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People either remember 9/11 or have grown up in its shadow. In this essay, 9/11 shall be considered as a turning point in world history, and it shall be shown that even two decades on we still live in what could rightly be termed the post-9/11 era.
On 20th September 2001 US President George W. Bush declared to a joint session of Congress that “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated”.
Bush went on to state that this war on terror was one of values, between civility and its enemies. This speech was delivered very shortly after the terrorist attacks of 11th September had killed three thousand and left much of Manhattan under a cloud of dust and blood and was to mark a new epoch in American policymaking. The word ‘global’ is the most important word in the above quotation: it reflects America’s desire at that time to destroy its enemies and to refashion the world order in its own image.
The war on terror would indeed prove to be a global affair and continues to be till this day. We must ask, then, whether the 9/11 attacks represented a turning point in world history. Although I believe it did, we should also be aware of the deeper historical roots of the post-9/11 world as well as other considerations which militate against such a view.
Eric Hobsbawm once noted that after the Cold War the world order was in disarray, lost in a mire of confusion about where to go next (1). The events of 9/11 provided a new focus for world affairs – the contest between American ideological and military dominance and terroristic, dictatorial, and fundamentalist values. Very soon after 9/11 the USA invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime, which had sponsored and supported al-Qaeda.
However, in a story which would be repeated in Iraq, the quick victory became a drawn-out struggle as Taliban forces regrouped and mounted counter-attacks on US and NATO coalition forces. And the war goes on: in February 2020, US President Donald Trump signed a peace deal with the Taliban which included a stipulation that American forces would leave the country within 14 months.
Two years after the invasion of Afghanistan the USA, supported strongly by the UK but to international outcry, toppled Saddam Hussein and installed a new regime in Iraq. In my view this was justified and a democratic Iraq, however flawed and corrupt, is an improvement on the genocidal regime of Saddam Hussein. But post-invasion Iraq witnessed sectarian conflict on a massive scale and al-Qaeda ensured that violence would continue. And the Iraqi regime has been faced with innumerable obstacles to achieving peace and stability, not least of which was the emergence of Islamic State.
The reasons for these interventions in the Middle East can all be traced back to 9/11. In his memoir, then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that 9/11 represented “a declaration of war […] calculated to draw us into conflict.” (2). It has been called a ‘watershed’ moment between Islam and the West (3), and Giles Keppel has noted that 9/11 presented a ‘crossroads’ between two fundamentally opposing worldviews – those of the American neoconservatives and their allies, and the Islamists and jihadists, the former believing in freedom, liberty, democracy and American might and the latter in holy war and the resurrection of the Islamic Caliphate (4).
Perhaps, therefore, the main effect of 9/11 was in its foregrounding of these two groups. Jihad became a notorious presence on the world stage and has wrought havoc from Madrid to Bali and looks set to remain prominent. Al-Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki pioneered a new strategy of small-scale, low-tech terrorism and through his propaganda has encouraged western Muslims to attack their fellow citizens. Islamic State owes a lot to this innovation, and Awlaki’s method is the current face of jihad.
Meanwhile, 9/11 gave neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz their chance to influence American foreign policy – as the French historian Justin Vaïsse has noted, pre-9/11, Bush was relatively isolationist in his outlook, but the attacks gave impetus to the neoconservative analysis and he came to espouse the neoconservative worldview, though this influence would lessen after his first term (5). The neoconservatives used 9/11 to push Bush towards invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11 but whose leader, Saddam Hussein, had long been a target of neoconservative hatred (Wolfowitz had long denounced Saddam Hussein and, alongside others, called for action oriented towards removing him in 1998). It should also be remembered that Saddam Hussein was a sponsor of international terrorism, even if not in bed with al-Qaeda. Neoconservatism was not the sole reason for the Iraq intervention, but its ideas and the impact of 9/11 strengthened the hand of its votaries in deciding the direction of US foreign policy.
