Five years after 9/11: a shifted view of the world
The winners and losers that are still churning the world's politics.
WASHINGTON AND LONDON
Old allies have become wary of one another, if not openly suspicious. Sensing inattention, small rogue nations may have decided it is time to make trouble. Two wars have begun, and their ends do not yet appear in sight. Less noticed, a quiet empire continues to rise in the East.Skip to next paragraph
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The world today is a very different place from the way it was on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
In one sense that statement is obvious. Five years is a long time in geopolitics. The world turns, whatever terrorists do.
But half a decade on, it also seems clear that Al Qaeda's attacks and the US response have helped move the metaphorical tectonic plates of the globe.
Besides direct effects, such as the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the reverberations from 9/11 may include a new general organizing principle for international affairs.
The cold war was about the Western and communist blocs, and their values, conflicts, and internal cracks. The current period is about the US and the Islamic world – their mutual suspicions and occasional cooperation, and the wedge Al Qaeda has tried to drive between them.
"Five years in, it is now clear that the 9/11 attacks created a new dynamic for global politics, and thus American foreign policy, centering around the changed relationship between a state and a religion," argues Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
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Some experts claim that Sept. 11 was a day in which not much changed in regards to the interrelations of the nations and cultures of the world.
Globalization today continues unabated. The world economy hasn't collapsed. Immigrants, legal and otherwise, continue to flock into the US.
On the morning of Sept. 11, the Washington Post carried a page 1 story: "Israeli Tanks Encircle a City in West Bank." That day's New York Times had an inside piece on "Iran Denial on Nuclear Weapons."
Such headlines "suggest that our pre-9/11 preoccupations are certainly not that different from those we carry today," writes William Dobson, managing editor of Foreign Policy, in the current issue.
True, anti-Americanism is on the rise. Radical Islamists have declared holy war on the US, its Western allies, and Saudi Arabia and other long-standing Arab regimes.
But these trends date from the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of the US as a global hegemon, states Mr. Dobson. The shock of Sept. 11 simply made Americans aware of what the world was already like.
"The attacks ... have not altered the balance of power," he writes. "Instead, they only aggravated differences in the imbalance that already existed."
Others say that the strikes made Americans feel their vulnerability – and that such a shift in self-image is itself a profound change. Absent 9/11, the US would have been highly unlikely to invade Afghanistan. Absent Afghanistan, the Bush administration might have faced insuperable military and political problems with regard to the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
And it is the presence of large numbers of US troops which has helped spur anti-Americanism in the region. Those troops may have given disaffected Muslims, unhappy with the shortcomings of their own economic and political structures, something else on which to focus their ire.
Much of the hostility that some Islamists bear toward the US "is driven by one of the most powerful of human emotions, a sense of indignity and humiliation," says Lawrence Harrison, an adjunct lecturer in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "That's a quite new foreign- policy problem."
Overall, Islamic jihadism is one of the biggest geopolitical winners of the past five years, according to Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.
Before Sept. 11, the beliefs represented by Osama bin Laden represented a "niche ideology," Mr. Daalder writes in his Web log at TPMCafe.com. But the US invasion of Iraq, coupled with wide publicity of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse and other US abuses, has fueled the rage of millions in the region and pushed them toward Islam's radical fringe.
Rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea have also benefited from the changed world of 9/11, according to Daalder. The US has focused its power and attention elsewhere, allowing them to push forward with domestic nuclear programs.
"The final clear winner is China, which during the past five years has emerged as a dominant global player without anyone, at least in America or Europe, paying it much attention," writes Daalder.