When a giant sneezes: How the US response to 9/11 reshaped the world

When a giant sneezes: How the US response to 9/11 reshaped the world

In the narrowest sense, the 9/11 attacks were something that happened only in New York, Washington, and a field in Pennsylvania. But how the US responded — unleashing an open-ended Global War on Terror, launching wars and nation-building occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and dramatically reshaping the government's powers of surveillance at home — sent shockwaves around the world.

In many places, the effects are still felt: in the shattering of the MIddle East, in the rise of China, in the upheavals of South Asia, or in the newly complicated relationships between Washington and old allies in Europe and Turkey. And remember when the US and Russia were — for a few weeks there — seemingly the closest of friends?

We asked analysts at Eurasia Group, our parent company, to give us a quick recap of how 9/11 and its aftermath have affected the regions they cover. Enjoy.


China: The golden opportunity Neil Thomas

The Global War on Terror that Washington chose to pursue after 9/11 led to a sustained US foreign policy focus on the Middle East that distracted significantly from China's rise as a regional heavyweight and a global power. Before becoming US president in January 2001, George W. Bush backed his predecessor Bill Clinton's campaign to establish permanent normal trading relations with China and support its admission to the World Trade Organization, but he promised a tougher stance that treated Beijing as a "strategic competitor." That attitude changed after 9/11.

Beijing presented itself as an ally in the Global War on Terror and the Bush administration was eager for international cooperation. Meanwhile, China experienced phenomenal economic growth that enabled Beijing to expand its international influence, modernize the People's Liberation Army, and consolidate contentious territorial claims — all without significant pushback from Washington. Beijing even persuaded the US government to designate a Uyghur militant group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organization (a decision that was reversed last November).

That move to target ETIM reflected Beijing's post-9/11 reframing of its Uyghur ethnic minority, a traditionally Muslim group concentrated in China's western Xinjiang region, as a potential terrorist threat. Especially after ethnic violence in Xinjiang in 2009 and deadly attacks by Uighur terrorists in 2011 and 2013, Chinese leaders increasingly deployed rhetoric and techniques from the Global War on Terror to pursue repressive policies of "counter-extremism" and "de-radicalization." This campaign evolved into a wholesale crackdown on Uyghur identity and culture that includes the forced detention of millions of Uyghurs in "vocational education and training centers."

The Middle East: Two decades of upheaval — Sofia Meranto & Ahmed Morsy

Twenty years after 9/11, the Middle East is still grappling with its impacts. A highly tumultuous period followed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and a decade later the Arab Spring sent another round of shockwaves across the region.

The Iraq War, right in the heart of the Middle East, was perhaps the most jarring for regional leaders. The subsequent chaos bred wider instability and spawned the birth of terrorist groups like ISIS, further fracturing states like Iraq and Syria.

The US Global War on Terror and its policy of "either you are with us, or against us" shaped domestic policies in pivotal ways as well. On the one hand, it created space for authoritarian leaders to crack down not only on extremist groups but on other critics in their midst as well. But on the other, the subsequent US democratization agenda pressured some to make cosmetic liberalizing reforms.

Meanwhile, despite efforts to dissociate the war on terror from a war with Islam, the perception in the Middle East is that Islamophobia rose palpably in the West after 9/11.

Today, Washington is clearly exploring ways to draw down its involvement in the Middle East. Taken together with the messy Afghanistan exit, this has raised concerns for Gulf countries, which have historically relied heavily on the US security umbrella. And there are a number of unresolved regional issues — including Lebanon's collapse, Syria's post-war role, Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions, and the moribund Middle East peace process — that will demand that regional powers develop ways to coordinate better and lower tensions.

Lastly, twenty years after the attack on the US, the reach of al-Qaeda reach is undoubtedly more limited — as is the threat of ISIS compared to a decade ago — but the jury is still out on how serious a terrorist threat could emerge out of Afghanistan, where the Taliban is now back in power.

