2021 will mark twenty years on from the tragic events of 09/11. The 9th of September 2001 happened to be the day that the world got shocked by the sad terrorist attacks in New York: all those with use of conscience and minimal awareness back then would probably still remember what they were doing when they heard or watched live on TV these attacks. The way by which a terrorist organization, a non-State actor (al-Qaida), targeted and harmed the most powerful state actor in the world (the US) causing thousands of deaths, and destroyed an important building and symbol of the country (the World Trade Center towers), was clearly unprecedented. All these considerations explain why 09/11 stands up now as the key event in the contemporary history of International Relations: it paved the way to new concepts, new approaches, security challenges… all at a worldwide level.
09/11 as a driver rather than a game changer
In the same manner, 09/11 can’t be considered a comparable event to the fall of the wall in Berlin in November 1989, and/or the crumbling of the USSR in December 1991. Instead, 09/11 is an event that shares many more similarities with the Gulf War (1991): both incidents did not necessarily represent nor marked a before and an after, because ultimately the world did not fundamentally change after these events. In the early 90s, the Gulf War fastened the transition of the world from a bipolar system to a new reality that would later confirm the American supremacy in a unipolar world; in the early 2000s, 09/11 led the US to a further demonstration of power, and showed the world proof that it stood as an unchallenged superpower. 09/11 indeed needs to be seen as a driver that confirmed a state of play, rather than the leading event to a new reality.
Although, almost 20 years on from 09/11, the question that stands is whether we really learned the lesson of 09/11 or not. In the years that followed 09/11, it sounded rather clear that the Bush Administration had reacted to these terrorist attacks in a way that neither fully served American interests nor allowed Washington to confirm its liberal agenda: the clear failure of the American-led strategies in Afghanistan and Iraq, the adoption back then of the freedom-restrictive US Patriot Acts (which some dispositions are still ongoing up to today), and the decline of the image of the US in the world, were clear indications of this. The two mandates of the Obama Administration (2009-2017) may have contributed to fixing some of the flaws that had been created by the precedent Bush Administration, although this does not mean that the US completely recovered from its image deficit. Furthermore, there is no doubt that the Trump Administration in general – and the policies and the attitude of President Donald Trump himself – confirmed to a large extent in the international public opinion’s mind the fact that the US would still be favoring an arrogant attitude towards the rest of the world. Even though, there may be one criteria that limits comparisons between the Trump and the G. W. Bush Administrations: the fact that Donald Trump did not drag his country in costly and mismanaged wars similar to Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). At the same time, the current American attitude towards China and trade, migrations, climate and environmental issues, among so many others, are as problematic as large-scale wars would be: the way things stand at this stage, in a context marked by economic disruptions and socioeconomic worrying problems due to the context generated by Covid-19, is worrying on the long run. The world is boiling, and the US – who remains power number one at this stage – can have an impact on international trends that whether results positive and constructive, or negative and destructive, depending on its attitude and its sense of responsibility.
Remember 09/11 differently – and act consequently
What is the relationship between 09/11 and these considerations? Probably larger than we think. 09/11 was an opportunity for the US to show a sense of responsibility, to express some greatness and wisdom, and eventually react fiercely towards al-Qaida et al., without necessarily dragging itself and the rest of the world in situations of tensions and dichotomy – remember here how the Bush Administration used to see the world in a binary way that opposed them and us. But this did not happen. There may be proportionally less war-generated deaths today compared to what was during the first half of the twentieth centuries, and the world may therefore be safer now (which doesn’t mean that it necessarily feels or is perceived safer); nevertheless, fears and tensions are still in the air, and it feels as if we were constantly missing opportunities to better understand where the world really stands, and how we should move forward from here.
Challenges will undoubtedly always be there: terrorism, wars, tensions, societal division, rivalry over resources, poverty, pandemics, environmental catastrophes have all a deep impact on people. In addition to this, the nationalist and so-called “illiberal” trends that we can see emerging throughout the world are themselves a consequence for the discredit of the political elite, and a generated and obvious crisis of leadership. But will things stand still and get better by themselves, automatically, without any action and impulses that come either from the top (the rulers) or from down (citizens)? Absolutely not.
Alarming signs have been numerous all through the last ten to twenty years. Citizen power may be questioned still in the sense that frustration does lead to anger and activation but not necessarily to change; but it is an existing trend that will not stop anytime soon and may generate new situations in a general context of crisis of governance and political institutions. All of this did not really prevail almost twenty years ago, when 09/11 happened, and we ultimately believed that the reaction to this event would end up weakening terrorist organizations, making the world safer.
09/11 represents a milestone in history; looking back at it, it sounds rather obvious that the world’s nature has changed ever since, and that the tendency that we had then to limit security issues to terrorism and violent attacks proved inaccurate. The world changes fast, and its challenges are endless and belong to extended fields. To remember 09/11 correctly, maybe we should think of where we would not like to stand by one, five, ten, twenty years. And moving towards the correct direction starts now.
Barah Mikaïl, Associate Professor of International Security, Saint Louis University
To quote this article, please use the following reference: Barah Mikaïl (2020), “What did we really learn from 09/11?”, https://crisesobservatory.es/why-is-jair-bolsonaro-so-popular/
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