

As the people of Bali and Kenya found out in 2002, and as others had learned to their cost the previous September, one side in this war doesn't feel itself required to seek any international or legal permission in order to wage it. And yet, much of the year was absorbed by an argument between apparent friends as to which side was being "unilateral." Like its cousin "multilateral," this word is almost tautological (if more governments had demanded an inspection of Iraq, after all, the resolution would have been more multilateral by definition). But the mealy-mouthed lingo concealed other jealousies and resentments that have long been latent. Possibly in no year have relations between America and the rest of the world been more fraught. Certainly in no year have they declined so precipitously from the height of the preceding one.

This was, first and foremost, the year in which Washington threw off all disguise, and proclaimed that the 21st will, after all and after some delay and disagreement, be the real "American century." Proud, even boastful documents announced a new doctrine of permanent and unassailable supremacy, above all in military and strategic matters but also in the inculcation (to give it an ambivalent name) of democracy. The ancient word empire was rolled around the official tongue, and pronounced not to be entirely disagreeable. This alone will put 2002 into the history books, not as a twelvemonth of palindrome and tautology, but as a year of preparation and rehearsal for something momentous and dramatic and risky: something upon which--as Commodore Perry reported to Congress in 1856 on his return from Japan--"the world will look with breathless interest," because on its outcome so much will depend.