Five years after 9/11: a shifted view of the world

The winners and losers that are still churning the world's politics.

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.

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.

* * *

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 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.

Losers over the past five years include bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Radical Islamism may be on the rise, but it has become dispersed as US forces have hunted and smashed Al Qaeda's direct organization.

Trust in the US has also eroded substantially since 9/11, according to Daalder, among friends as well as adversaries. International cooperation on a wide range of problems, from counter-proliferation to global warming, is thus "increasingly absent," he claims.

But international cooperation played a large role in last month's arrests in England of suspects charged with planning to destroy transatlantic aircraft. And other experts say Europe is increasingly aware that it may be the terrorists' new focus.

* * *

If 9/11 was an alarm bell, it took Europe a long time to stir.

Months went by, years even, before it began to wake up to the dangers posed by terrorists. After all, until that point, all the major Al Qaeda attacks had targeted American interests. Although Europeans understood that the world had changed, they didn't sense they were vulnerable.

"When the attack took place in America, it should have served as a major wake-up call for Europeans, but it didn't," says M.J. Gohel, a terrorism expert and director of the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation think tank. "Security services were growing concerned about the threat, but at the political level there was failure, no strategy devised."

That only changed when the terror threat erupted on European soil, first in Madrid in 2004, and then a year later in London. After Madrid, the European Union appointed an antiterror chief, Gijs de Vries. But Mr. de Vries's role is restricted; he has little executive authority.

Part of Europe's problem, as ever, is its patchwork nature. Some countries, particularly those with troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, feel more exposed than others, and hence feel greater urgency to act. Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark, which arrested a suspected terror cell last week, feel they are among the most vulnerable. Finland and Slovenia may feel relatively immune by contrast.

Another problem is the differing legal and judicial systems in the different countries. Some have muscular laws for detaining suspects; others do not. Some have brought in robust, even authoritarian antiterror laws; others have not. Some have tolerated firebrand clerics spouting hate in mosques; others have taken a dim view of such antics, and have deported the culprits.

"There are now 25 countries in the EU, whereas the US is just one country," says Mr. Dohel. "The US can seal its borders and coordinate action with its centralized intelligence agencies. In Europe, we're expanding our borders without any centralized intelligence agencies brought into place."

In this context, the sharing of important information can be a problem. For example, the alleged plot to blow up trans atlantic airlines was uncovered by close collaboration between British, US, and Pakistani intelligence services. Other European agencies were frozen out, not out of pique or negligence, but to prevent a leak, which might have compromised the operation.

The hundreds of arrests across Europe in recent years suggest that police and intelligence agencies have upped their game. Yet there have been few successful prosecutions. In Britain, for example, there have been some 1,000 arrests since 9/11 under terrorism legislation, but barely 20 convictions.

* * *

While Europe may have become a target and center of operations for terrorist cells, the US and Islam are the two poles around which 21st-century geopolitics may increasingly revolve.

This does not necessarily mean that the world is enduring a "clash of civilizations," as defined by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's 1996 book of that name. Dr. Huntington himself has said that hasn't happened; and that Islam and the West now simply have many issues between them, with some handled more successfully than others.

Many Muslims see Al Qaeda killing other Muslims in the name of religion, and are repulsed. As Sunni–Shiite violence in Iraq shows, Islam isn't homogeneous.

"You have a lot of complexity within Islam itself," says Mr. Harrison.

Yet on one thing Muslims appear to agree: nearly 90 percent of the public in Islamic countries view the US as the primary security threat to their country, according to Mr. Singer.

The events of 9/11 have opened the world's eyes to a new conflict, driven by mutual hurt, fear, and suspicion.

"The conflict is not a battle between, but rather a battle within. It is not two blocs locked in battle ... but about a new global construct of mutual insecurity that has emerged," writes Singer in his analysis of the events of 9/11 five years on.

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