One searing image has supplanted even the plumes of smoke over the twin towers of the World Trade Center as the telling symbol of our times. It is the gaunt, bearded picture of Osama bin Laden mouthing murderous threats against non-believers from the security of his cave. It is a sealed mind in a sealed hideout intent on proclaiming the justice of his cause to the end, whatever mayhem, havoc and suffering ensues. In a world never more in need of mutual respect between cultures and peoples, the terrorist leader personifies all that menaces such values.
This year has been one of sealed minds. Al-Qaeda is the most sinister and deadly, but the hardening of cultural, political and religious arteries has been shockingly evident everywhere. Military victory alone cannot give the Israelis the peace and security they crave; no victory is conceivable for the Palestinians without recognition that Israel is here to stay. The self-defeating war continues.
In America, technological weapon superiority has encouraged conservatives to think that the moment has come for the US - by military force - unilaterally to construct the order it wants in the Middle East. They believe they must side with Israeli militarism, depose Saddam Hussein, and carry the 'war against terrorism' to the Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. And America has served notice on Russia that it will withdraw from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and develop its own National Missile Defense System - even though the events of last September underlined that the most potent threat comes from driven individuals and simple technologies. Instead of strengthening the international system of security treaties, the US is striking out on its own.
The failing of this mindset is that it is wholly preoccupied with putting America first. It offers no global leadership. The same myopia is evident in international trade, aid and finance. Global aid to Africa has fallen by two-fifths over the 1990s. A trivial increase in grants by developed countries to improve health in poorer ones would have a dramatic impact on life expectancy and disease. Yet US Treasury Secretary Paul Neill remains unmoved by calls for a new $50 billion Marshall aid program to assist poorer countries.
The necessary US contribution would be a fraction of the $65bn of corporate tax breaks that Republican Washington is currently forcing through Congress. It is claimed that companies like Boeing and GE, who paid less than 3 per cent of their revenues in tax last year, are suffering from enterprise-stifling taxes.
Yet as we enter 2002, the global economy is suffering its biggest ever national default - in Argentina - and its biggest ever corporate collapse - at Enron. Japan has experienced the biggest fall in industrial output since the 1930s, and the US the longest fall in output since the 1930s too. Meanwhile, Republicans are using the occasion not to stimulate the American economy, where the need is transparent, but to help their corporate backers. The importance of the wider world is being overlooked yet again.
Thus 2002 promises to prove one of the riskiest years both economically and politically since the 1970s. Those risks could be turned into calamities if sealed minds prevent recognition of our essential interdependence. On the other hand, the same awareness of the need for collaborative action and the scale of the potential calamity creates a massive opportunity. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown saw this in their championing of a modern Marshall Plan. Before 11 September such an idea would have received short shrift. Now it is seen - except in the US - as a vision that should be backed. If the international momentum grows, it may even be difficult for the US to stand aside.
The difficulty, as always, is to persuade those who have sealed themselves off from such arguments to change their minds without loss of face. Part of the problem is that multilateralism and international collaboration are necessarily unheroic and inherently full of compromises. Yet over the 1990s the world began to show that such approaches can work.
In Kosovo and Timor international intervention has limited what would otherwise have been ethnic killing fields. An International Criminal Court has been established. We have seen the Rio earth summit and the Kyoto agreement on climate change. (Even if Kyoto, like the International Criminal Court, was partly disabled by the American refusal to participate.)
And although it is unfashionable to make this point in Britain, the world's most successful example of multilateralism is on our doorstep. The member states of the European Union are now committed over the next 18 months to developing a constitution that will permit their interdependence to be expressed politically. By world standards this is a trail-blazing event, as is the launch this Tuesday of a single currency.
If America is emerging as the world's leading unilateralist power, the EU is its opposite. Its sometimes imperfect institutions suffer from a democratic deficit, but it is the one bloc sufficiently powerful to take a lead in insisting that the world is interdependent. Over aid, world health and the endemic hostilities in the Middle East, in 2002 the EU must speak and act with more purpose in the assault on sealed minds.
As these opportunities present themselves, Britain under Tony Blair has been developing a crucial international role, much enhanced since 11 September. We are simultaneously a member of the EU and America's closest ally. From a power base within Europe, we have more leverage over the US than any other country. President Bush will not want open criticism from the one political leader who has traveled over 40,000 miles to build and help hold together his 'coalition against terrorism' and who has been so ready to put British forces into action.
So it is now time for Mr Blair to start using his new-found strength and international reputation to secure the ends to which he is publicly pledged. In the new year, the EU should develop a new Marshall Plan itself, and the Bush administration should be told that its refusal to participate risks losing the support of Britain in areas where the US would like it. Sealed minds need to be opened up, and sometimes by force.
Both Tony Blair's stance and his moral authority would be enhanced still further in 2002 if at home he were seen to demonstrate strength of purpose in attacking that most sealed mindset of all - racism. During 2001, Britain discovered what a polarized and racist society it had become, notwithstanding our boasts of tolerance and decades of commitment to racial equality. The Cantle Report into the disturbances in four northern English cities during last summer paints a sobering picture of racial communities hermetically locked off from each other and incubating terrifying mutual hatreds. But the opening up of sealed minds is a task for all. And if there is a huge task for white Britain this new year, there is also a challenge for Muslim Britain. It needs to be just as tough on those of its so-called spiritual leaders who preach unabated hatred.
There are certain core values that all human beings deserve to share - a need for material well-being, the enjoyment of basic liberties, access to opportunity, the need to offer and receive respect. These are the only foundations for a successful society. We need to ensure that every one of our citizens signs up for the values that underpin such an infrastructure of justice - and that they are expressed in public policy too.
As we face a new year, we must resolve to escape the incapacity to empathize with others and the refusal to compromise, the enduring hallmarks of the sealed mind. The challenges we face are enormous: at home in tackling prejudice; abroad in addressing hunger, illness and conflict.
The rewards for success are already apparent. But the cost of failure is too grim to contemplate.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001