One World Trade Center (WTC) iin Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S., on Monday, 29 July 2019 | Photo Michael Nagle | Bloomberg
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The anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks is in a sort of transition phase. The wounds are no longer fresh after 18 years, but the terrible day is not yet enshrined in the deep historical past. That makes it a good time to take stock of what’s been achieved in the fight against global terrorism, and what remains to be done.

I can think of no better person to discuss this than Philip Zelikow. Now a professor of governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, Zelikow had a long career inside government, rising to counselor of the State Department under President George W. Bush. But he’s best known for his role as executive director of the federal 9/11 Commission, and thus is the primary author of the commission’s report on the attacks. (If you haven’t read it, you must: It’s not only an exhaustive examination of what went wrong, it reads like a page-turning spy novel.)

This week, Zelikow and an old pal from his government days, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have a new book coming out, “To Build a Better World: Choices to End the Cold War and Create a Global Commonwealth.” It’s a work of policy and anecdote from inside the effort to remake the world after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, a topic that’s particularly timely given the efforts of China, Russia and, sadly, President Donald Trump’s America to shake that world at its foundations. Here is an edited transcript of a conversation we had this week:

Tobin Harshaw: Before we get to the lessons of the more distant past, let’s start with those of this sad anniversary. Of the recommendations in the 9/11 report, can you name one on which there’s been good progress?

Philip Zelikow: We’ve made it far harder for Islamist extremist groups to form and operate safely inside the U.S. The 9/11 hijackers both trained and staged here, and that now seems less likely. Unfortunately, the danger has mutated into gun-wielding mass murderers, many of whom are white nationalists.

TH: Is the progress against the Islamist terrorists due largely to the Patriot Act and other national security and surveillance measures?

PZ: No, it’s not just that. We’ve developed a lot of capabilities for protecting the country internally that are not necessarily captured in legislation. Both in the FBI and in various municipal agencies – look at the way the New York Police Department has changed the way it staffs counterterrorism since 9/11 – there’s a large story there. In general, there has just been a much greater consciousness of the danger, which has led to improved capabilities in many ways. All the best defenses are layered defenses in which no one layer does all the work.

TH: The terrorists are still going to be active abroad. For example, much of the discussion about withdrawing from Afghanistan centers on whether it would become a safe haven for terrorists. Do you buy into the safe haven theory?

PZ: The 9/11 commission helped cement the safe haven theory. We argued that that if you let the sanctuary develop to a certain point, the enemy can build capabilities that can be very dangerous. The problem then is, where to draw the line, as to what Americans need to do and how to do it. People are worried that if we withdraw entirely from Afghanistan, it will slide into civil war and it could become a safe haven for Islamist groups. But I can make that same argument not only about Afghanistan but also about Yemen, Libya, Syria, Somalia and more. If this is going to force us to maintain large American forces in all those countries and more, and to take sides in the civil wars in all those countries, it’s an impossible prescription.

TH: That’s too many fingers in the dike.

PZ: Nor are these military measures the best ways to build these states up to be more resistant. It involves a lot of difficult political and economic and social efforts in which the U.S. also needs to engage constructively, but which mainly people don’t have the patience or interest to understand or pursue.

TH: Going back to 9/11 and your new book with Condi Rice, “To Build a Better World,” one thing I’d forgotten was that on the day after the attacks, Bush had a long phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, leading to a partnership. That has dissolved into acrimony today. Is there any chance of resolving our issues with Russia?

PZ: In the book, we argued that the break with Russia did not really occur decisively until the mid-2000s. Rather than treat this as a story of Russian villainy, we treat it as a rather sad and complex tragedy. But since the mid-2000s, Putin has structured his politics and his regime around the idea of the American enemy and the danger posed by free societies, the danger not just politically or militarily, but even culturally, with Putin portraying free societies as culturally degenerate. Even if you have some good discussions with Putin on policy, you’re not going to be able to reverse the whole way in which he has structured his reason for having supreme power.

TH: One of Putin’s great complaints with the U.S. and the West was the expansion of NATO. There are many people in the foreign-policy establishment today who look back at that as having been a mistake. What’s your feeling in retrospect?

PZ: Our book offers a balanced discussion of exactly what happened, and when and why the key decisions were made. I was not a big advocate of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the early 1990s. I mainly thought that we needed to concentrate on other problems that were more urgent, like the wars in the Balkans. But the theory that NATO expansion is the reason for the break with Russia is substantially wrong. It was a source of tension, but probably the worst source of tension in the whole 1990s was the war over Kosovo in 1998 and 1999, which really tore the relationship with Boris Yeltsin and left a lot of sore feelings when Putin came to power.

The decisive causes for the break with Russia were during the 2000s. Putin came to believe that the West in general was adopting a freedom agenda in which it was going to try to replay the revolutions of 1989 – which he had personally experienced in East Germany – in Eastern Europe. So at that point the eastward expansion of Western institutions became an essential Russian concern, especially the desire of Ukraine to join the West. This was not just NATO – Ukrainian membership in NATO was blocked in 2008 by other NATO members, mainly Germany. More important was the expansion of the European Union. Putin thought these moves were stages in bringing a freedom revolution to Russia. And he reacted very strongly to that, including beginning the war against Ukraine in 2014.