Turkey: Ties in Tatters — Emre Peker

The 9/11 attacks coincided with a sea change in Turkish politics. After a decade marred by economic crises, terrorism, and social upheavals, Turkish voters rejected mainstream parties in November 2002 elections, sweeping Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party to power. And while Turkey had been quick to support NATO's Afghanistan mission post-9/11, the new government refused to back George W. Bush's 2003 foray into Iraq. That marked an unusual break with the US, which would only grow in the coming years.

While Ankara remained sensitive to security threats from Islamist radicals, Erdogan did away with the old establishment's strict secularism. That provided openings for cooperation with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas — despite US protestations. And amid growing hostility towards Washington in the Middle East during the Bush years, Turkey emerged as a regional soft power, leveraging its status as a majority-Muslim NATO member with aspirations to join the EU.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, he tried to bolster ties with Ankara as part of a broader effort to repair Washington's terrible image in the region. That push, however, didn't survive into Obama's second term as Ankara and Washington increasingly came to blows over Syria and other issues.

As Turkey dropped its broadly neutral foreign policies to pursue regime change in Syria, throw its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, intervene in the Libyan conflict, and stake out claims in contested Eastern Mediterranean waters, Erdogan found himself increasingly at odds with Middle Eastern rivals and major powers alike.

Tensions even grew between Turkey and its NATO partners, over Ankara's tactical partnerships with NATO rival Russia. Where the Trump administration largely enabled Erdogan to operate unchecked, Biden is looking to opportunistically engage Turkey despite ongoing disagreements on issues ranging from where Turkey buys its weapons to how Erdogan has weakened Turkey's democracy.

Overall,9/11 — coupled with political trends in the US and Turkey — left the once-strong Washington-Ankara alliance in tatters, a condition from which it is unlikely to recover any time soon.

Russia and Central Asia: Remember the good old days? — Alex Brideau

Given how bad US-Russia ties are these days, it's hard to remember that things between Washington and Moscow were actually pretty good in the aftermath of 9/11. President Vladimir Putin was the first world leader to contact Bush after the planes hit the towers. Intelligence sharing and Russian support for US bases in Central Asia as part of the Afghanistan invasion soon followed.

Russia was, at the time, in the third year of a renewed conflict against separatists in Chechnya who were fighting under the banner of Islam and who would soon wage terrorist attacks of their own elsewhere in Russia. Putin promptly framed that conflict, which had fueled his own political rise, as part of the West's Global War on Terror. Central Asian authoritarians and democratic governments alike worked with the US to protect against threats of terrorism in their own countries. Even after that cooperation stopped, regional leaders continued to repress any groups that might pose risks to their governments, often by framing them as "extremists."

US-Russia cooperation did not last long. By 2007, Moscow's opposition to the invasion of Iraq, combined with resentment of US policy in other areas, led Putin to blast Washington in a speech in Munich, and elsewhere to draw a jawdropping comparison between the Bush administration and Nazi Germany. The relationship deteriorated further after Russia's 2008 war with Georgia and collapsed almost entirely after the Russian seizure of Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014.

The Kremlin meanwhile took advantage of Washington's increasing aversion to direct engagement with the Middle East in the 2010s to build up its own presence in the region. Moscow intervened directly in the Syrian civil war and indirectly in post-Qaddafi Libya, while trying to build up new economic and security relationships with a range of partners.

In 2021, with the Taliban back in control of Afghanistan, Russia and Central Asia face similar concerns about security and regional stability to those of twenty years ago. But this time around, cooperation with the US is sure to be much less intensive and enthusiastic.

Europe: Solidarity and skepticism — Naz Masraff

Europe was united in horror and solidarity after the September 11 attacks twenty years ago. In a now famous essay, the editor of the prominent French daily Le Monde proclaimed, "we are all Americans." He wasn't referring to France alone.

