After 9/11: three dimensions of change

The attacks of 11 September 2001 did not, after all, transform the world. But they did propel the United States into a unilateral and regime-change moment - and pose a more enduring challenge both to American and European conceptions of security and stability, says Volker Perthes.
Volker Perthes
9 September 2011

The world has undergone enormous changes since 2001, and yet the statement so popular with policymakers and journalists after 9/11 - that “nothing will ever be as before” - has not proven true. The rise of China, India or Brazil, the financial and sovereign-debt crisis, and the uprisings in the Arab world have certainly done more to change the world than the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

The attacks did have an impact on national and international politics. But a decade later, it’s possible to see where this impact was of a more limited, temporary nature, and where it had longer-lasting effects. Three features stand out: United States unilateralism; regime-change policies; and the securitisation of foreign policies in the US and Europe, particularly in relation to the middle east and the Muslim world.


Washington’s unilateralism had its moment in the first two or three years after the 9/11 attacks. In Afghanistan, the George W Bush administration initially didn’t want the support of its allies; in Iraq, it acted even against the advice of many of its friends. Here was an empire, hurt but strong, that didn’t care about alliances or world opinion. Other states could decide whether they were “with us or against us”, and would be treated accordingly.

This unilateral moment was brief enough. An accumulating set of difficulties and pressures - insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, a deteriorating Arab-Israeli theatre, the Iranian nuclear file, the rapid rise of China and other emerging powers, and (eventually) the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis - led Washington to rediscover Nato, the partnership with the European Union, and multilateralism.

The institutionalisation of the G20 as the main forum for global economic governance, after all, began when George W Bush was still in power. Barack Obama then made the change explicit: US leadership would have to be cooperative because (said the National Security Strategy of 2010) “no one nation - no matter how powerful - can meet global challenges alone”.

Regime change

The invasion of Iraq was briefly assumed to be a model for dealing with “rogue” regimes. It demonstrated American force, but also the limits of military might. And it was not repeated. Even with regard to Iran, the aim of US policy soon became, well, “policy change” rather than regime change. Similarly, after years of involvement in a stabilisation-mission which turned into an unwinnable war, Nato and its partners had to substantially downgrade their ambitions for the political and social transformation of Afghanistan.

The “can do”-hubris, the attitude that the US, the Europeans or a broad international alliance could simply re-engineer a country provided there were enough military and civilian resources, has largely vanished. Libya clearly demonstrates this: while some states were prepared to use military force to protect civilians and help the rebels to win, neither the US nor any of its European allies have shown any interest in assuming the responsibility for state-building and a longer military engagement in that country.


Thus, while US unilateralism and regime-change policies were rather short-lived, one of the more enduring effects of the September 2001 attacks was the securitisation of foreign and domestic policies.

Europeans generally did not adopt the American “war on terror” terminology, and to accept its practical correlatives - detentions without trial, the rendition of suspects to countries with poor human-rights records, or targeted assassinations - as legitimate acts of state policies.

There were also differences regarding the degree to which authorities should be allowed to collect and exchange data or monitor communications of their citizens. But strong anti-terrorism laws were enacted on both sides of the Atlantic, and visa and immigration rules were hardened.

Most importantly, relations with middle-eastern and Muslim states were ever more seen through a security prism - which did not shed much light on aspects such as the nature of political systems, social and economic development, the quality of governance, or the freedom and dignity of the citizens of these countries. Not surprisingly, one of the first questions always asked with regard to the revolutions and uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and other Arab countries in 2010-11 was whether they would pose a threat to western security.

For Europeans particularly, security in their geopolitical environment has always been strongly connected to a notion of stability. Some part of the European opposition against the Iraq invasion had actually been based on the fear that this war would destabilise the whole region. As Iraq indeed fell into chaos, the Assads, Mubaraks and other Arab autocrats were happy to present themselves to European and, somewhat later, American decision-makers as the only remaining guarantors of stability. It is to a degree astonishing how successful they were in convincing their western counterparts that the only alternative to them was either anarchy, state failure or the takeover of radical Islamists - and, in any event, the spread of instability and terror.

Too many European (particularly southern European) and American policymakers chose to ignore or even justify human-rights violations, restrictions of political freedoms, corruption, and the dynastic ambitions of some Arab leaders, and too often they confused political stagnation with stability.

Europeans even accepted demands from Arab leaders to strengthen inter-governmental relations at the expense of civil-society contacts, which were previously an important aspect of Europe’s Mediterranean policy. This came at a cost. Among other things, it meant that emerging societal and political actors, such as the youth movements that triggered the Arab revolts and revolutions were not on the European radar.

A new prism

These uprisings have shown that there is a real alternative to the jihadist ideology of al-Qaida. People in the region are realising that they can change their countries through peaceful mass action. While his organisation is still there, the death of Osama bin Laden has in a way become a historical footnote to the wave of political change now sweeping through the Arab world.

Which also means that Europe and the US need to adjust the prism through which they have learned to see the region since 2001. The US needs to learn that a pure security approach will not work in the future. Regimes that cooperate in fighting terrorists are not necessarily partners to rely on. Europe for its part needs to redefine its concept of stability.

Stable societies and stable relations are indeed something worth striving for. However, there is a simple political-science insight that should be translated into foreign-policy thinking: namely, that real stability needs to be dynamic, based on equilibrium, and allow for change. 

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