September 11 and American Foreign Policy

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

November 1, 2001

Within hours of the September 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington D.C., American commentators were already comparing the event to a “new Pearl Harbor.” The 60th anniversary of that transformative event was coming up later in the year, and had been the subject of a major Hollywood movie over the summer. The comparison of September 11 with Pearl Harbor was natural because both were surprise attacks that killed many Americans, but most interesting about it was its implication: that an age of innocence and isolation had passed, and that American invulnerability was gone. Just as was the case after the Japanese attack (and again in a different way when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite some 16 years later), September 11 seemed fated to change radically and permanently the degree to which, and the way in which, the United States engaged with the rest of the world.

It is probably too soon to say for certain whether September 11 will prove to be such a “paradigm shift” along the lines of 1941 (when America abandoned isolationism), 1947 (when containment became the lens through which foreign policy was seen), or 1989 (when the “post-Cold War era” began). Much will depend on how the Administration responds, and whether it is able to maintain the level of focus and commitment on terrorism once the initial emotion and anger about the attack begins to subside. Already clear, however, is that the fight against terrorism has become the defining issue for the Bush presidency. The political and psychological impact of the September 11 attacks will have long term implications for the ways in which the United States engages in the world.

A New Paradigm?

Perhaps the most obvious affect on U.S. foreign policy will be through the new tradeoffs that a “war on terrorism” could require. If stopping terrorism really is now the country’s top priority in the way that stopping Communism once was, competing priorities will inevitably be displaced. The new premium on Russian cooperation, for example, might make it harder or more costly for Washington to proceed with current policy plans to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, enlarge NATO, or press for human rights in Chechnya. Getting Pakistan on board might mean lifting economic sanctions, helping with debt relief, and maintaining a neutral position on Kashmir despite a warming U.S. relationship with India. The need for Chinese support makes it harder to vigorously support Taiwan, to proceed with missile defense, or to publicly criticize Beijing’s human rights practices. Perhaps most important of all will be the difficulty of securing the indispensable support of moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia; their populations could oppose cooperation with the United States so long as Washington maintains strong support for Israel and sanctions on Iraq. Just as the struggle against Communism forced the United States to downgrade other foreign policy goals—in some cases such as the promotion of democracy and human rights—any serious struggle against terrorism will have a similar impact. Other goals will not and should not be simply cast aside, but no one should think that a new and complicated campaign against terrorism will come without major opportunity costs.

The need for tradeoffs will also become clear when the economic and resources implications of the war on terrorism start to sink in. If the need for enhanced airport security, better intelligence, and an even more powerful military means major new resource commitments (which it does), where should these resources be drawn from?the budget surplus (which is quickly becoming a deficit in the wake of new spending), domestic budgets for things like education or health care, or the social security surplus? Will Washington still be able to devote $1bn per year as part of a “war on drugs” in Colombia if it elevates counter-terrorism to the central plank in its foreign policy? Will Americans continue to be prepared to devote substantial financial and military resources for security and nation-building in far-away places like the Balkans when those resources might be spent more directly on protecting the homeland directly? With the American public still enraged by the horrors of the September 11 attacks, Americans have yet to really focus on the implications of the subordination of other issues to the war on terrorism. Once the shock begins to wear off they are likely to realize just how consequential such a reordering of priorities will be, and their elected leaders—at present determined to preserve national unity—will have some hard decisions to make about allocating whatever resources are left.

A related consequence of the attacks will be the way in which they will affect the Bush administration’s penchant for unilateral action. During its first nine months in office, the administration irritated a number of allies by its neglect of multilateralism, including the refusal to sign, support or pursue ratification of a large number of international agreements—the ABM Treaty; the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; the Kyoto Protocol on climate change; the International Criminal Court; the Biological Weapons Protocol verification mechanism; and others. The need for allies—and perhaps just as important the need for support and sympathy among world populations—will make such a “go-it-alone” approach more difficult to maintain. As George Bush Sr. argued just a few days after the attacks, “Just as Pearl Harbor awakened this country from the notion that we could somehow avoid the call to duty and defend freedom in Europe and Asia in World War II, so, too, should this most recent surprise attack erase the concept in some quarters that America can somehow go it alone in the fight against terrorism or in anything else for that matter.”

