Professor Roland Dannreuther, Head of Department of Politics and International Relations
The French scholar, Raymond Aron, observed that ‘an act of violence is labelled “terrorist” when its psychological effects are out of proportion to its purely physical results’. This understanding of the internal meaning of terrorism reveals both the strategic significance of the terrorist acts of 9/11 and their ultimate strategic irrelevance.
The strategic significance derives from the psychological impact of the terrorist acts of 9/11 and how they shifted strategic priorities and national security strategies. For the US population, so long seemingly invulnerable to external attack due to history and geography, the shock was deep and acute. The attacks struck a raw existential nerve over the dislike and hatred of the United States found in many parts of the world. A retributive response to silence these critics, of which al-Qaeda appeared as just the tip of an iceberg, appeared imperative.
At this strategic moment, the Bush administration shifted direction. Up until 9/11, the administration had adopted a relatively cautious realist-driven foreign policy, focusing on the great powers, such as Russia and China, and seeking to avoid the interventions and state-building exercises in failed states which had characterised the Clinton years. In the aftermath of 9/11, the traditional realists were out-manoeuvred by the so-called neo-conservatives, who superimposed a realist concern with military power onto a neo-Wilsonian liberal internationalism, promoting a global agenda of the external imposition of neo-liberal capitalism and representative democracy.
This neo-conservatism was also rooted in a dissident minority position during the Cold War. This group had been deeply sceptical of any negotiations or compromises with the Soviet Union. In the post-9/11 world, it was similarly believed that diplomacy and negotiations were to yield place to military force and coercion. There could be no more compromises or negotiations over the Middle East and military power could bring about the desired radical transformation of the region. It was this logic, driven internally by a traumatised US population and a radical neo-conservative administration, which led to the interventions into Afghanistan and Iraq.
Globally, the ‘war on terrorism’ supported what might be called a new ‘Secular Alliance’, a counterpart to the ‘Holy Alliance’ of the nineteenth century. This Secular Alliance included a wide range of authoritarian secular nationalist states, such as China, Russia, the majority of the Arab states, who relished the opportunity to repress their own citizens and their own minority groups, such as the Chechens and Tibetans, in the name of the global ‘war against terrorism’. They could also do this with US and Western support; and, at the same time, benefit from the growing popular resentment at the failures of the US, UK and NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan.
9/11 did, therefore, have a strategic significance in these shifts in strategy and policy. This was due to 9/11’s psychological impact. But the ultimate strategic irrelevance of 9/11 comes from the strictly limited physical reality which underlay its psychological impact. For a terrorist act by a non-state actor, the 3,000 killed was disproportionate to any other previous terrorist attack. But these casualties are nevertheless a relatively small number compared to the causalities in even a smallest of civil wars; there is also a sense that this time, and somewhat exceptionally, the terrorists ‘struck lucky’ in the size and magnitude of the results of the attack. Madrid in 2003 and London in 2005 could only partially emulate this.
Without diminishing the toll caused by these attacks, the physical reality is that they did not, in themselves, represent a serious strategic threat to the security of the US or other Western states. As Fawaz Gerges and Olivier Roy show, al-Qaeda was never the Islamo-Fascist threat akin to Nazism as advocated by the neo-cons. It influence and power was always limited. al–Qaeda emerged as a result of the failure of radical Islamism to disrupt the existing regimes in the Middle East. The globalization of their strategy was more an outcome of their popular failure than their success. With the US invasion of Iraq and the solemn proclamation of the ‘war against terrorism’, Osama bin Laden certainly became a cult figure among the young and alienated – a Muslim ‘Che Guevara’ with wrist watches and t-shirts adorned with his image. Many Islamo-nationalist insurgencies around the world also willingly assumed the al-Qaeda franchise since that gave them an enhanced menace and global image. But, as the Arab Spring decisively demonstrated, al-Qaeda and this particular variant of Islamist neo-fundamentalism lacks a resonance and a grounded popularity on the Arab and Muslim street.
The strategic irrelevance of 9/11 is also due to the fact that the really significant shifts since 2001 have been occurring in the economic and not the military-political spheres. During the 2000s, there was an extraordinary shift of manufacturing industries away from the West to China and to other emerging countries. Due to this boom in manufacturing and the corresponding rise in the prosperity of countries like China and India, primary commodities and key resources, such as oil and copper, gained rapidly in value. This in turn significantly improved the economic situation in resource-rich countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. For the resource-importing West, now having divested itself of much of its manufacturing capacity, salvation appeared to come from the ‘new virtual economy’ and from the deregulated financial services industry. The instability of these sectors of the economy, as seen the dotcom crash of 2000 and the 2009-10 financial crisis, has finally laid bare the new geo-economic and geo-strategic reality.
In this larger context, 9/11 is an historical foot-note to a much larger story of the growing convergence, led currently by China, of different parts of the post-colonial world with the West. This is a moment of enormous significance and represents a final closure of the ‘Great Divergence’ which had led the West to gain its temporary superiority from the 18th century onwards. 9/11 helped to accelerate this process by leading the US to suffer, using Paul Kennedy’s phrase, from ‘imperial overstretch’. But the writing is now clearly on the wall. International Relations will now be profoundly different. But not due to the events of 9/11 but from more profound and longer-term shifts in power.