On the afternoon of 11 September 2001 – 17 years ago – Koert Debeuf was working in his office in the Flemish parliament in Brussels.
“I received a message from a journalist friend who asked me: “Are you watching CNN”?, he recalls.
“What I saw on TV was incomprehensible. One of the Twin Towers was burning because – they said – a plane had crashed into it. A few minutes later I saw another plane flying into the second tower, live. I texted my friend: ‘This means war’. He answered: ‘Yes, but against whom?’.”
Even though it was not the first attack by Al-Qaeda, it was the start of a new era, in which globalisation is on the reverse, democracy is in decline, and authoritarian nationalism is on the rise, Debeuf says in his new book ‘Tribalisation. Why war is coming’, to be launched in New York this week.
“People have lost their confidence in governments, security services, the free market and the banking system. They know that terrorist attacks could hit them anywhere: at home, at work, or on holiday. They no longer feel comfortable in their own society. They’re angry, fearful and insecure about the future,” he says.
For the first time in seven decades, parents are not convinced their children will have better lives than they had themselves, Debeuf points out, but he rejects the idea that it is merely rooted in the economy.
“It is a psychological reaction to a traumatic event,” says Debeuf, who met EUobserver in Brussels on 11 September before taking off to the US for the book launch.
It’s not the economy, stupid
Researchers have been looking for economic reasons why people voted for Trump, but concluded that there is no common link.
The economy is also not the reason for people to becoming foreign fighters, he says.
“People always say jihadists, jihadism and foreign fighters come from poor areas. But I have been studying jihadism and terrorists and most of these people had jobs. Osama bin Laden, the number one terrorist, was an extremely rich guy.”
It was rather a feeling of not being welcome – and thus not having a future in Europe – that pushed some young Muslims to join the Islamic State in Syria, sending the world further into a downward spiral of tribalism, argues Debeuf in the book.
When groups feel lost and begin to tribalise, they look back to the past.
They look for a leader to save them, they think in black-and-white and us-versus-them terms. They try to find common symbols that bring them together and they become paranoid and see enemies inside and outside the group.
“In the tribe, people are family, rules are clear, expectations well-known. The enemy is easily identifiable,” Debeuf says.
There are few real tribes left in our modern world, he adds, but we invent new kinds of tribes: nation, religion, and ideology.
The opposite of globalisation
In themselves tribes are good things, he says, as they are the engines of community-building and give meaning to people in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world.
“But when these tribes grow increasingly exclusive and authoritarian, and develop a black-and-white view of the the world, then tribalisation sets in. It’s essentially the polar opposite of globalisation,” Debeuf says.
“Globalisation is something that has happened since the beginning of human history. People are always going to be ever more connected, which is a good thing. It is not only about the economy, it is about ideas, religion – all kind of things that connect people more and more. But sometimes the line of globalisation breaks down,” he says.
“One of the last moments when it was breaking down was in between the first and the second world war. And what did we see back then?”, he asks.
“First of all, we saw international trade going down. We saw authoritarian regimes going up. Democracy going down. Suddenly countries were pulling out of the League of Nations instead of joining. The international order was falling down. People were reacting to a trauma which was the first world war, starting some kind of a vicious circle of the irrational rise of authoritarianism and rigid religious fundamentalism, which ultimately lead to the second world war”.
“I am not saying, that it is going to happen over the next year, or two years. But you feel it is very possible again,” says Debeuf.
“We are seeing sort of the same process today. Since 2006 – before the economic crisis – globalisation has been stagnating. We see international trade going down, walls being built up, the United States is pulling out of some international organisations, Russia has withdrawn its signature from the founding statute of the International Criminal Court. We see again the rise of tribalisation, the rise of authoritarianism and fundamentalism. If we compare it to all previous periods in history, the most likely outcome of this process is going to be war,” says Debeuf, who is a historian by education.
European success and failure
The European Union was built in the aftermath of the last collapse of globalisation and the second world war in order to keep peace. But now you say that war is coming. Has the EU failed, EUobserver asked?
“No, the EU has not failed. I think without the EU being there, probably we might already have seen some war. To me the EU is no doubt the most successful political enterprise ever in history. It turned poor dictatorships into prosperous democracies.
But even in the EU, just like in the United States, democracy can be unable to stop some processes that are completely vicious. I think Brexit, Orban [Viktor Orabn, the self-described ‘illiberal’ Hungarian prime minister], Kaczynski [Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party] are prime examples of how even a union of rule of law and human rights is unable to stop these kind of processes,” he says.
“It does not mean the EU has failed. I think the EU is probably the only buffer against future European war in the coming years,” says Debeuf.
“But the idea of the founding fathers – that if Europe would start with economic cooperation, a political union would follow – was a mistake,” he says.
“Political leaders in the US and Europe know there is a problem, but they seem to be too tired and powerless to halt this decline [into tribalism]. There is no vision and thus no mission”, he adds.
“What I admire about [French president] Emmanuel Macron is that he started an electoral campaign without a classical party behind him. More Europe, he said, and many thought he had no chance. But he won, because he had conviction. He was not playing the tactical game of following a little bit the tribalisers, a little bit the extreme right, talking islamophobia-lite and euroscepticism-lite. This position, in my opinion, has been taken by too many European parties, while Macron took the opposite direction. And he won against all odds.”
Cockfight and testosterone
“Tribalisation is a very male thing. Most foreign fighters, most of the terrorists, most authoritarian leaders – they are all male, so I would have hoped that more woman were in power today,” says Debeuf.
“If, let’s say, half of the leaders in the planet were female, I would probably fear less for a negative outcome. Now you feel this cockfight, this male thing, coming up worldwide between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, Trump and Xi Jinping, Kim Il Jung and Trump, Nigel Farage, Orban – you feel testosterone coming up every time they appear.”
“I am not saying that female leaders are always saviours – Marine Le Pen is also still there, but I think in general it’s a very male thing. So, maybe the best solution would be to have more women gaining power. It would be the biggest difference from the past,” says Debeuf.
Koert Debeuf is a historian by education and a Middle East expert. He was speechwriter for Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt and experienced the Arab Spring revolution at firsthand, when living in Cairo from 2011-2016. “Tribalisation. Why war is coming” is published by ASP in Belgium