This does not mean that the George W. Bush administration will suddenly change its mind about some of the treaties it has rejected. Indeed, whereas some might say that the terrorist attacks underline the need for an International Criminal Court, the administration would probably argue that such a court would only make responding to them more difficult. It does mean, however, that the United States is likely to put a higher premium on multilateral cooperation than it did in the months before September 11. What Harvard’s Joseph Nye calls “soft power”—the ability to get others to want what you want-has arguably become more important than the “hard power” that has been the Bush team’s main focus so far. The great emphasis the administration—led by Secretary of State Colin Powell—has put on building an international coalition to back its response (beginning with their decision to seek and get a permissive UN Security Council Resolution as early as September 12) suggests that they know this, but the abandonment of unilateralism will not come easily.

Defense Policy and Intelligence

The attacks will also have important implications for American defense policy, which was already undergoing a top-to-bottom review and the subject of a big budgetary debate in Congress when the terror attacks intervened. Before September 11, Congressional leaders were gearing up for a big budget fight this fall, with Democrats challenging the President to explain how he was going to find new money for his priorities like new military technologies, major procurement programs (particularly for fighter aircraft), and missile defense without violating his pledge not to tap into the “social security surplus,” that part of the budget reserved for building up a trust fund to support future retirees. That debate is now moot. With Congress already having allocated $40bn for relief efforts and new security measures and another $15bn to rescue the troubled airline industry, any notion of “saving” the social security surplus is gone. This, in turn, will open the floodgates to a significant increase in the 2002 defense budget, which few members of Congress will want to oppose in the wake of September 11. Thus instead of having to make difficult resource allocation decisions among competing platforms, technologies and deployments, the Pentagon is likely to see funding for all its priorities, at least in the near term.

The terrorist attacks will have a particular impact on the debate over missile defense. Some—mostly Democrats—will see the use of hijacked airplanes as weapons as confirmation of their view that the Bush administration’s obsession with missile defense is a misplaced priority, and that far more resources should be devoted to what is called “homeland defense”—better protection of ports, airports and national borders, development of rapid-reaction emergency response teams, more research on vaccines against biological weapons, expanded intelligence capabilities. Leading Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Joseph Biden were already making these points, in retrospect rather presciently, before September 11.

The Bush administration, however, will probably counter that while such measures are indeed necessary, the horrors of the terrorist attacks confirm more than ever the need to prepare for the worst. For missile defense supporters, the attacks will be seen as definitive proof that there are enemies of the United States out there capable of using the most devastating weapons they can obtain. Bush can also take advantage of the fact that Congressional leaders will not want to be seen to be taking “anti-defense” positions in the wake of an attack on the United States or doing anything to hold up the passage of a new defense budget. This seems to have been behind the Democrats’ September 21 decision to restore the $1.3bn in funding for missile defense that they had sought to cut from the Bush budget proposal, and to back away from an amendment that would effectively have obligated the United States to continue to abide by the ABM Treaty even if Bush were to abrogate it.

One possible compromise may be to continue research and development on missile defenses but to forego, at least for now, aggressive testing and development or a deployment that would cost too much and potentially provoke great powers like Russia and China. This is a decision Bush is likely going to have to make before the end of fall 2001, when he would have to announce the U.S. intention to withdraw from the ABM treaty if he wants to start building a new interceptor base in spring 2002. Such restraint on the part of the administration would have been unlikely before the September 11 attacks, but the new spirit of bipartisan cooperation on Capitol Hill, and the increased need for cooperation with Russia and China might now make it possible.

One thing that practically all Americans will agree on in the wake of the attacks is the need to step-up efforts to enhance the country’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. While America’s unparalleled satellite intercept capabilities failed in this case to provide warning that an attack was imminent (as they have in a number of other instances), the case for their indispensability has clearly been strengthened. Europeans who have been complaining in recent months about the alleged American network of listening stations called “Echelon” will now be even less likely to persuade their American friends that such efforts should be shut down. Even more important will be the devotion of new resources to “human intelligence”—the spies that are used to infiltrate and report on adversarial foreign governments or organizations. Since the end of the Cold War, which could always be used to justify certain types of unsavory operations, the United States has vastly cut back the resources it devotes to human intelligence, and constrained the CIA’s ability to keep thuggish but helpful foreigners on its payroll. To the extent that the new “war” in any way resembles past hot wars or even the Cold War, such prohibitions, as well as the presidential directive banning government-sponsored assassinations, are likely to be revisited.

