9/11, 10 Years On: How the Attacks Changed Global Governance

September 9, 2011
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As the United States and the world prepare to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks this weekend, the milestone is also an occasion to reflect on why the profound events of that day have affected how – and by whom – the world is currently governed. From the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to today’s protest movements across the Arab world, we ask CIGI’s vice president of programs, David Dewitt, to explain how 9/11 has changed global governance.

CIGI: Prior to September 11, 2001, some global experts would have said that the United States was an unrivalled international superpower. Ten years later, there appears to be a very different picture, as the US "leads from behind" in Libya, and is much more fragile politically and economically. In hindsight, did 9/11 fundamentally change the trajectory of the global balance of power, or has it just accelerated a multipolar trend already in progress?

David Dewitt: First of all, in 2001 there were experts who didn’t think that the US was in that "unipolar moment" that Charles Krauthammer spoke about at the end of the Cold War where the United States was the unrivalled global power. In spite of declared American exceptionalism and what was then perceived as the triumph of market forces, there had not been a decade of peace. Significant conflicts occurred in Africa, East Asia and the heart of central Europe. The US — either unilaterally, or through the international community — was not terribly successful in determining the outcome of any of those. On paper, the US was the most powerful country in the world in the decade leading to 2001, but increasingly it lacked the political will to use that capacity. If there’s a lesson from the decade before 9/11, it’s that the world was becoming so complex, with challenges coming from so many directions, that the ability to act with impunity didn’t exist.

But did 9/11 make a difference? Sure it did. Whatever you want to call it — a watershed, a game changer, a break point — September 11, 2001 had an immediate and profound effect on the United  States, its Western allies and other states in the OECD, and the repercussions of that have spilled over into nearly every country in the world.

But it’s been well known — though maybe not well understood — that for the last 30 years or more, the dual processes of globalization and internationalization have challenged the global order, global institutions and the notion of sovereignty. September 11 was a game changer in what it meant to be secure, how individuals and communities felt increasingly vulnerable and how some countries approached defense, but I don’t see it as a game changer in the internationalization of global institutions. Multilateralism was already well underway, and global and regional institutions had to become more inclusive and efficient if they were to address the increasingly complex problems beyond the reach of individual states. The 9/11 attacks brought forth the need for the powerful to cooperate on intelligence and threat assessment, but also on a growing range of regulatory and management strategies.

After the 9/11 attacks, we initially saw an increase in multilateral cooperation — the establishment of the International Security Assistance Force for the war in Afghanistan, for example — but soon afterward, the highly contentious invasion and occupation of Iraq seemed to alter that common sentiment.  In your opinion, what impact has 9/11 had on the major global governance institutions?

Dewitt: Initially, the multilateral impact of 9/11 was seen through the United States seeking UN support to intervene in Afghanistan, targeting al-Qaeda and the Taliban, in recognition of their breech of international law. Moreover, the US also secured support from a broad range of countries, including those from within the region. Eventually NATO became another principal actor, with a coalition of countries supporting military action, but also development and state-building efforts.

Much of that changed when the Bush administration turned its focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, which I personally think was a terrible mistake. That shift not only undermined the credit that had been built up from working through the UN system and NATO, but also from using the military effort to bring in security sector reform, development and the PRT team to help rebuild the country’s administration. There were many who genuinely believed — in the shadow of the twin towers — that this was an effort to do something appropriate and justified. All that goodwill was torn asunder by the US invasion of Iraq, where you see the distortion of international law, and the erosion of the UN system. It fundamentally undermined the global credibility of American leadership, and has eaten away at any sense that the US leads by example. The United States may still lead, but it is seen by many to do so through coercive power and parochially defined self-interest.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 has approached, some have linked the attacks to today’s dominant world event — the political movements collectively known as the Arab Spring. What links, if any, do you see between these two watershed moments in global affairs?

Dewitt: I wouldn’t yet be confident in a direct cause and effect, but there is a lot of secondary and tertiary evidence that suggests the repercussions of 9/11 have helped fuel what we’ve seen in the Arab world over the last year — I don’t like the term "Arab Spring," I think it gives an erroneous view of what’s happening. But there are undoubtedly challenges to the existing order in the Arab world that have been caused by various aspects of 9/11, and, ironically, by what is seen as the inappropriate response to the attacks by the US and its allies, especially in terms of the construction of the so-called “war on terror.”

I think it’s still too early to tell, because much of what could be underlying these upheavals are the most recent manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism and local variants of Arab nationalism and ethnic or tribal politics. While many of these coalitions have had elements of progressive thought and involve intellectuals and others who desperately desire some version of liberal democracy and human rights, whether they’re going to be overtaken by competing interests, including Islamic fundamentalists, as occurred with the Iranian Revolution is still too early to tell.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.