The real lessons from 9/11

THE ECONOMIST Sep 11th 2021 edition

Twenty years ago America set out to reshape the global order after the attacks on the twin towers. Today it is all too easy to conclude that its foreign policy has been abandoned on a runway in Kabul airport. Yet talk of American decline and isolationism is too pessimistic. The fall of Saigon did not lead to the West losing the cold war and America’s interests are more global than during its isolationist phase in the 1930s, with 39m jobs supported by trade and $33trn of foreign assets. President Joe Biden wants to rebuild American leadership. The danger is that his reductionist insistence that foreign policy serves America’s middle class leads to mistakes, protectionism and a China policy that looks remarkably like Donald Trump’s.

Zanny Minton Beddoes / Editor-In-Chief

Twenty years ago America set out to reshape the world order after the attacks of September 11th. Today it is easy to conclude that its foreign policy has been abandoned on a runway at Kabul airport. President Joe Biden says the exit from Afghanistan was about “ending an era” of distant wars, but it has left America’s allies distraught and its enemies gleeful. Most Americans are tired of it all: roughly two-thirds say the war wasn’t worth it. Yet the national mood of fatigue and apathy is a poor guide to America’s future role in the world. Its capabilities remain formidable and its strategy can be retooled for the 21st century, provided the right lessons are drawn from the post-9/11 era.

The murder of 3,000 people on American soil provoked a reaction that highlighted America’s “unipolar moment”. For a while, it appeared to have uncontested power. President George W. Bush declared that the world was either with America or against it. nato said the assault on the twin towers was an attack on all its members. Vladimir Putin pledged Russian military co-operation; Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, called this the real end of the cold war. The ease with which American-led forces routed the Taliban seemed to augur a new kind of light-touch warfare: 63 days after September 11th, Kabul fell. There have been enduring achievements since then. Counter-terrorism efforts have improved: Osama bin Laden is dead and no remotely comparable attack on America has succeeded. Lower Manhattan has been rebuilt in style.



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