Feature

The Day Nothing Much Changed

We were told the world would never be the same. But did 9/11 actually alter the state of global affairs? For all the sound and fury, the world looks much like it did on September 10.

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.

Surely, though, there is a growing gulf between America and the world. Otherwise, how could anyone explain the mounting anti-Americanism in recent years? It is true that anti-American sentiment runs wide and deep today, but it is also true that it is not new. Europeans had only slightly more confidence in President George W. Bush than in Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of 9/11. In an August 2001 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, strong majorities -- more than 70 percent -- of four West European nations characterized the Bush administration as unilateralist. They held this opinion before the war on terror or the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which in their execution are far more responsible for the current antipathy toward the United States than anything else.

Anti-Americanism, however, has a far longer lineage than the Bush administration. Its roots are in the world's collective fear that U.S. preeminence would become so great that the United States would come to dominate others. In 1983, a Newsweek poll conducted by the Gallup Organization found that in six countries, Brazil, Britain, France, Japan, Mexico, and West Germany, only the Brazilians approved of U.S. government policy. In the same poll, a majority in Brazil, Japan, and Mexico believed that a strong U.S. military presence around the world increased the chance of war.

Sensibly, those fears grew with the end of the superpower contest. In 1995, in a survey conducted by the United States Information Agency, majorities around the world said that the United States was intent on dominating them. Even with a president as beloved abroad as Bill Clinton, America was considered a bully by 83 percent of people polled in Israel, 77 percent in Morocco, 71 percent in Colombia, and 61 percent in Britain. In December 2001, resentment of U.S. power was still the leading reason for disliking the United States in Europe, Russia, and Latin America, and a close second everywhere else. But the fact that anti-Americanism has spiked since the U.S. invasion of Iraq is, again, entirely sensible. For the rest of the world, it is the realization of the fears of American dominance that they have long harbored.

What Has Changed

In 2002, then National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said of the time following September 11: "I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947 in that the events ... started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics." Of course, it is tempting to see 9/11 as the beginning of a new era. Destruction as unexpected and dramatic as occurred on that day almost demands a label or name all its own. But the plates had already shifted 10 years earlier. The United States was a target on September 11 because it was perceived to be the global hegemon. Al Qaeda's efforts to overthrow the Arab regimes had been an abysmal failure in the 1990s. Unable to accomplish his objectives in the Arab world, Osama bin Laden plotted to strike the "faraway enemy," the United States. By striking at the colossus, which for decades had helped shore up the bedrock of Arab regimes, bin Laden hoped to remake the world. What Rice saw on September 11 was an explosion that had been building for some time.

The attacks of September 11 have not altered the balance of power. Instead, they only aggravated differences in the imbalance that already existed. Perhaps the truest thing that changed because of 9/11 was the way in which the Pentagon’s budget soared. The American military's budgeted defense spending grew 39 percent between 2001 and 2006. Put another way, in 2001, the United States' military expenditure of $325 billion was the same as the next 14 biggest militaries combined. By 2005, the Pentagon was outspending the next 14 militaries by $116 billion.

This monumental increase in military spending has helped finance the U.S. war on terror and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. And some would argue that these campaigns, and the general American foreign policy that has undergirded them, have made the world a far more dangerous place for everyone -- everyone, that is, except Americans. Consider that between Sept. 12, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2005, 18,944 people around the world died in acts of terrorism. Only eight of those deaths were on American soil.

If the world resented the imbalance between the United States and everyone else before September 11, you can understand how that resentment could be so much greater today. The gulf between the United States and the rest of the world has only grown wider. For better or worse, only when the international system achieves some sort of balance -- whether it happens because of others' progress, American decline, or both -- will the post-Cold War era come to a close. Until then, 1991 will remain the year that matters most.

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