As noted above, the US was not alone in invading Iraq – despite much international outrage centred on American unilateralism, particularly from European leaders, the US was in fact assisted by other nations, chief among them the UK. Tony Blair’s internationalist foreign policy and stance towards Iraq evolved from his beliefs in the late 1990s, during which time he espoused a belief in a new world order and pushed for intervention in Yugoslavia to defeat the genocidal Serbian regime (6). Indeed, Blair had been outspoken against Saddam years before Bush came to power. Thus, he provided a patina of legitimacy to the US intervention in Iraq to the international order, which otherwise decried the US’s reluctance to work through the United Nations.
The war, however, provoked a negative reaction in the UK, where a huge anti-war march took place in London in 2003. Indeed, to some on the left, the post-9/11 world order reeked of neoliberal imperialism and merely discredited the USA and its allies further (7). Thus 9/11 has strengthened a leftist oppositional element, previously weakened by the end of the Cold War, within parts of the west. Among the most notable critics of US policy has, unsurprisingly, been the American linguist and political thinker Noam Chomsky who in 2001 stated that we must not forget that ‘the U.S. itself is a leading terrorist state.’
Much ideological conflict has ensued between supporters of the war on terror and its opponents, the latter including the Chomskyan critique of American imperialism and the former including the erstwhile socialist journalist Christopher Hitchens, arguing that 9/11’s historical significance should not be underestimated – and that it represented a fundamental conflict between civilisation and its enemies (8). These ideological battles have deeper roots, of course – Chomsky was a notable opponent of the Vietnam War (as was Hitchens) and Hitchens supported the Kosovo intervention. For Chomsky, American policy continued to be aggressively imperialist, while Hitchens’s anti-Vietnam stance paradoxically reinforced his interventionism – for him, Vietnam was unjust and unnecessary, but in Iraq and elsewhere American power could be used in revolutionary ways to fight dictatorship and encourage democracy.
On the other hand, right-wing isolationism was also boosted by the Middle East interventions. The American political commentator Pat Buchanan was staunchly opposed on conservative grounds to such wars and this tendency reached new levels in the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s election campaign. But the war on terror continues, even if in a more limited form, and even Trump has been forced to intervene in, for example, Syria (and appointed, for a while at least, John Bolton, an old Bush-era hawk, as National Security Adviser).
Perhaps, however, the greatest effects of 9/11 have been felt in the Middle East, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan, where western intervention toppled existing regimes and led to prolonged and bloody conflict (though the region was not exactly a peaceful place beforehand). Iraq has faced severe problems since 9/11 and the invasion and the failures there have led to a reluctance for Western intervention abroad – Syria, for example (though other factors should also be kept in mind here, such as Russia’s influence). Difficulties in constructing new democratic states have shown the world the power of sectarianism to divide and destroy, and the chaos that ensued from the invasion resulted in al-Qaeda’s power in Iraq being increased and, more recently, to the rise of Islamic State, which, in circular fashion, resulted in further (though more limited) Western intervention in the Middle East on the side of the Iraqi state and others threatened by this organisation.
Thus, the war on terror goes on and, it seems, shall continue for a long time and on a global scale, enveloping as it does the Middle East, parts of Africa and Asia, and indeed Europe and North America. The European continent itself has come under assault from jihadist groups, of course, but the most notable immediate effect of 9/11 on Europe was the breach it caused between Europe and the USA over Iraq (think Jacques Chirac’s staunch opposition to America at the time). Vaïsse notes that certain neoconservative elements in the USA were intensely Europhobic (9). Europeans returned the sentiment – as the political theorist and historian David Runciman has noted, Europeans were likely to express sympathy over the 9/11 attacks but were not as emotionally invested as the Americans (10). This led to differing attitudes. Europe in general decried American aggression and unilateralism in the leadup to and aftermath of the Iraq war, and American attempts to divide Europe merely produced further hostility from the latter to the former (read “The US and Russia want a weaker Europe: here’s why”) (11).
