The Duck of Minerva

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Ten Theses (Mostly Concerning Foreign Policy) About 9/11

September 11, 2011

Counterfactual theses:

  • Absent 9/11 or a 9/11-style attack, the US would not have invaded Afghanistan but might very well  have used force against Iraq. Rationale: despite the Bush campaign’s repeated condemnation of “nation-building” and calls for a more “humble” foreign policy (remember that?), Cheney and others were already singling out Iraq as a policy failure of the Clinton administration.
  • Absent 9/11 Bush would not have been a one-term president, but the 2002 midterm results would have been much more favorable to the Democrats. Rationale: the 2001 slump would largely have been over; I suspect the closeness of the campaign was, in part, a consequence of increasing polarization over his foreign policy. On the other hand, without the “existential threat” card, the Republicans would have faced significant problems in 2002.
  • Absent 9/11 or a 9/11-style attack, attention would have shifted much more quickly toward the implications of Chinese economic growth. Rationale: there were signs of trouble in the relationship prior to 9/11 (Hainan Island). US foreign policy after 9/11 gave the relationship “breathing space” as the US turned toward the jihadi threat (itself a security risk for China) — and generally created a favorable environment for China by angering so many other states. On the other hand, absent 9/11 the US would not be in Central Asia — and thus we that region would not be a possible future flashpoint. Note: I am not suggesting that Sino-US relations would have been deeply fraught. I am suggesting that they would have been a much more important theme of Bush’s presidency than it became.
  • Absent 9/11 the Bush Administration would have much more seriously contemplated force against Iran and/or North Korea. Rationale: Iraq and Afghanistan made serious force projection anywhere else difficult, and undermined of the US to build a coalition in favor of other military action.

Even more speculative theses:

  • Would the sub-prime mortgage landing have been softer? Rationale: absent 9/11 the Fed might have been less averse to raising interest rates to slow the housing bubble.
  • Would US-Latin American relations been much more problematic? Rationale: the focus on the “global war on terror” distracted the US from turning Venezuela President Hugo Chavez — and his neo-Bolivarist movement — into a bigger boogeyman. 

Forward-looking theses:

  • Terrorism against US citizens and interests will continue, but decline in significance to the general policymaking community. Rationale: a laserlike focus on terrorism amounts to something of a luxury good made possible by an absence of possible peer-competitors. The “Obama Formula” (use the phrase with caution) of heavy emphasis on covert ops, intelligence, drone strikes, and interdiction is likely to continue to be reasonably successful; it also, like other “shadow wars,” has taken on a life of its own.
  • Great-Power Politics are Returning. Rationale: a continuation of the above — the decline of the US is much less dire than many alarmists believe, but its relative decline will prove sufficient to end unipolar politics in the coming decades. Future power politics, however, will more resemble wars of position and maneuver than “hot wars.”
  • We haven’t seen the peak of Islamophobia. Rationale: ongoing economic pain, in conjunction with growing transnational ties among right-wing anti-Muslims, will sustain and feed one of the uglier dimensions of contemporary western politics. Events in the greater Middle East, such as participation in the democratic process by Islamist groups, won’t help either. 
  • The international community’s headaches from Pakistan will get worse. Rationale: policy options aren’t great, and sufficient doggedness in their pursuit is unlikely; key actors in the country remain “just fine” with patchwork effective sovereignty, instability, and poor economic performance; Pakistan has nuclear weapons.

I’ve left out anything concerning the future of Iraq and Afghanistan. I invite readers to weigh in with speculation on these, or any other, 9/11-related issues.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.