At 8:45 a.m., Sept. 11, 2001, we were living in the post-Cold War era. At 9:37 a.m., just 52 minutes later, as the third hijacked airliner careened into the Pentagon, the post-9/11 era had begun. Everyone told us that everything had changed.
It was the beginning of a new chapter in history. The image of thousands of people perishing as the Twin Towers collapsed in a cascade of fire and dust, live on television, was a bookmark for the ages. There was a world before this tragedy, and then there was something very different that was about to follow. It is tempting to assume that this attitude was just another example of American narcissism. (The United States was attacked, so the world had changed.) But that wasn't the case. A poll taken shortly after the attacks by the Pew Research Center found a remarkable degree of agreement among opinion leaders around the world about what the September 11 attacks represented. In Western Europe, 76 percent of those polled said the events of that day had amounted to a turning point in world history. In Russia and Asia, 73 and 69 percent of people agreed. In the Middle East and Latin America, the percentage of opinion leaders who believed 9/11 marked the beginning of a new era rose to 90 percent. Rarely have so many agreed about the meaning of a single moment.
Five years on, this response must be understood as one being born out of shock. Certainly, for some, there could not have been a more life-changing moment. Collectively, we feared what was about to end. Globalization would surely grind to a halt. Borders -- in particular, the need to maintain them -- would undergo a renaissance as governments looked to shield themselves from the next attack. Global trade, capital flows, and immigration could no longer be what they once were. National economies would cool, as the realization of a "clash of civilizations" grew hot. Industries like tourism and air travel would be crippled.
Yet, if you look closely at the trend lines since 9/11, what is remarkable is how little the world has changed. The forces of globalization continue unabated; indeed, if anything, they have accelerated. The issues of the day that we were debating on that morning in September are largely the same. Across broad measures of political, economic, and social data, the constants outweigh the variations. And, five years later, the United States' foreign policy is marked by no greater strategic clarity than it had on Sept. 10, 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were theatrical terrorism of the worst kind. But, even in an age when image usually trumps substance, the tragic drama of that day did not usher in a new era. No, if there was a day that changed the world forever, it was 15 years ago, not five. New Year's Eve, 1991. It was on that day, far away from any cameras, that the Soviet Union finally threw in the towel, dissolving itself and officially bringing an end to the Cold War. From that moment on, the United States reigned supreme -- "the sole superpower," "the hyperpower," "the global hegemon," call it what you like. And from that moment on, the world was out of balance -- and it still is. The tragedy of 9/11 was a manifestation of the unipolar disorder the world had already entered a decade earlier. A day after 9/11, we were still living in the post-Cold War era, we still are today, and that is precisely the problem.
Where We Left Off
If you were in either of the two cities that were attacked on September 11, you might have picked up a copy of one of the daily newspapers. The headline of one story in the Washington Post read, "Israeli Tanks Encircle a City in West Bank." The front page of the New York Times led with a story headlined, "Scientists Urge Bigger Supply of Stem Cells." Inside the paper, readers might have also noticed a small item that read, "Iran: Denial on Nuclear Weapons." The headlines on that morning -- before the world learned of the attacks -- suggest that our pre-9/11 preoccupations are certainly not that different from those we carry today.
The global economy offered the first sign that a new, darker day hadn't dawned. On September 10, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 9,605.51. Once markets reopened on September 17, it took only 40 days for the market to close above that level again. The value of the United States' monthly exports has continued to rise steadily from $60 billion to more than $75 billion between 2001 and 2005. The value of global trade dipped slightly in 2001 from $8 trillion to $7.8 trillion. Then, once markets found their footing, they came racing back, increasing every subsequent year, topping $12 trillion in 2005. Hard-hit businesses such as the tourist industry bounced back remarkably fast. In 2001, more than 688 million tourists traveled abroad; by 2005, that number had climbed to 808 million -- a 17 percent increase in four years. Confidence returned so quickly that we are not even shying away from building skyscrapers. Fourteen buildings taller than the World Trade Center have either been built, proposed, or began construction since 9/11.
The United States' openness to the immigrants of the world was supposed to be another unfortunate casualty of September 11. University presidents, CEOs, and, of course, those seeking to immigrate for work or study, have complained loudly that the United States has fallen into a "Fortress America" mentality. It's a legitimate concern, but the picture is far less dire than they claim. For example, the United States granted far more worker visas in 2005 than in 1998, the heyday of America's triumphant, open-for-business dot-com boom. Last year, 255,993 student visas were handed out -- only 541 fewer than in 2002. Also in 2005, the United States rejected fewer foreigners for H1B visas -- the work permit given to those who have a special occupational expertise in, say, medicine, engineering, or science -- than in 2001; in fact, last year was the lowest refusal rate of the past 5 years. The number of people becoming American citizens is also on the rise. More foreigners were naturalized in 2005 than in 1998, and the number of naturalizations leapt 12 percent from 2004 to 2005. Overall levels of legal immigration may have fallen off somewhat since 2001, which was a high-water mark, but it's hardly the case that the United States is cutting itself off from the world's best and brightest.