Al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States 10 years ago was a profound shock to both American and international public opinion. What lessons can we learn a decade later?
Anyone who flies or tries to visit a Washington office building gets a reminder of how American security was changed by 9/11. But, while concern about terrorism is greater and immigration restrictions are tighter, the hysteria of the early days after 9/11 has abated. New agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence, and an upgraded Counter Terrorism Center have not transformed American government, and, for most Americans, personal freedoms have been little affected. No more large-scale attacks have occurred inside the U.S., and everyday life has recovered well.
But this apparent return to normality should not mislead us about the longer-term importance of 9/11. As I argue in my book “The Future of Power,” one of the great power shifts of this global information age is the strengthening of non-state actors. Al-Qaeda killed more Americans on 9/11 than the attack by the government of Japan did at Pearl Harbor in 1941. This might be called the “privatization of war.”
During the Cold War, the U.S. had been even more vulnerable, in technological terms, to a nuclear attack from Russia, but “mutual assured destruction” prevented the worst by keeping vulnerability more or less symmetrical. Russia controlled great force, but it could not acquire power over the U.S. from its arsenal.
Two asymmetries, however, favored Al-Qaeda in September 2001. First, there was an asymmetry of information. The terrorists had good information about their targets, while the U.S. before Sept. 11 had poor information about the identity and location of terrorist networks. Some government reports had anticipated the extent to which non-state actors could hurt large states, but their conclusions were not incorporated into official plans.
Second, there was an asymmetry in attention. A larger actor’s many interests and objectives often dilute its attention to a smaller actor, which, by contrast, can focus its attention and will more easily. There was a good deal of information about Al-Qaeda in the American intelligence system, but the U.S. was unable to process coherently the information that its various agencies had gathered.
But asymmetries of information and attention do not confer a permanent advantage on the wielders of informal violence. To be sure, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and, historically, waves of terrorism have often taken a generation to recede. Even so, the elimination of top Al-Qaeda leaders, the strengthening of American intelligence, tighter border controls, and greater cooperation between the FBI and the CIA have all clearly made the U.S. (and its allies) safer.
But there are larger lessons that 9/11 teaches us about the role of narrative and soft power in an information age. Traditionally, analysts assumed that victory went to the side with the better army or the larger force; in an information age, the outcome is also influenced by who has the better story. Competing narratives matter, and terrorism is about narrative and political drama.
The smaller actor cannot compete with the larger in terms of military might, but it can use violence to set the world agenda and construct narratives that affect its targets’ soft power. Osama bin Laden was very adept at narrative. He was not able to do as much damage to the U.S. as he hoped, but he managed to dominate the world agenda for a decade, and the ineptness of the initial American reaction meant that he could impose larger costs on the U.S. than were necessary.
President George W. Bush made a tactical error in declaring a “global war on terrorism.” He would have done better to frame the response as a reply to Al-Qaeda, which had declared war on the U.S. The global war on terror was misinterpreted to justify a wide variety of actions, including the misguided and expensive Iraq war, which damaged America’s image. Moreover, many Muslims misread the term as an attack on Islam, which was not America’s intent, but fit bin Laden’s efforts to tarnish perceptions of the U.S. in key Muslim countries.
To the extent that the trillion or more dollars of unfunded war costs contributed to the budget deficit that plagues the U.S. today, bin Laden was able to damage American hard power. And the real price of 9/11 may be the opportunity costs: for most of the first decade of this century, as the world economy gradually shifted its center of gravity toward Asia, the U.S. was preoccupied with a mistaken war of choice in the Middle East.
A key lesson of 9/11 is that hard military power is essential in countering terrorism by the likes of bin Laden, but that the soft power of ideas and legitimacy is essential for winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream Muslim populations from whom Al-Qaeda would like to recruit. A “smart power” strategy does not ignore the tools of soft power.
But, at least for America, perhaps the most important lesson of 9/11 is that U.S. foreign policy should follow the counsel of President Dwight Eisenhower a half-century ago: Do not get involved in land wars of occupation, and focus on maintaining the strength of the American economy.
Joseph S. Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “The Future of Power.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (www.project-syndicate.org).