In the spring of 2005, when I was a graduating high school senior, TIME Magazine ran a cover feature titled “The Class of 9/11,” which displayed cadets from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The phrase was originally coined by National Public Radio to refer to the graduating high school class of 2005, and how we had to deal with aspects of being teenagers during those years.
The TIME article detailed how the graduating class at West
Point, which were commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the United States Army,
entered as freshmen candidates just before the nature of America's war-fighting and
the security issues changed dramatically. In the course of their studies, the cadets learned
a whole new set of strategy, tactics and other war-fighting methods. In fact,
however, so would their would-be commanders and the policymakers governing the
U.S. military. The West Point graduating class members were told that they were "a special
group forged by historic events."
In many ways, however, all of us foreign policy
professionals who have developed our careers in the post-9/11 era can be
considered a sort of “class of 9/11.” Not so much because of the direct effects
of that single, horrible event on our academic, policy and practical execution
of international relations and foreign policy, but because that day marked the
beginning of a new era in which, over the course of the next decade-and-a-half,
we all would have to learn, or really re-learn, how to contend with a multi-faceted
and new world order.
Indeed, that horrific event did mobilize an entire
generation of professionals: young men and women in uniform, ambitious youth
aspiring to become intelligence analysts and other Middle East and security
experts, etc. Over a decade later, many people continue to be attracted to the world
of international security and foreign policy out of sheer interest as well as a
desire to serve their country. Yet for all noble intentions, we must be wary of
two potential pitfalls: the tendency to become too narrowly focused on one issue or region, and not being
able to adapt our analytical frameworks to the changing realities of the times.
Thirteen years after the events of what I often refer to as
“Bloody Tuesday” in my own mind, we face a Middle East that is worse-off and
more unstable and insecure, thanks in no small part to the Islamic State, as
well as a renewed Russian threat to European security, and festering
geopolitical tensions in the northern and southern parts of East Asia. This is
to say nothing of the narco-insurgency occurring on the U.S.’s southern border,
and the horrible ravaging of the Ebola virus in West Africa, among other things.
Some scholars, such as my biggest intellectual hero Robert D. Kaplan,the prominent geopolitical analyst, have asserted that old historic tensions, which were suspended during the Cold
War, are now re-emerging. Still others have even attempted to draw parallels
between the year 2014 and 1914. Indeed, while the common wisdom is that “the
world is getting smaller,” “the world is flat” or even “we are all getting
closer together,” the reality is that what has changed is not the level of
integration among nations, but rather the speed
with which we are able to move and exchange ideas, goods and capital. The
volume of international trade is not that much bigger now, relative to the size
of national economies, than it was 100 years ago.
Thus, in some ways we are not in uncharted territory, but
rather must regain our footing after the academic, policy and other facets of
foreign policy have grown used to a Cold War order. The biggest task we face as
academics and practitioners in this new era is to define exactly what we mean
by “post-Cold War” and “post-9/11.” With so many issues flaring up in a
plethora of regions around the world, we must take care not to hyper-focus on
one part of the world, and not allow ourselves to be beholden to antiquated
ways of thinking about our world.
After over twenty years without a clear purpose, NATO is
re-calibrating itself in the face of Russian aggression and expansion. The
Middle East is now not only ravaged by ruthless dictators, but also by a chaotic and violent vacuum of power and institutional authority. With the specter of
“mutually-assured destruction” between two nuclear superpowers gone, we have
forgotten that nuclear weapons are still a major instrument in many regional
geopolitical conflicts (such as India and Pakistan).
Perhaps then, the biggest issue facing all of us involved in
various aspects of international relations and foreign policy is that we still
are a “class of 9/11” in that, rather than graduating seniors, we are still the
awkward, insecure and unknowing freshmen trying to figure out our way. Maybe
we, just as we were in our teenage years, too cool to listen to those who have
gone before us. But, if you ask me, we
ignore the lessons of the past at our peril. At the same time, of course, we must
remember that this is not a perfect repeat of history, and that we must
adapt and innovate based on new realities. Perhaps the “class of 9/11,” which
must contend with the issues while still remaining very much “in school”, can
combine the best of our past guidance with our own flexibility and creativity
in analyzing and executing foreign policy.