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9/20/01: The day that changed everything

September 20, 2006

William Dobson has a piece in the current issue of Foreign Policy (subscription required, but I’ll bet if you google around you can find a copy of the text someplace) provocatively titled “The Day Nothing Much Changed.” In brief, Dobson argues that the terrorist attacks didn’t change much about world politics, and that the really important change happened fifteen years earlier when the Soviet Union broke up — the system went from bipolar to unipolar, with all of the attendant instability of a unipolar world simply waiting for an opportune moment to manifest itself. It just so happened that 11 September 2001 was a good day for such a manifestation to break forth.

I think Dobson’s both right and wrong. He’s right that nothing that happened on 11 September 2001 changed much, but he’s wrong about why — and he’s wrong about nothing fundamental having changed in world politics since the Soviet Union broke up. Indeed, today is the fifth anniversary of the really important change: it’s the fifth anniversary of the proclamation of the American Imperium. Five years ago today, Bush addressed a joint session of Congress and proclaimed:

Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes . . . we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.

Goodbye sovereignty, hello empire.

Lest you think that I’m exaggerating here, consider for a moment what the ideal-typical principle of state sovereignty means. Ever since it was first articulated, state sovereignty has involved two important components: the mutual recognition of sovereign states by one another, and the associated norm of non-intervention that permitted each sovereign state to regulate its own affairs within its own territorial borders. Together, these principles constituted the basis for “the international system,” that conceptual object to which scores of Introduction to International Relations courses sought to introduce generations of students — the conceptual scaffolding that made sense of such practices as diplomatic immunity, formal declarations of war, diplomatic protocol, and so on.

Granted, the principle of sovereignty is ideal-typical, not descriptive; actual world politics has always been characterized by violations of the principle. But nevertheless, state sovereignty provided the implicit or explicit organizing principle for inter-state relations, and the context within which countless state actions made sense. Indeed, the fact that interventions had to be justified — and justified carefully at that — stands as testimony to the importance of the principle.

The reason that 20 September 2001 is so important is that on that day Bush did something that I’d been joking with my IR classes about for years. “What would it take for the US to stop being a sovereign state?” I’d ask them, and eventually we’d arrive at the answer: if the US declared that it wasn’t going to play by the rules of sovereignty any more, if it was going to stop recognizing other states and declare that it would violate territorial integrity whenever it felt like it, it wouldn’t be a sovereign state any longer, it would be an empire. Why an empire? Because empires have frontiers, not borders, and they don’t recognize any regime other than their own as really legitimate.

Scroll up and look at that excerpt from Bush’s speech again. Look hard. What’s he saying? It’s not far from “we reserve the right to intervene wherever we want to, whenever we want to, and to hell with your protestations about the integrity of your precious ‘sovereign territorial state.’ You’re either with us — or you’re on the list of places that we might intervene next, because after all, nothing’s stopping us from doing so except that maybe we haven’t gotten around to intervening in your neighborhood yet.” That sounds to me suspiciously like what an empire might say — and it sounds quite far from what a sovereign state might say.

The other reason why this, and not the anniversary that the country celebrated last week, is the really important date to mark is that it is also the five year anniversary of the transformation of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 into ‘9/11’, a political and rhetorical commonplace that both highlights certain aspects of the events of nine days earlier and links that account of events to a very definite course of action. The events of 11 September 2001 were puzzling, confusing, and ambiguous; no one really knew what we should do about them, and there were a lot of options floating around in the week or so afterwards. But ‘9/11’ isn’t ambiguous; ‘9/11’ is a rather simple story (they attacked us, and did so because “they hate our freedoms” — another phrase making its prime-time debut in that evening’s speech — and we need to go out and kick their asses, and we need to do so exclusively on our own terms) that is extremely difficult to oppose politically without being labeled a “terrorist sympathizer” or something worse.

Between 11 September 2001 and 20 September 2001, many courses of action were open: strengthen the UN; treat the prosecution of terrorists as a judicial affair rather than a military one; engage in massive development projects in an effort to root out the economic inequalities that are probably a contributing cause of terrorist activity; work multilaterally and cooperatively to address a common global threat. After 20 September 2001, much of that disappeared, to be replaced by “coalitions of the willing,” exclusively military solutions, the jettisoning of international organizations left and right, and the present effort to reinterpret the Geneva conventions so as to permit interrogators to do God-only-knows-what to suspected (but not charged) terrorists.

Everything did change five years ago. But it didn’t change on 11 September; it changed on Empire Day, 20 September 2001. Welcome to the new world.
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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.