Few events are shared across an entire populace, where everyone has a story of where he or she was when they received the news. “9-11,” as it will always be known, was one of those rare, momentous days. Like the assault on Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination, the attacks of September 11, 2001, forever seared in memory, will define a generation of Americans.
But 9-11 was more than that. As we look back on it more than five years later, we can now see that it was a force that reshaped global politics. It gave nearly every single global actor, whether states, international organizations, or ngos, a new set of priorities to act on and new pitfalls to navigate.
For American foreign policy, 9-11 was a historic wakeup call, shocking it out of the seeming hangover that had defined the post-cold war decade. Security concerns replaced trade as the coin of the realm. Penny-pinching for the “peace dividend” was transformed into more than a trillion dollars spent on a “war” not against a country like the Soviet Union, but against a tactic: terrorism. A post-Somalia doctrine of “casualty aversion” was shattered by two major ground conflicts and more than 20,000 American casualties. And a political climate that was veering toward mild isolationism in 2001 became a bipartisan strategy of forward engagement on a global scale that many have described as near-imperial.
The five years since 9-11 are stunning in the array of actions and reactions that followed. One aspect, though, stands out. It is now clear that the attacks on the American homeland and the responses to them have created a new prism of global affairs, a tension between a state and a religion that plays out on an international level as never before. Relations between the world’s undisputed superpower and the world of 1.4 billion Muslim believers can only be viewed as inexorably changed since 9-11.