9/11 changed American perception, little else

By Lee Feder

Common knowledge holds that the world radically changed Sept. 11, 2001. The hype around this “cataclysmic event” theory had enough momentum to dupe smart and well-educated people into believing terrorism was a new threat, when the reality was quite different. Despite the temptation to declare that 9/11 forever changed the foreign relations paradigm and gave birth to new international threats, its most significant result was the readjustment of perception.

For the 10 or so years before 9/11, Americans, and particularly international relations scholars, were on an emotional high. Due to the fall of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. was the victor of a four-decade-long militarized chess match. The collapse of the “evil empire” allowed foreign policy theorists to rhapsodize about a monopolar international system, one in which the American economic and military institutions could dictate policy to the world. The EU, China, India, Brazil, Africa and the Middle East constituted only second-tier players in the global game, and America’s dominance of global business and military power logically determined that everyone else would have to kowtow to our whims. Sept. 11, 2001, merely knocked sense into the power theorists, albeit too late.

Between 1991 and 2001, the U.S. experienced a cultural, financial and technological shift that, because we thought we were unchallenged in global power, allowed us to build an economic and political structure maladjusted to the way the world really is. To make an analogy, imagine preparing a fancy dinner for a significant other when 25 friends show up instead. The preparation, though well-conceived, was inappropriate for the actual event. Such was policy during the intervening decade between the fall of the Soviet Union and the Sept. 11 attacks.

The first consequences of our miscalculation, obviously, were the terrorist attacks themselves and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Ten years of semi-isolationist policy combined with an inattentive administration allowed a radical ideology to rise and become a legitimate threat. The second result was the initial mini-recession of 2001 and the associated corporate scandals. Both companies and consumers had profited from the technological developments of the computer and Internet, but because there was no chief international rival, people and businesses spent the money liberally. After all, with no looming threat – like a Soviet-American nuclear holocaust – people can celebrate and shower their families with the spoils of victory (iPods, TVs, nicer cars, larger houses, etc.), and the government failed to revise regulations accordingly.

The third consequence of proclaiming U.S. power unchallenged lies in global warming. Even if the theorists were correct in stating that no other international actor could challenge American hegemony, our country faced the mounting threat of climate change. The 1990s featured the perfect circumstances to combat this threat: relative peace, unprecedented economic and technological growth and development, and the absence of an intense militarized conflict (for example Iraq or Desert Storm.)

Finally, we are just now experiencing the ultimate price of our complacency. With all the economic thunder generated over the past 15 years, and with the supposed absence of a threat, people and corporations “forgot” about saving for the proverbial rainy day. The 2001 recession was merely a perfect storm of the terrorist attacks, corporate scandals and the realization that money does not in fact grow on Web site trees. What we face now is a much deeper threat, one aggravated by irresponsible government spending, an unwillingness to fix smaller problems when possible (such as paying down the national debt, regulating big business, balancing a trade deficit and adapting the work force to the new economy), war and foreign oil dependence.

The decade between the U.S.S.R.’s collapse and the U.S.’s awakening to the threats of radicalism, financial inequity, a strengthening (and better-governed) EU, and cheap South Asian labor could have been used to prepare us to better fight these threats. Making the economy more environmentally friendly, less oil-dependent and more fiscally sound, as well as reorganizing the industrial-military-intelligence complex to better fight the looming ideological non-state threats would have been a better use of the time. As the cliché says, however, hindsight is 20/20. The lesson Sept. 11 demonstrates, though, is that there is always work to be done.

Lee is a senior in mechanical engineering and he enthusiastically embraces the coming of spring (two weeks late).