Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Saturday, September 10, 2011

9/11: When Everything Changed

The attacks on 9/11 triggered a meme that the "world had changed," permanently and dramatically. In short, the argument was 9/11 ushered in an entirely new era in world politics, a period in which threats and dangers from non-state terrorist actors supplanted the old system of state-based aggression and militancy. This was first voiced by the media and then reverberated throughout various quarters of American society, from elites and elected officials to ordinary citizens. It seems this reaction was derived from a simple observation: the sense of invulnerability that many Americans had felt--especially in terms of national security--was now shattered, never to reclaimed. Because of 9/11, international terrorism proved that it could hit home and cause enormous death and destruction on American soil.

Admittedly, I was initially very skeptical of the idea that the "world had changed" on 9/11. I wasn't sure if people were overstating the impact of 9/11. Were these claims the product of an Amero-centric country? That is to say, was 9/11 important because it happened in the States? Or was it important because it truly altered something significant about the way the world worked? Plus, although the U.S. was abuzz about Islamic terrorism, this was hardly a new phenomenon. And keep in mind, it's not like al-Qaeda ever posed an existential threat to the U.S. Furthermore, it's not inconceivable that 9/11 and the responses to it could have been relatively contained by the U.S. and its allies, thereby limiting the depth and reach of 9/11's impact on the America and the world.

I was reminded of this 9/11 meme, as well as my early reaction to it, when I read a short article by Richard Haass, a former State Department official and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations. Here is the money quote from Haass:

"September 11, 2001, was a terrible tragedy by any measure, but it was not a historical turning point. It did not herald a new era of international relations in which terrorists with a global agenda prevailed, or in which such spectacular terrorist attacks became commonplace. On the contrary, 9/11 has not been replicated. Despite the attention devoted to the “Global War on Terrorism,” the most important developments of the last ten years have been the introduction and spread of innovative information technologies, globalization, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the political upheavals in the Middle East."
Now, ten years later, with the benefit of more data points, my views about 9/11 have shifted. I believe that those, like Haass, who still doubt the extraordinary importance of 9/11 are way off the mark. It's very evident to me that 9/11 has left a far-reaching and profound imprint on the U.S. and the world. It has penetrated American politics and society, and it has ushered in an inflexion point in world politics. Honestly, short of a great power, it's awfully hard to see what could have produced as much sweeping change and tumult here in the States and abroad.

Let's look at some concrete ways that 9/11 shaped and impacted the U.S. as well as the world. Below I've compiled a list of some repercussions of 9/11. It's not meant to be an exhaustive list, as I'm sure readers could include many more things that have manifested as an indirect or direct result of 9/11. Instead, the list is designed to focus only on the most important and lasting outcomes.

1. As a direct result of 9/11, the U.S. completely reoriented its foreign policy. By the fall of 2001, the Bush administration shifted from a great power-based, geographically circumscribed and focused, and primarily diplomatic approach to foreign policy to a much more ambitious set of ideas and plans. These ideas and plans included a willingness to use military force to spread American ideals, a commitment to unilateralism, a deep suspicion of international institutions and organizations. At bottom, this shift was the birth of neoconservative American foreign policymaking. To be clear, neoconservativism has a long and rich intellectual history long before 9/11, but it had never really served as a potent political force in Washington. 9/11 changed that. It made the notion of social and political engineering--which is exactly what remaking societies like Iraq and Afghanistan is all about--appealing and brought to greater prominence neoconservative officials like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.

2. The U.S. launched two expensive and bloody wars, one in Afghanistan (2001) and another Iraq (2003), and its forces have remained in both countries for most of the last decade.

