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Did Security Studies learn from 9/11?

September 17, 2021

The twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has come and gone. We’ve reflected on what led to the attacks, its human toll, how well America handled it, and what impacts the US response has had on the world. I thought it was also worth asking what effects these attacks had on the sub-field of international relations, particularly mainstream security studies.

The answer? Not much.

As a result of these attacks, IR should have abandoned its secular, state-centric focus and explored these interconnecting elements of the twentieth century, revolutionizing the sub-field.

How can that be? Haven’t we seen a surge in the study of terrorism? Haven’t scholars debated the role of America in the world? Hasn’t there been a huge increase in public-facing IR scholarship? Sure. But the basic assumptions about what matters, and what doesn’t, in mainstream security studies haven’t changed. Instead, we’ve forced the events of that day to fit those pre-existing assumptions.

What we should have learned

What should have happened among security studies scholars after 9/11?

First, let’s look at what the 9/11 attacks involved. They were a confluence of three factors:

  • One was the increasing globalization of the world and accompanying weakening of states. Transnational networks escaped state scrutiny and control, and governments rushed to confront this threat (or failed to notice it). This took beneficial forms, such as global activist networks. It took morally ambiguous forms, such as international finance. And it took destructive forms, such as al-Qaeda.
  • Another was the long-ignored importance of religion. Social science assumed religion would disappear with modernity, and this extended to IR’s understandings of the world. Even constructivism–which championed ideas’ importance–ignored religion. While al-Qaeda was not motivated solely by religion, the group’s religious ideology was clear in the way it mobilized followers and justified its attacks. Moreover, al-Qaeda was part of a broader movement–termed by some as “jihadist”–that used Islamic ideology as part of its struggle. There were also nonviolent Islamist movements fighting for greater space for religious expression, and numerous non-Muslim examples of religious politics.
  • The final factor was the importance of non-state political violence, in this case terrorism. IR focused primarily on interstate conflict or its prevention. Civil wars, terrorism, even less organized aggression, become international through their spread across state borders and their impact on state functioning. The shock of the 9/11 attack was only the most dramatic such example.

As a result of these attacks, IR should have abandoned its secular, state-centric focus and explored these interconnecting elements of the twentieth century, revolutionizing the sub-field.

What actually happened

To be fair, there were some attempts to change. There have been huge developments in the study of terrorism and efforts to prevent it. The study of religion in IR is now a vibrant research program, spawning generations of scholars (including me). The interconnectedness of the world is now taken for granted, from studies on weapons proliferation to greater attention to refugee crises.

Rather than transforming in the wake of 9/11, security studies retrenched behind its rationalist and materialist assumptions.

We also saw a few calls for reshaping IR in the wake of 9/11. Daniel Philpott characterized the attacks as a “threat to secularism in international relations.” Edited volumes by Shah, Stepan and Toft, Katzenstein, and Snyder attempted to bring the study of religion into mainstream IR. An edited volume by Kahler presented network analysis a means to reorient our understanding of the world.

But that’s about as far as it went. The study of religion and IR has continued to progress, but as a niche topic in the sub-field. Terrorism, similarly, has failed to become a prominent part of security studies. The range of topics may be greater in top security journals than before 9/11, but the lens through which we approach them as stayed the same. In some ways it has even narrowed as rationalist assumptions took hold with the end of the paradigm wars. Rather than transforming security studies, 9/11 only seemed to reinforce its assumptions.

The reassuring tune of Dying to Win

A good illustration of how and why this happened can be seen with Dying to Win, Pape’s book on suicide terrorism, and the article that preceded it. The article was published in 2003, when most were still trying to make sense of 9/11. Rather than presenting the suicide terrorism of that day as an inexplicable evil or transformative revelation about the new world we live in, Pape provided a rather conventional analysis. Suicide terrorism is a strategic tactic groups adopt to coerce their targets. Ideology, religious or not, has little to do with it. We can thus study, and prevent, suicide terrorism using the same tools we use to study conventional security studies topics. Indeed, the title of Pape’s book echoed that of his earlier work on air power.

The argument was incredibly influential. The problem was, it’s completely flawed. Ashworth et al critiqued Pape’s research design. Moghadam critiqued dismissal of religious ideology, while Horowitz critiqued his failure to take into account the diffusion of tactics among terrorist groups. Several others, including me, tested his arguments using better research designs and found his argument didn’t hold up.

None of this seemed to matter, however. Many accepted Pape’s argument as valid, and a rejection of those demanding we rethink security studies. As I discussed here a few years ago, it still pops up as a self-evident explanation for the nature of 21st century international relations.

There’s a lot to dissect here concerning the sociology of knowledge but I suspect the staying power of Pape’s argument has to do with its comforting effect on mainstream security studies. If Pape’s argument is correct, then security studies doesn’t need to change anything to understand the world and stay relevant. That gave security studies an incentive to accept Pape’s argument, flaws and all.

I’d argue that this process took place on a grander scale throughout security studies. Rather than transforming in the wake of 9/11, security studies retrenched behind its rationalist and materialist assumptions.

An overlooked crisis

I don’t want to go too far with this attack. There’s a great amount of work being published in top security studies journals, representing–as I mentioned–a greater diversity of topics and viewpoints than we saw before 9/11. There’s significant work pushing back on assumptions about which topics matter and which approaches are relevant, even if that tends to happen outside the top journals.

But many hoped for (and expected) more than that. Every other major disjunction in world politics led to an accompanying shift in IR. Earlier IR’s inability to predict the end of the Cold War led to the rise of constructivism. Neorealism’s inability to explain persistent cooperation despite relative US decline led to neoliberal theories on international institutions. The abject failure of the League of Nations and the outbreak of World War II led to the rise of realism.

This didn’t seem to happen with 9/11, and I’m worried it bodes ill for the future of security studies.

Am I right? Was there a bigger shift than I am letting on? Am I pointing to the wrong aspects of 9/11? Maybe security studies did transform, just not in the way I wanted?

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.