To any European country with the right capabilities, joining the US in the War on Terror seemed an obvious choice at first. Bin Laden's presumed location, and intelligence of Al Qaeda bases were enough to convince even a reluctant Germany to send troops to Afghanistan under the self-defense terms of the UN Charter.

But the rift with the US over Iraq sowed division within Europe itself. The UK, along with Spain and most future member states in Central and Eastern Europe, backed Washington, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld dismissed the more reluctant France and Germany as "Old Europe." The EU's great eastward expansion of 2004 still took place, but Iraq was probably the first moment at which it became clear that a common EU security and defense policy might be impossible.

Anti-American sentiment — which had retreated to the eccentric margins after September 11 — became the norm as chaos unfolded in Iraq and terrorist attacks happened on European soil: Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. EU leaders and citizens alike tended to blame the chaos on President Bush.

To this day, Europe is still grappling with the consequences of decisions made in the aftermath of September 11. Afghans and Iraqis formed a large part of the wave of refugees in the 2015 migration crisis. And just as EU capitals scaled back their operations in Afghanistan, new terrorist threats forced them to deploy in the Sahel and over Syria.

Moreover, twenty years after 9/11, a new debate is roiling Europe: whether to develop more strategic autonomy in ways that would move the continent away from the familiar US-backed security architecture. Europe is certainly willing to be more assertive now, but it's hard to see the EU developing real strategic autonomy from Washington and broader geopolitical independence any time soon.

South Asia: Pivotal Pakistan — Peter Mumford

Apart from Afghanistan, which is its own story entirely, the post-9/11 impacts on South Asia were most acute in the rival nuclear-armed states of Pakistan and India. Pakistan, of course, became central to events in Afghanistan and the broader war on terror, with Washington often placing more emphasis on its (complex, sometimes strained) relationship with Islamabad than it did on ties with India. US dependency on Pakistan to maintain military operations in Afghanistan also became an issue of concern in New Delhi.

That said, India was happy to see Pakistan tied up with issues on its northern border with Afghanistan. India also benefited from a change in how the US and international community viewed terrorism. When Pakistan-backed terrorists attacked India's parliament in December 2001, Pakistan was shocked to find the US not calling for restraint by India, something that it would almost certainly have done prior to 9/11. India was also pleased to see the US pay more attention to broader threats posed by Islamist terrorism.

Following the killing of Osama bin Laden (in Pakistan, no less) and subsequent winding down of US military operations in Afghanistan, Washington's attention increasingly shifted from Pakistan to India, with US-India relations becoming closer in recent years. But that relationship has also deepened because of mutual concerns about China's growing power — something that would have happened regardless. In some ways, 9/11 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars distracted the US from improving bilateral ties with India sooner than it did.

Southeast Asia: Terrorism faded, but China arrived Peter Mumford

The years following 9/11 saw a sharp increase in the Islamist terrorist threat in Southeast Asia, with al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremist groups seemingly emboldened. This was most noticeable in Indonesia, with the Bali bombings in 2002, and attacks on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003 and 2009 — which killed both Indonesians and foreigners. The Philippines also experienced a rise in terrorism threats, as did, to a lesser extent, Malaysia.

US counterterrorism assistance, in the form of funding, training, and intel sharing, helped to reduce (though certainly not eliminate) the terrorist threat in the region. That said, the US-led global war on terror, and particular the war in Iraq, increased anti-US sentiment in Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia — to some extent this also strengthened Islamist political parties in these countries, though other factors such as rising inequality and intensified identity politics, were also at play. These sentiments softened, though were reignited to some extent by Donald Trump's "Muslim ban".

In the meantime, with the US distracted by the global war on terror, a rising China was able more easily to extend its influence in the region, even beyond these Muslim-majority countries. President Barack Obama sought to address this through his somewhat stillborn "pivot to Asia" but subsequent administrations have been forced to reckon more directly with Chinese competition.

What about where you live? How did 9/11 or the US response change things -- either in the immediate aftermath or over the past 20 years?

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