Sunday, August 27, 2006

Did 9/11 Change International Politics?

In the September/October issue of Foreign Policy, William Dobson argues that international politics changed very little following the attacks of September 11, 2001:

At 8:45 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001, we were living in the post-Cold War era. At 9:37 a.m., just 52 minutes later, as the third hijacked airliner careened into the Pentagon, the post–9/11 era had begun. Everyone told us that everything had changed.

It was the beginning of a new chapter in history. The image of thousands of people perishing as the Twin Towers collapsed in a cascade of fire and dust, live on television, was a bookmark for the ages. There was a world before this tragedy, and then there was something very different that was about to follow. It is tempting to assume that this attitude was just another example of American narcissism. (The United States was attacked, so the world had changed.) But that wasn’t the case. A poll taken shortly after the attacks by the Pew Research Center found a remarkable degree of agreement among opinion leaders around the world about what the September 11 attacks represented. In Western Europe, 76 percent of those polled said the events of that day had amounted to a turning point in world history. In Russia and Asia, 73 and 69 percent of people agreed. In the Middle East and Latin America, the percentage of opinion leaders who believed 9/11 marked the beginning of a new era rose to 90 percent. Rarely have so many agreed about the meaning of a single moment.

Five years on, this response must be understood as one being born out of shock. Certainly, for some, there could not have been a more life-changing moment. Collectively, we feared what was about to end. Globalization would surely grind to a halt. Borders—in particular, the need to maintain them—would undergo a renaissance as governments looked to shield themselves from the next attack. Global trade, capital flows, and immigration could no longer be what they once were. National economies would cool, as the realization of a “clash of civilizations” grew hot. Industries like tourism and air travel would be crippled.

Yet, if you look closely at the trend lines since 9/11, what is remarkable is how little the world has changed. The forces of globalization continue unabated; indeed, if anything, they have accelerated. The issues of the day that we were debating on that morning in September are largely the same. Across broad measures of political, economic, and social data, the constants outweigh the variations. And, five years later, the United States’ foreign policy is marked by no greater strategic clarity than it had on Sept. 10, 2001.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were theatrical terrorism of the worst kind. But, even in an age when image usually trumps substance, the tragic drama of that day did not usher in a new era. No, if there was a day that changed the world forever, it was 15 years ago, not five. New Year’s Eve, 1991. It was on that day, far away from any cameras, that the Soviet Union finally threw in the towel, dissolving itself and officially bringing an end to the Cold War. From that moment on, the United States reigned supreme—“the sole superpower,” “the hyperpower,” “the global hegemon,” call it what you like. And from that moment on, the world was out of balance—and it still is. The tragedy of 9/11 was a manifestation of the unipolar disorder the world had already entered a decade earlier. A day after 9/11, we were still living in the post-Cold War era, we still are today, and that is precisely the problem.
Dobson continues by indicating that the global economy has been remarkably resilient in the wake of the attacks, substantial flows of human capital through immigration have been sustained, and global anti-Americanism -- while acute -- is not much worse the global backlashes against American power before the 1990s.

Dobson's analysis is essentially structural -- the basic patterns of international politics, and especially the dynamics of the world balance of power -- remain fundamentally unchanged in the post-9/11 era. Dobson does, however, take exception the Bush administration's forward policy of counter-terrorism and democracy promotion in Afghanistan and Iraq, by lamenting the expansion of defense spending and by saying that the world is by far a "more dangerous place for everyone -- everyone, that is, except Americans."

The structural aspect of Dobson's analysis is not controversial. There's more to post-9/11 international politics, however, than continunity in the distribution of world capabilities. Only five years after the terrorist attacks, Dobson's piece seem representative of the loss of shock and moral outrage arising from Al Qaeda's assualt on the American homeland.

It's appropriate, therefore, to recall how policy analysts in 2001 were arguing that the 9/11 attacks created fundamental change in post-Cold War world politics. For example, James Hoge and Gideon Rose, in the introduction to their edited volume, How Did This Happen: Terrorism and the New War, said that "everything had changed" on September 11, 2001:

Suddenly the world rushed in, stiking brutally at symbols of the very wealth and power that had underwritten the public's geopolitical nap....America is now at war. It accepts that the struggle will be lengthy, will involve casualties, and may have no neat or clear end. The initial targets are in Afghanistan, but Washington has vowed to pursue terrorists elsewhere as well.
Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and a top foreign policy scholar, argued in an essay from the same volume, that traditional patterns of epochal conflict returned with the September 11 attacks, particularly with the full engagement of radical Islam in its challenge to Western civilization. Zakaria uses Francis Fukuyama's formulation of the revival of "History," that is, history in the dialectical sense of the ideological conflicts that have animated international competiton through the millenia:

Radical Islam contests not simply the power of the West and the United States, but also the principles they hold dear. It rejects the Western liberal model in much the same way that communism did. And although radical Islam may not have many adherents in the West, more than a billion people around the world are potentially receptive to this message. In this sense they do have an argument with the West over the direction of History. The West might not want to take part in this debate, but that was also true about the struggles with fascism and communism. History finds you out.
Recent world events have demonstrated the truth of Zakaria's statements. I think Dobson's analysis neglects these truths, in favor of arguing that the United States of the post-Cold War era is abusing its hegemonic power, and that in time, a balancing coalition will reign in American preponderance, and a truly new era of global politics will emerge. I think, moreover, Dobson's piece, coming only five years since the attacks, reflects a "realist" weariness in our current long struggle against terror that is not healthy.

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