Did 9/11 Change the World?
When the planes crashed into New York's twin towers, did the world change? Three thousand died, the USA invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban, and then went on to remove Saddam in a mission to plant democracy, as defined by Americans, in the Middle East. Nevertheless, did the world really fundamentally change? Or is President Bush – leaving aside the rhetoric - not acting in the same old way that political leaders have done for centuries? Is the West involved once more in the modern equivalent of gunboat diplomacy and an imperialism of good intentions but bad politics?
These are questions that Cambridge academic David Runciman addresses head-on. Runciman isn't interested in arbitrating between George Bush and Michael Moore but in placing competing claims in a broader context, that of history itself. Forget the short-term politics of it - perhaps Bush did exploit 9/11 and perhaps he was right in doing so - but let's examine the even bigger political picture.
In fact, forget Bush and look at Tony Blair. The British leader was saying in 1999 the world had changed. Coalition forces had gone into Kosovo. And that was achievable because we were now all internationalists, something that was possible because of the end of the Cold War, changing technology and the spread of democracy. Both humanitarian and, if necessary, military intervention were now possible without fear of a nuclear conflict.
This was also an increasingly global world - with all the benefits in terms of trade and wealth but also the spread of less beneficial outcomes such as global terrorism and racial hatred. After 9/11 the tone was less optimistic and more fearful but the underlying premises just as optimistic. Cue Iraq.
By the time of 9/11 politicians were talking more in the language of risk. But again that wasn't all that new. The political stakes throughout the twentieth have been high. Europe had been devastated twice and the world faced the real possibility of annihilation. It has been a very risky world for a long time. And that has suited politicians very well in many respects. On the one hand, they can always advise caution and, on the other, they can advise decisive action.
Runciman argues that the world did not suddenly become a more dangerous place after 9/11. What changed was the willingness of politicians to deploy the idea of an increasingly risky world to bridge the gap between a managerial style of politics (based on increasing global interdependence) and the increasing premium being placed on decisive political actions (in the face of that interdependence). Blair threw his lot in with Bush because he saw that as less dangerous than alienating the European Union.
What interests Runciman about this debate on whether or not the world has changed is in viewing it against the backdrop of the historical development of the modern state. In short, the modern state is hypocritical in the way ancient states weren’t. Runciman might be accused of pushing the meaning of hypocrisy a little bit. But what he is referring to is a way of combining the personal political authority of leaders and the impersonal administrative capacity of the state on which such leadership depends. Political thinkers have seen Representative Government as being best placed to do this. Ideally, such states would enjoy strong government (of the intellectual variety) and meaningful participation by free citizens.
But in our new modern world, says Runciman, individuals enjoy “freedoms in an increasingly borderless, hedonistic, information-rich, transient world”. It is a world where personal freedom no longer depends on a willingness to participate in the political life of the state. This is more noticeable in Europe than the USA, a situation explained by the greater complexity of bureaucratic relationships provided by the EU and local governments, and the indifference and sometimes hostility engendered by this.s is also dangerous. According to Runciman we need to defend modern conventional politics against the danger that governments will simply turn in on themselves in the absence of engagement by citizens.
What Runciman provides in his book is such a defence drawing on history, ranging from the English and French revolutions to Weimar Germany and the engagement in Suez, against which he sets the war in Iraq and the subsequent fall-out between the USA and Europe in a proper historical context.
The divisions between Europe and America, between globalization and national sovereignty, between military power and international law, all existed before 9/11. But what the attack on the twin towers did was to exacerbate them and bring them to the surface. Tony Blair has risen to the challenge, adopting a personal style that comes easy to him and articulates the feelings of citizens, so assuring us of his good intentions, while at the same time exploiting the events to address them. But, as is the nature of a long period of office and one that is coming to an end, the British public shows clear signs of tiring of this confessional style. And what Runciman is saying is that we must still have strong political parties, effective representative institutions, and citizens voting and fully engaged in the political process and public debate. We can’t face the challenges of the modern world – 9/11 and all that has come to be associated with that awful event – without them. In that sense, nothing has changed.