File photo of 9/11 attack
File photo of 9/11 attack | Representational image | Flickr

TH: How do we deal with him today?

PZ: I think many Americans don’t appreciate that the main sanctions now on Russia are being developed and enforced by the Europeans, not by the U.S. Russia wants economic relations much more with Europe than it wants them with the U.S. The Europeans are standing up for these sanctions because of course they care a lot about a breakdown of European security – they care far more, frankly, than the current American government does.

TH: Trump has behaved terribly to some of those European leaders, criticizing them openly and straining those ties. Can those bridges be mended by another administration, or is there lasting damage?

PZ: There is some lasting damage. Europeans now have a deeper and more tragic sense of what is possible, not just with the U.S., but in their own continent and in their own countries. That was a reason we wrote our new book about the way the modern world was created at the beginning of the 1990s. People on both sides of the Atlantic – and actually in Asia – are now questioning that whole system. So if that system needs to be reinvented, we thought it was essential to understand how and why that commonwealth of free nations got invented in the first place.

One crucial issue about the future then is simply to ask: Do Americans want partnerships with Europe for common action? Do Europeans want partnerships with Americans for common action? I think for most Europeans and most Americans, the answer to both of those questions is yes. Next question: Can Europeans and Americans find the leaders who can then craft those partnerships and make them practical? You need principles, partnerships and practicality, and all those have to come together through leaders.

TH: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her way out. French President Emmanuel Macron seems to be trying to grab her mantle of European leadership. Are there others who can do what you describe?

PZ: It’s hard to predict who will be the leaders of Europe two, three or five years from now. If it’s any reassurance, I will tell you that in the mid-1980s, no one thought that German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was the great visionary of Europe’s future. He seemed like a prudent, stable, bourgeois conservative.

TH: Sometimes it’s all about circumstances, right?

PZ: Correct. Sometimes the combination of circumstances and people and their principles come together. It wasn’t just Kohl who did it, and it wasn’t just French President Francois Mitterrand, and wasn’t just President George H.W. Bush. They were, say, radical pragmatists.

TH: That’s a great term.

PZ: They were people of prudent temperament, yet because they were so intensely practical, they were willing to put their foot on the accelerator and transform Germany at the fastest possible pace, transform NATO, transform the international financial and trade institutions, transform the United Nations – all because that seemed to be practical under the circumstances.

TH: Let’s go to China. Do you believe in the Thucydides Trap – the idea that the U.S. and China are destined to go to war?

PZ: I do not. Is there a danger of conflict with the rising China? Of course there is. But we’re not destined for war. My reading of history is not nearly so deterministic. And I don’t think the Chinese themselves have figured out where they will be and what they want to be even five or 10 years from now. They’re encountering a lot of difficulties in making the next stages of economic growth. They’re approaching their peak population now, and then their population is going to shrink and rapidly age.

The situation with China is worse than it was five years ago. This is because of developments on both sides of the Pacific, and the way China is governed. But we stress in our new book that we don’t regard a warlike confrontation as inevitable. And we don’t think that appeals to analogies to the Cold War are all that useful in helping work on the policy problems. The irony is that it’s the Chinese who now claim to want to be world leaders and builders of global institutions, while the U.S. is walking away from those institutions.

TH: We walk out on the Trans-Pacific Partnership while they are building their Belt and Road.

PZ: They’re the ones trying to offer global leadership and global partnerships. And although we’re trying to counter a little bit with arguments about the Indo-Pacific world, if you talked to leaders in Australia or India or Japan, I think they would privately have some very different advice for the U.S. about how best to compete during these difficult times.

TH: Do you think that the global network of allies is just trying to wait Trump out?

PZ: It depends who you’re talking about in these countries, because they’re split and divided, too – some Australian politicians think Trump is great. But I think in general they find themselves caught in a crossfire. What they want is for the U.S. to figure out how to constructively lead in partnerships. And then you ask yourself: Partnerships to do what? Do we want an open world economic system? It’s not clear at the moment that we do – but almost all of our Asian partners do want such a system. Well, if we want an open economic system, we’re going to have to build that through partnerships, not on our own. If we want to have cybersecurity and have a 21st-century internet that serves our interests and doesn’t just create new digital divides, we’re going to need partners in building that world too.

TH: Speaking of partnerships, let’s end with yours with Condoleezza Rice. Can you just talk a little bit about that collaboration?

PZ: Fortunately, we’ve known each other for more than 30 years – each of us knows what the other’s strengths and weaknesses are, and which roles each of us can best play. For example: She reads Russian, I don’t; I can read German, she can’t. There are some subjects that she looks to me to take the lead in writing about. And then there are other subjects where I kind of want her to do the first draft. And then we each make our contributions, trade our drafts. But one reason we worked well together in government is because we often think alike, and share a pretty similar interpretation of contemporary history. – Bloomberg 

Also read: Al Qaeda recruited 40,000 new fighters since 9/11 attacks. Clearly, the US Army failed


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