9/11, and the end of the American century

The “war on terror” launched in response to the crime of 9/11 signalled the decline of American and western power and marked the emergence of a multipolar global landscape. The challenge now is to work out a politics of mutual recognition that meets the permanent reality of intertwined human fate, says David Held.

9/11 was a crime against the United States and a crime against humanity. Yet in treating the criminals who perpetrated it as soldiers at war with the US and the west, it elevated their status and standing, and began the “war on terror”. The war was as ill-formulated as it was executed. The result: Kabul is an island protected by Nato, with much of the rest of Afghanistan in the hands of warlords and the Taliban; Iraq has been turned from an authoritarian state into a failed state, fragmented into regions. The cost in lives has been horrendous: hundreds of thousands have died, and millions have been displaced.  

What the “war on terror” has disclosed is that the world’s mightiest power cannot conquer and pacify even relatively weak and divided countries. Initial victory proves illusory in the face of hostility to the victors and contested ideologies. The bombast of the US and the west has been disclosed. The rhetoric of the “coalition of the willing” about bringing democracy and peace to Afghanistan and Iraq is shattered by the reality of car-bombs and anti-personnel landmines. The killing goes on.

As “the American century” has dissolved in a decade, it has become clear that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq symbolise the steady decline of western power: that is, the ability of the US and its allies to shape the world in their own image and according to their interests and rules.  

A messier world

After the dust settles, the field shows a more multipolar world, with the centre of economic gravity shifting to the east. The west no longer holds a premium on geopolitical or geo-economic power. Different discourses or concepts of governance have become more commonplace and challenge the old western orthodoxy which informed the post-1945 consensus.

At the multilateral level, the emergence of gridlock marks many of the world’s most pressing international negotiations. Why? Decision-making has stalled in most of the key international decision-making forums, affecting climate change, trade rules, financial market reforms and nuclear proliferation. The west can no longer write the rules as it once could. The emerging powers of the east and the south can veto the deals the west puts on the table even if they cannot yet write the new agenda.  

The “war on terror” weakened the United Nations system, marginalised the Security Council in the face of great geopolitical tensions and reasserted power-politics in an age when such politics alone cannot resolve many of the key global challenges and risks attendant on living in a global age. Fighting “the other” misses a deep and more fundamental point - that on many of the most pressing issues of our time, “the other” is now collective problems and shared threats. Reasserting our identities as Americans, British, French, Chinese or Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu will not generate the means to address or resolve these issues.  

Ten years on from 9/11, it is clear that the “end of ideology” - the much-heralded victory of democracy and markets - was as naive as it was misleading. Instead, we live in a much more complex mosaic of languages and discourses, of ideas and interests, and of identities and political associations.

This is a much messier world than was understood by the architects of “the new American century”. It is a world that does not easily bow down to the destructive power of bombs and missiles. Consent and reconciliation cannot be carved by armoured vehicles and drones. The complexities of difference, culture, identity and human associations can be changed only by creating spaces for voice and self-determination, spaces free of domination, whether this is the domination of conquering powers, fanatical religions or authoritarian rulers.  

A fate beyond borders

This messier world is the terrain once again of politics, where politics matters just as much as ever. Yet unlike in previous eras, the nature of our politics needs to be worked out at many levels, from the local to the global. We live in an era where the fate and fortunes of countries are increasingly intertwined. I call this a world of “overlapping communities of fate”. Whether the focus is on economics, security, the movement of people, communications or culture, there is now a global dimension to the forces, processes and outcomes that bind human societies together. This creates both huge opportunities for development and prosperity as well as greater risks and challenges.

Throughout modern history, from the late 16th century to the present period, the business of politics and the decisions of public life largely unfolded within the borders of states, unless these were pierced by violence. States and governments, autocratic or democratic, took decisions in and for those in bounded territorial spaces. Yet today, most of the challenges we face are problems that spill over borders. Preoccupations with state interests, or the welfare of particular people above all others cannot alone unlock the proper nature and form of politics in a global age.

To put the point another way, state-first politics, realism or hegemonic raison d’être are inadequate and insufficient ways of pursuing politics in dense webs of connections between peoples and communities. The alternative is a politics based on mutual recognition, the singular importance of each and every human being and public decision-making that is transparent and accountable to all significantly affected by its impacts irrespective of borders. In sum, realism is dead, and cosmopolitanism maps the way ahead. 

About the author

David Held is Master of University College, and Professor of Politics and International Relations, at Durham University. Among his most recent publications are Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing (2013), Cosmopolitanism: Ideals and Realities (2010), Globalisation/Anti-Globalisation (2007), Models of Democracy (2006), Global Transformations (1999). He is a Director of Polity Press, and General Editor of Global Policy.

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This article was first published as part of a Social Science Research Council essay-forum on the world ten years after 9/11