The Hyperpower Challenged by Hyperterrorism

Justin Vaïsse
Justin Vaïsse Former Brookings Expert, Director, Policy Planning Staff - French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs

November 1, 2001

The September 11th attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon evoke numerous historical analogies: Pearl Harbor of course, but also the Sputnik shock (end of invulnerability), the Vietnam war (end of innocence), the assassination of J. F. Kennedy or the bombing in Oklahoma City (as profound traumas in American psyche). As after Pearl Harbor, the attacks will fortify the will of American public opinion; but it may find itself frustrated in this new kind of war where few “deliverables” will be at hand and where no clear line between good and evil will be possible. The administration has shown great command of the situation, as during the EP3 incident earlier this year, but it is divided in two camps: those for the “unilateralist – maximalist” option and those who advocate the “coalition and strategic restraint” option. The latter have prevailed so far, but many variables could tilt the balance towards the former, including the pressure of public opinion, the possible break-up of the international coalition, a new attack on American soil, a proof of Saddam Hussein’s implication, or an unintended event. The war on terrorism is forcing the Bush administration into a new leadership role. On the longer run, it may also result in a new imperialist age for America, against its own will, through an increased intervention in other states’ affairs, a weakening of these states’ sovereignty, and a permanent military installation in Central or South Asia.