It wasn’t difficult to do so just twelve months after the occurrence of the most violent, destructive and shocking act of war inflicted on any advanced country — perhaps on any country, in terms of its shock value, coming straight out of a sunny blue sky — since 1945. Now, 20 years later, everyone who were adults then can still recall what they were doing when they heard the news that four commercial aircraft had been hijacked and used as missiles, against America’s financial capital and its political capital, killing nearly 3,000 people and injuring many more in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. But as the commentary surrounding America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last month has shown, memories of how the world was in 2001 and of the impact of that act of war both on the United States and on the rest of the West are much less clear.
As fortune would have it, I was in New York on that fateful day having assigned myself to write a special essay for The Economist about, guess what, America’s role in the world, an essay which of course had to be postponed. That morning began with breakfast at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the man who later became President Obama’s special envoy for “Af-Pak”, as he called it, and who at that point was most notable for having brokered the Dayton Accords which in 1995 ended the first and worst phase of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Much of our discussion centred on Holbrooke’s opinion that the newly elected President George W. Bush was an ignoramus as far as foreign affairs were concerned. We were both due to catch flights that morning from La Guardia airport, Holbrooke to Dallas and me to Washington, so he had his car waiting outside to take us both there. Stepping out of the Carlyle we learned from his assistant that a plane had hit the twin towers. It was only on the way out to the airport that the magnitude of what had happened began to dawn upon us, with the second plane hitting. The rest, as they say, is history.
As we reflect now on that day, on what transpired and where we are now, it is important first to recall what was happening during the 12 months before 9/11. Two points stand out. One is that during the presidential election campaign of 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in a close race ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, the future President Bush attacked the Clinton-Gore administration for being excessively interventionist overseas, and in particular for conducting what some critical scholars had condemned as “foreign policy as social work”. Nation-building was definitely not on the agenda.
The other point to recall is that until 9/11, just one international issue had dominated the new Bush administration. This was the mid-air collision in April between a US surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet, in which the Chinese pilot died and the US plane and its crew were forced to land on China’s Hainan Island where they were held for 10 days. Communication between Beijing and Washington proved slow and tense. The idea that US-China rivalry, both military and economic, would henceforth be the central concern of US foreign policy took a firm hold. Until 9/11, that is.
We can see that we have now gone full circle, back to where we started in early 2001: American opinion, in both political parties, is firmly set against nation-building overseas; the Taliban are back in power in Kabul; and US-China rivalry is the central concern of US foreign policy.
Thinking back to that terrible American morning two decades ago, we should ask ourselves three main questions.
The first is whether, on being hit by another surprise act of war of that nature, America or other major powers would react in any other way than to declare war on the perpetrator. 9/11 is the only time in NATO’s history that its Article V provision, under which an attack on one member country is treated as an attack on all, has been invoked. And we should remember that one week after 9/11 there began a series of attacks using anthrax bacteria, which killed five people and contributed to the atmosphere of fear and war. The fact that these still unresolved attacks later turned out to be unconnected to Al-Qaeda and probably had domestic origins does not alter their immediate impact.
The answer to that first question is surely that if such an event happened again, a wider conflict would again be inevitable. I spent the days after 9/11 staying with some friends at Yale University and took part in several discussions among academics about what had happened. I don’t recall a single person doubting that the US was likely to invade Afghanistan, nor arguing against it.
The second question should be this: given that Al-Qaeda’s ambition was to provoke such a wider conflict, will future historians conclude that Osama bin Laden and his group therefore were the winners?
Certainly, the wider conflict that occurred, first in Afghanistan and then by the US’s own choice in Iraq, showed America’s limitations, both of military power and of competence. But nonetheless it cannot be judged to have been the success that Al-Qaeda really wanted, and not just because bin Laden himself was killed in Pakistan in 2011. This is because the conflict has not led to a truly widespread uprising by Jihadi Islamist sympathisers and has not resulted in extensive moves towards any Islamic Caliphate, which is what was hoped for. There are now many Jihadi groups, especially in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, but none is powerful. After 20 years if the best that can be said is that the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan and that plenty of Jihadi groups still exist, then these long wars should be considered a failure not just for America but also for Al-Qaeda.
The third question brings us to the state of international order. We should ask ourselves whether these two decades of “forever wars” have made a material difference to the international balance of power and to the likelihood of future major conflict. The answer, in my view, is that they have made surprisingly little difference.
President Bush defined America’s enemy as an “axis of evil” involving Iran, Iraq and North Korea, all of whom he labelled as sponsors of international terrorism and proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. Yet Iraq turned out to have only a pretend nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programme, and both Iran and North Korea still have their programmes. The danger of state or terrorist attacks using such weapons is essentially unchanged – or perhaps enhanced, in the case of biological attacks, thanks to potential inspiration from the coronavirus pandemic. Regions such as the Middle East and Central Asia that had experienced long wars during the 1980s have now had more long wars and remain politically volatile. President Bush blurred his own vision by defining his strategy simultaneously as a fight against an evil axis of states and as a “war on terror” confronting Jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda. A desire to disentangle links between states and such terrorist groups ended up reinforcing and ultimately multiplying those links.
The big failure was that it did not prove possible for the US, or the wider West, to build a sufficiently broad international coalition to confront Al-Qaeda and its emulators and to diminish their influence. Around both Afghanistan and Iraq too many of the frontline states had a powerful interest in fostering instability and supporting insurgent or terrorist groups rather than in collaborating in the fight against them.
It is possible that future historians will conclude that the 9/11 act of war triggered off a long period of American decline, both of economic strength and political will. But those historians should also note that the European Union did not fare materially better. And we contemporary observers should note that it is too soon to be sure that the US is in decline, despite all its flaws and social fractures, just as it was after the failure in Vietnam in 1975 and the concurrent constitutional crisis of the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Its resources and its capacity for renewal remain considerable.
We should, however, end with a further reflection about the present day, and about how the world has evolved during the pandemic. Like in April 2001 at the time of the Hainan spyplane incident, the rivalry, hostility and often poor communications between the US and China have taken centre stage. In the face of a transnational threat, the coronavirus, that has been far more universal and egalitarian in its impact than Jihadi terrorism, the world has nevertheless not come together. Instead, the pandemic has become a tool of systemic rivalry between the US and China, deepening the hostility between them, worsening communications and widening the divide. In 20 years’ time, when we look back at this time of breakdown of global collaboration and neutering of global institutions, will we think of it as having been the worst moment of that breakdown or as having been just the beginning? The question is unanswerable, but of fundamental importance.
Bill Emmott is a writer and ex-editor of @theeconomist. Views are personal.
The article originally appeared on Substack under Bill Emmott’s Global View.