September 11 prompted much speculation about how profoundly the United States
would be changed by the terrorist attacks. A year later, it is remarkable how
little things have changed. Whether it is foreign policy, public attitudes or
domestic politics, American life is largely back to normal.
Many US allies, and more than a few Americans, believed the terrorist attacks
would cure the Bush administration of its taste for unilateralism. They expected
to see a different foreign policy one grounded in greater appreciation of allies
That expectation initially seemed justified. The US did not lash out blindly
at Al Qaeda. It sought NATO and UN support. It forged unprecedented
international law-enforcement and intelligence co-operation.
But more recently, with efforts to derail the international criminal court,
talk of toppling Saddam Hussein with or without allies, and President Bush’s
no-show in Johannesburg, the administration’s unilateralist impulses returned in
What happened to America’s more enlightened foreign policy?
Truth be told, there never was one. September 11 did not, contrary to what
many thought, shake President Bush’s core foreign policy beliefs. Quite the
contrary. It confirmed them. He and his senior advisers had repeatedly warned
against the terrorist danger and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. So
while the terrorists’ methods surprised them, the fact that they tried did not.
With their world view confirmed, it was not surprising the administration
stuck to the foreign policy it had pursued before September 11. It is a foreign
policy of hard-core realism, one that believes the powerful get their way if
they are willing to exercise their power.
That view will drive the administration’s decision making on Iraq. If it
retreats from a go-it-alone march on Baghdad, it will be because it decides that
the price tag is too high, not because it suddenly discovers the virtues of
What about the American people? They have done just what President Bush asked
them to do get on with their lives. Most Americans tell pollsters that September
11 did not fundamentally change their daily lives and that they don’t fear for
their personal safety.
Their behaviour reflects those views. The shopping malls remain crowded and
the hot topic of the summer was whether overpaid baseball players would go on
The public’s return to business as usual reflects the reality that,
horrifying as they were, the terrorist attacks did not directly affect most
Americans. In that respect, they differed profoundly from another attack they
are often likened to that on Pearl Harbour.
Americans in 1941 might not have watched the Japanese attack unfold live on
their television screens but their lives changed overnight. Hundreds of
thousands of men suddenly found themselves in uniform. Women left the home to
work in factories.
None of that happened after September 11, and not because Americans today
have less character than the World War II generation. They simply didn’t need to
change their behaviour. America’s immense military power and the unconventional
nature of the Al Qaeda threat made national mobilisation and sacrifice
There has also been a return to everyday politics. The bipartisan unity that
gripped Washington after the attacks has collapsed. Congress no longer bows
automatically to the White House on foreign policy witness the growing
complaints about President Bush’s Iraq policy. And with both Democrats and
Republicans vying for control of Congress in the November elections, talk of
terrorism has been eclipsed by arguments over how to improve education and
provide prescription drug benefits to senior citizens.
Some no doubt will lament that the terrorist attacks did not produce
fundamental changes in the US. Yet the very fact that life has returned to
normal is evidence that the terrorists failed in their bid to cow Americans.