Was 9/11 a turning point in world history? It is too soon to tell. After all, the lessons of World War I looked very different in 1939 than they did a mere decade after 1918.
As I argue in my book, “The Future of Power,” one of the great powers shifts of this century is the increased empowerment of nonstate actors, and 9/11 was a dramatic illustration of this long-term trend.
In 2001, an attack by nonstate actors killed more Americans than a government attack did at Pearl Harbor in 1941. But this “privatization of war” was occurring before 9/11, and some American government reports in the 1990s even warned it was coming.
The long-term effect of 9/11 depends on how the United States reacts and the lessons it has learned. In the short term of the past decade, the US has learned to take the new threat seriously and has improved its security procedures and been able to prevent a recurrence of 9/11. All that is to the good.
But there is a larger question about terrorism. Analysts often assume that victory goes to the side with more force or hard power, but in an information age success also depends on who has the better story.
Competing narratives matter. Terrorism is about narrative and political drama. The smaller actor cannot compete with the larger in terms of military might, but can use violent acts to set the world agenda and construct narratives that affect the soft power of its target.
Moreover, like ju jitsu, it can try to lure the larger actor into damaging itself, and in this, Osama bin Laden succeeded. With a very small investment, he produced significant effects, but he had help.
The crisis of September 11, 2001 produced an opportunity for George W. Bush to express a new narrative and vision of foreign policy for this century. But effective visions combine feasibility with the inspiration. Mr. Bush saw himself as a transformational leader. As Bob Woodward put it, “he likes to shake things up. That was the key to going into Iraq.” It is hard to envisage the Iraq War without 9/11.
By failing to understand the broader cultural and political context, however, Bush’s strategy made things worse. Whatever the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein, it did not address the problem of terrorism, and the costs far outweighed the benefits. The trillion dollars of unfunded costs of the Iraq War contributed to the American budget deficit that plagues the country today, and bin Laden was able to damage American hard power as well as soft.
But the real costs of 9/11 may be the opportunity costs. For most of the first decade of this century, as the world economy gradually shifted its center of gravity toward Asia, (the other great power shift I describe in my book), the United States was preoccupied with a mistaken war of choice in the Middle East.
The lesson of 9/11 is that in countering terrorism, hard military power is essential in dealing with hard cases like Bin Laden, but it has to be carefully targeted, and the soft power of attraction through ideas and legitimacy is equally important for winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream Muslim populations from whom Al Qaeda and its imitators would like to recruit.
Fortunately, American strategy after 9/11 has begun to change. The answer to the long term question about history will be whether we are successful in implementing a strategy that balances hard and soft power in counter-terrorism, avoids involvement in land wars of occupation, and focuses on maintaining the strength of the American economy.
If so, 9/11 may look less impressive as a historical turning point on its 20th anniversary.
This piece first appeared on the Power & Policy blog at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.