Most pertinently, 9/11 remains a symbolic signifier of the threat of Islamic terrorism and the aggressive forthrightness of American discourse post-9/11 has, perhaps paradoxically in light of the above, been replicated by some European leaders in more recent years. For example, then French President François Hollande, in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks, declared that France was to battle Islamic State ‘without a respite’. Another result of 9/11 and the Islamist attacks thereafter has been the increased power of the state in Western countries justified by security concerns – Hollande, for example, asked for a swathe of new powers for the state in the speech quoted above. The US and the UK enacted in the post-9/11 world new rules increasing state power and decreasing transparency (for example the US Patriot Act of 2001) – essentially curtailing civil liberties in the name of security which some see as a grave threat (12).
It must finally be noted that 9/11 has not had equally massive effects everywhere (Latin America, for example) and that the post-9/11 world is shaped to a large extent by pre-9/11 trends, the most notable example of which being the rise of human rights ideas and liberal interventionism which have been used to justify conflicts such as the Iraq war (for a detailed discussion on this topic, read our article entitled “Multilateral agreement is the only justification of humanitarian wars”). These concepts have historical roots going back centuries, and in their modern form, as German historian Stefan-Ludwig Hoffman argues, stem from the 1990s and received their first airing during the Yugoslavia conflict, after which 9/11 allowed the USA to refashion itself as a ‘reluctant moral superpower’ (13).
Nonetheless, 9/11 and its aftermath have resulted in a vastly changed world where US dominance (perhaps waning these days) is seen as the key to peace (or to warmongering) and the spread of liberty. Additionally, a huge variety of nations and organisations have been drawn in, through reacting to the joint pillars of this new international order – US power and Islamic terrorism (if we don’t consider the rise of China).
My own view on this subject is what might be termed Hitchensian. I think the war on terror was and is justified and I believe jihadist fascism, with its apocalyptic and imperialist overtones, is a unique and potent threat. Military strength together with a rational, secular critique of faith-based absolutism are both needed in this fight. We must, however, be vigilant of overweening government power in the name of security and steadfastly consistent in our criticism of Western failures and abuses rather than blinded to them by our hope that Western power can be wielded for good. Some will disagree with me on the military aspect, but all should be agreed on the necessity of critiquing bad ideas. Otherwise one of the root causes of jihadism – the bad ideas to be found in some strands of Islamic theology – will go unchallenged. It is necessary to deal with all aspects of the problem, not just the military one. Critique of religious ideas is a broader issue of course, but it has a strong impetus here.
To the question of whether 9/11 was a turning point in world history, then, the answer must be the affirmative, at least to an extent. It has created a new international world order dominated by US hard power and Islamic terrorism, in which reaction to these has become an important part of public discourse since 2001.
The events of 9/11 have resulted in old forces being given a new lease of power (such as neoconservatism), led to the complete refashioning of entire states such as Iraq and Afghanistan, led to increased conflict throughout the world, caused a rupture between Europe and the USA (reinforced today by the election of Trump) and increased the power of Western states over their populaces. The world did indeed change on 11th September 2001, but it must be kept in mind that many of these changes had deeper roots. The rise of China, concerns over climate change, the broader effects of globalisation, pandemics, and the renewed threat of Russia are just some of the things that have altered this picture over the past two decades. Nonetheless, we still live in the post-9/11 era and will do so for a long time yet.
Daniel James Sharp
- Hobsbawm, E., “The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991”, 1995.
- Blair, T., “A Journey”, 2011.
- Geaves, R., and Gabriel, T., “Chapter 1: Introduction’ in Geaves et al. (eds.), Islam and the West Post 9/11”, 2004.
- Keppel, G., “The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West translated by Pascale Ghazaleh”, 2006.
- Vaïsse, J., “Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement translated by Arthur Goldhammer”, 2010
- Runciman, D., “The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order”, 2006.
- Harvey, D., “A Brief History of Neoliberalism”, 2005.
- Hitchens, C., “Saving Islam from bin Laden’, in Cottee, S., and Cushman, T., (eds.) “Christopher Hitchens and his Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left””, 2008.
- Vaïsse, “Neoconservativism”, 2010.
- Runciman, D., “Good Intentions”, 2006.
- Judt, T., “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945”, 2010.
- Grayling, A.C., “Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights that made the Modern West”, 2014.
- Hoffmann, S.L., “Human Rights and History” in “Past and Present”, Issue 232, 2016.