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The Significance of September 11

  Lee Poh Ping  

There are two schools of thought concerning September 11.The first school, many of whom are political scientists, see this as an important turning point in recent world history, comparable to two other turning points, that of the end of World War 2 and that of the end of the Cold War. The other tends to think that its significance is overplayed. Paul Krugman, for example, an economist, believes the Enron affair will have a longer lasting impact because of its consequence for the future of capitalism. I subscribe to the first school. While I will not go so far as to compare September 11 to the two turning points mentioned, I believe its significance lies in its profound impact on America, changing it almost overnight from a nation complacent about its security to one that now feels threatened and angry. An America in such a state and ready to reconsider international realignments will have profound consequences on the international order, given the tremendous power of the United States in the world. What is more, the sources of American anger and fear are not some transient and minor events but something profoundly disturbing psychologically and also something America will find difficult to address.

I mean by the former that the Sept.11 attacks were the first attack of such magnitude by foreigners on American soil since Pearl Harbor . It has greatly shattered the sense of invulnerability Americans have enjoyed since the Second World War and which had so influenced their approach to international affairs. The scholar, Noam Chomsky, has an interesting twist to this. He argues that the psychological impact maybe even greater than what many might believe for it represents for the first time since the Ottoman Turks an attack on a white, Christian country by non-whites and non-Christians. Pearl Harbor , to Chomsky, at that time was essentially an American dependency with a majority non-white population. An attack on it cannot be equated psychologically with an attack on the American mainland. To be sure, Western nations have been invaded after the Ottoman Turks but they were attacked by other white nations that were Christian, orthodox or otherwise. As for Western attack on non-Western people, it was rampant even before the Ottoman Turks, with some Western nations considering such slaughter as some kind of a sport!

The latter has two implications. One is that it has greatly augmented the American sense of vulnerability by making real the dangers of chemical, biological and nuclear attacks by terrorists which had hitherto been considered as academic. This sense was further enhanced by the anthrax scare not so long after the terrorist attack on September 11, even if the anthrax source cannot be traced to foreigners. The second is that these attacks, dubbed asymmetrical by some, cannot be responded to in the conventional manner. All the might of the United States avail little against an enemy you cannot see and do not know from which state they come from. One can lash out against some states and some groups deemed to be the sources of these asymmetrical attacks, as the Bush administration is apparently doing, but it remains to be seen whether terrorism can be wiped out by such action.

As to how the international order will take shape as a result of this new America ‘on a roll', to quote An unnamed American official, is difficult to fore see. There was the possibility that such a threatened America could develop an enlightened attitude towards the conduct of international affairs. Indeed in the beginning of the war against terror with the targeting of the Taliban in Afghanistan who were seen to be harbouring Osama bin laden and his Al-Qaeda group, the Bush administration sought to build an international coalition against terror, made enlightening noises and symbolic gestures that the campaign was not directed against Islam, talked of a Palestinian state presumably as a prelude to attacking the ‘root' causes of terror, and generally gave the impression that it might be departing from its unilateralist impulse. The Americans probably calculated that the campaign against Afghanistan would be protracted and hence it would need all the support it could get. The rest of the world on their part responded. Western Europe identified with the American cause as a war for civilisation, to quote Gerhard Schroder, and Nato invoked one of the basic clauses of its collective security agreement that the September 11 attacks on the US were also attacks on the rest of Nato. Russia promised full support. And so did China even if it did not go all the way of the Russians. Even less enthusiastic countries, like Pakistan , could find it in their interest to go along with the American campaign against the Taliban and terror in general.

As it turned out, the campaign finished swifter than anticipated. The Taliban and the Al-Qaeda were deemed to be defeated with a minimum of American casualties. And the Americans saw the reasons for their victory as superior American fire power, and a campaign primarily conducted by themselves, unencumbered too greatly by their allies. With this, the initial multilateralist approach lost ground and there was a reversion, nay a strengthening , of the unilateralism of the early Bush administration. At the same time, the Bush administration discovered that the conduct of this war had greatly enhanced the stature of the Bush presidency, which was widely perceived to be somewhat illegitimate before September 11.At the same time, conservatives in the Bush administration saw the war as a powerful justification for increasing the military budget and for generally advancing the conservative agenda. The upshot of all these is a Bush administration with a powerful interest to continue with the war against terror after Afghanistan, and such continuation finding resonance with an American population with a deep sense of vulnerability. Hence the Bush declaration of three states as an ‘axis of evil', and the vow to deny sanctuary anywhere to terrorists.

What are the consequences of this continuing war on terror? One can only speculate. Nevertheless, one can raise three questions. The first pertains to whether America , powerful as it may be, can long sustain a policy of increasing military expenditure and cutting taxes, the wherewithal for supporting this expenditure. Reagan tried to do it but in the end left a country with a big current account deficit as it in effect had to use , through a high interest rate, foreign funds to help finance the budget deficit arising from this guns and butter policy. Second, what does it say about a country, a superpower without peer, increasingly believing that the solution to the world's problems is through military might, and expecting others to clean up. At the least history will be a harsh judge of a country with such an approach. Finally, will there not be a great likelihood that a United States single-mindedly pursuing a narrow nationalist approach might find the rest of the world united against it.

  Dr Lee Poh Ping is Professor and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia . This article is based on a presentation by the author at the PSSM Roundtable ‘The World After September' held on Feb.27, 2002.