Transatlantic Relations: Opportunity and Risk

The solidarity and sympathy expressed by European publics and governments in the aftermath of the terror attacks was extraordinary. Immediately putting aside the sometimes serious policy differences they had with the George W. Bush administration, leaders across the continent declared their determination to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the United States (British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s words) and even “unlimited solidarity” (Gerhard Schröder). The French newspaper Le Monde, not known for Atlanticism, declared on September 13 that “We are all Americans” and began running a daily full-page English language analysis drawn from the New York Times.

French President Jacques Chirac expressed his “total support” for the United States in the fight against terrorism, and Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel spoke for the European Union in declaring that “we were all victims of this attack.”

Even more important than the leaders’ statements (or the playing of the U.S. national anthem at Buckingham Palace and the Elysée) was NATO’s agreement to invoke the Treaty’s Article 5, which states that “an armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” The agreement to invoke Article 5 for the first time in the Alliance’s 52 year history—unanimously and within just 24 hours of the attack—was an important statement of solidarity and political commitment. It does not, of course, mean that all 19 members of the Alliance must cooperate militarily alongside the United States in possible retaliatory actions, or that that retaliation must take place as a NATO operation (which the United States would probably not want anyway). The Allies’ invocation of Article 5, does, however, lend political legitimacy to the U.S. claim to be acting in self-defense, and strongly implies that the United States will be able to count on at least some forms of Allied military help.

The question for the United States is how it will take advantage of Europe’s willingness to back military retaliation, which while strong, is not unlimited. Indeed, even as European leaders were making clear their readiness under certain conditions to take military actions alongside the Americans, they were also stressing that such support should not be seen as a “blank check” (as Tony Blair’s spokesman put it).

Europeans went out of their way to press the Americans to provide hard proof of guilt before striking at any terrorists, to make a clear distinction between Islamic terrorism and Islam in general, and to emphasize that if there was indeed a “war” it was very different from the traditional meaning of the world and needed to have diplomatic and economic components as well as military ones. Whereas a debate in Washington was underway about whether military retaliation should apply to state supporters of terrorism like Iraq or Iran, Europeans were making it clear that they wanted any retaliation to focus as narrowly as possible on the perpetrators of the September 11 atrocities, and that they expected to be consulted.

As French President Jacques Chirac put it after his September 18 meeting with President Bush “we can, naturally, envisage military cooperation so long as we are consulted beforehand on the objectives and the modalities of an action whose goal is the elimination of terrorism.”

The attacks of September 11 have thus created both a great opportunity and a great risk for transatlantic relations. If Washington carefully manages its war on terrorism, avoids provoking a “clash of civilizations,” re-commits to engage against the “root causes” of terrorism, and consults openly with European allies, it will have every opportunity to reconsolidate an Alliance whose unity had been fraying in the absence of a common threat. European sympathy and solidarity for the United States after the attacks was genuine, and populations on both sides of the Atlantic are now more conscious of their common values and interests than before. If, on the other hand, the United States ignores international concerns about the need for legitimacy, strikes out militarily without due concern for civilian casualties, assumes the automatic righteousness of its actions, it will risk losing the support of those in Europe who are naturally inclined to take its side. Given the complexities involved in the war on terrorism and the absence of any easy options, this will be a narrow path to tread, but the stakes for the future of America’s relations with Europe could not be much higher.

Conclusion: Staying the Course

Whatever the ultimate outcome of America’s war on terrorism, U.S. foreign policy will probably never be the same; even as the initial impact of the September 11 tragedy begins to fade, its many implications will continue to be felt for some time. It should be noted, however, that the primary change in American foreign policy allegedly sought by the terrorists—an American withdrawal from its global involvement, particularly in the Middle East—is not likely. Indeed, just as Pearl Harbor effectively eliminated the isolationist movement and created a population determined to fight and win World War II, the September 11 attacks have resulted in an impressive show of national resolve to fight for the preservation of American values both at home and abroad. The country is united not only in its desire to stamp out the terrorist scourge, but to maintain its support for its friends abroad and for the principles of democracy and individual liberty. Rather than calling for the United States to withdraw from international affairs, the American public seems to instinctively realize that what the terrorists want is not some minor alteration of U.S. policy but the complete departure of all American forces from the region, the destruction of Israel, and the replacement of all moderate Arab regimes with extremist Islamic governments, none of which is even remotely negotiable. The result of the September 11 attacks will not be an American return to isolationism, but a reinvigoration of engagement.