3. Without a doubt, the leading indicators predicting the rise of China, as well as a diminished America, pre-date 9/11. After all, China's economy has been expanding at a rapid, almost double-digit clip for about 30 years now, far and away outpacing all all countries during that time period. But the choices that the U.S. made in the aftermath of 9/11 has further narrowed the material power gap between the U.S. and China. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars placed a great strain on America's economy, sapping its strength and vibrancy and adding over 2 trillion ($1.6 trillion from the wars, $800 billion from additions to the Defense Dept. budget) to the U.S. debt. While the wars didn't directly cause the debt and financial crises of the last few years, they arguably paved the way for both to emerge and made it more difficult for the Bush and Obama to navigate both successfully. And as this happened, a crisis of confidence in the American economy emerged, shifting the heart of the world economy toward Asia (China, in particular) and away from the U.S. and EU member countries.
blog post on Power and Policy, a JFK school blog).

And at the same time, China has steadily increased its influence over foreign countries, both far from and near to Beijing. This was partially helped by the disgust that some countries had for the U.S. in the wake of its unpopular foreign wars, as well as by the perception that Washington spent to much time trying to proselytize them in the ways of economic liberalism, democracy, and human rights. Some countries in Africa, for instance, have decided it's better to cultivate and strengthen ties with the foreign policy amoral Chinese, who aren't interested in their internal affairs, than with the Americans, who are widely viewed as obsessed with concepts like values and rights and freedom.

4. In response to the 9/11 attacks, as a way of enhancing national security, the U.S. ramped up the size and presence of various policing and governing institutions, bodies, and legislation. Big government has ruled the day. The U.S. created the Department of Homeland Security, enacted the Patriot Act, executed major changes to the TSA, and made significant increases to the defense budget. Additionally, the U.S. has pursued a wave of surveillance of its citizens (via wiretapping, monitoring of Muslim communities, and so on). And finally, starting during the Bush administration and continuing to today, the U.S. has restored the imperial presidency, creating imbalanced power among the branches of government.

5. 9/11 extended and deepened the American culture wars between the conservative right and progressive left. Of particular relevance is the heated debates about topics such as how tolerant the U.S. should be about Muslim culture and religion; the assimilation of Muslims into the fabric of America; Islamic legal institutions; the merits/pitfalls of racial profiling; as well as the presence of Mosques around the U.S.

6. Terrorism has dominated foreign and domestic policymaking in capitals around the world, not just in Washington. In my view, for the past 10 years, it has become the organizing principle around which many countries orient their policies and their behavior with and toward others in the world. In part this has resulted from strong efforts of the U.S., which has pushed countries to take terrorism as seriously as it does. In this way, terrorism has been akin to the old cold war politics, functioning as the lens through which many countries have viewed the world and conducted their daily affairs.

7. Scholars have long talked about the concept of public goods in international relations. It's typically defined as the self-interested efforts of one or several leading powers that result in "goods" which can be consumed by all other countries. A seminal theory in international relations called Hegemonic Stability Theory is all about this very concept. It's the idea that the top liberal democracy (like Britain in the 19th C. and the U.S. in the 20th C.) often provide public goods like a free and open market economy for the rest of the world's benefit. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum has gone so far as to suggest that, for the past 60 plus years, the the U.S. has acted as a world governing entity, administering a sense of order and structure in the world. Among other things, it currently polices the seas to ensure trade goes uninterrupted; works to guard as protectionist measures, keeping markets open and free; aims to resolve conflicts, acting as a mediator in world disputes; and has set up a host of economic and security international institutions. The last 10 years tell us that we can add counter-terrorism to the list of public goods in world politics. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are deeply unpopular in parts of the world, as are things like drone attacks, Guantanamo Bay, rendition, and so on, they have helped to shrink the menacing threat of Islamic terrorism--something that's good for the U.S., to be sure, but also something that other countries certainly benefit from as well.

I haven't weighed and scored the above list to determine how the U.S. has fared over the last 10 years. For one, as I said, the list isn't complete. And two, that's not the point of this blog post. I'll leave it to our readers to judge America's post-9/11 progress.

So what do you think? Have I missed anything? Would you take anything off my list? Let me know.

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