Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Ten Years Later (Lessons from History 9)

Everyone knows where they were ten years ago yesterday. Everyone has their own story of that day. I remember coming home from school and turning the TV on to watch the usual mixture of rubbish CBBC cartoons and Blue Peter. What I ended up watching for the next hour or so was the news. There was nothing else on, and, even if there had been, neither me nor my brother would have changed the channel.

I was only nine at the time. I had no idea what the World Trade Centre was. I had no idea of the political and social magnitude of the events unfolding on my TV screen. I did understand the enormous human tragedy that was happening. And I think I was vaguely aware, even then, that the world was going to be a very different place from now on.

It would be fair to say that I did most of my ‘growing-up’ in the post-9/11 era. Prior to 9/11 I knew basically nothing about the world outside my own little bubble, as is to be expected for a nine year old, but since then I have become more and more aware of the world in which I live. 9/11 is something of a reference point for that awareness. I’m not aware of much that happened before 9/11, but I have a pretty good idea of what has happened since.

This is not merely a coincidence of my age. Everyone who is anywhere near my age, from about mid twenties down to 17 or 18, probably has roughly the same experience – 9/11 is the first major international incident they remember. Historians do not always define when a century begins and end by the actual turning of a calendar century. Instead they look at critical turning-point which had world-changing consequences. For example, the 19th century is not really said to begin until 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, likewise the 20th century begins in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. I think posterity will define the 21st century as beginning on 11th September 2001.

So, what has changed? 10 years on, how is the world different? For better or for worse? Apart from making a lot more hassle to take a plane journey and radically altering the New York skyline, that is.

The 20th Century is often seen as America’s century. The century in which America rose in economic, political and military might, to replace the old empires, most notably the British, that dominated the 19th. American fought, first on the battlefield, then through political means, Fascist Germany and Communist Russia to become the one and only World Superpower, built on and supported by Free Market Capitalism.

As the first time since Perl Harbour that a foreign power has attacked American territory, and the first time in a long time that attack has been on the American mainland, or against civilians, 9/11 marked a very stark contrast to anything that had happened for most of the previous century. Subsequent political, economic and military failures, along with a lot of social introspection from many parts of America, are perhaps indicative of the American decline from world ascendency. It could, of course, be argued that Vietnam was a far worse military disaster than Afghanistan or Iraq, and that the Great Depression had far worse economical impact than the current recession, but neither of those resulted in quite the same loss of confidence as the last ten years have.

I wrote, a few months ago, about the impact 9/11 is still having on the American consciousness; the hurt that the American people still feel in the aftermath of 9/11. I won’t go over the same old ground today, but I will discuss the wider political impact of 9/11 and the events after it.

9/11 was understood very much in terms of an attack on America, which is probably fair, although perhaps seeing it in terms of an attack on western, capitalist, Christian democracy might be more accurate from the point of view of the terrorists. From the point of view of American politicians, the only way to respond to such an attack would be with an attack in kind, a war. When Al-Qaeda came forward and claimed responsibility for the attack, they became a clear target. However, Al-Qaeda is not as easy a target as Nazi Germany, or the targets of all the proxy wars that made up the Cold War. Al-Qaeda is one of several international terrorist organisations, with a lose affiliation of different semi-autonomous groups working under them. You can’t simply send army into the middle-east and conquer which ever countries harbour such groups.

Unfortunately this is exactly what the USA did and managed to find itself embroiled in two major and bloody conflicts, against groups that tend to just melt away, rather than face them in open combat. They now have to concentrate forces in peace keeping and rebuilding the countries that they invaded, rather than actually trying to defeat the enemy upon which they declared war.

The problem is that they did not really declare war on an enemy at all. America declared a War on Terror, which is a rather mind-boggling and confusing concept – how can one have a war on an emotion? Presumably what they really meant was a War on Terrorists or, more specifically, a war on the terrorists who target the USA specifically and The West in general – I don’t see them going against the Tamil Tigers or the Basque Separatists.

Even so, a war against a rather disparate group of people was never going to be terribly successful, because they don’t tend to present a unified front. Invading Afghanistan and, more bafflingly, Iraq was never going to solve anything in terms of international terrorism. Indeed it was only likely to make matters worse. The threat of terrorism has not really gone down all that much and the only reason there have not been more such attacks is the amount of security at airports and other such entry points. War in the Middle East has done far less than the work of Anti-terrorism laws and officers working to prevent such attacks.

The American response to 9/11 was disastrous. It committed thousands of American troops into wars that are still not won; it, in particular the invasion of Iraq, brought into question the exact motivations behind the wars, given Iraq’s complete lack of connection with Al-Qaeda; it made it clear that America no long has the economic and military power to dictate terms to anyone (if it ever did). America’s methods, the methods that worked at least fairly well in the Cold War, the method of aggressive rhetoric followed up by aggressive action if the need arose, worked when the opponent had very much the same attitude (and almost resulted in nuclear war…), but against an enemy that is largely faceless and disorganised, it failed miserably.

Add to this failure, the collapse of the economic system in recent years and you have a perfect storm. The failure of the economy showed, from the point of view of America, that is, that Capitalism is not a perfect system and that prosperity is not ever-lasting. Combine that with the realisation that their political and military power is waning, and you get something of a collapse in confidence, the kind of collapse that sees political upheaval such as the row over the healthcare bill and the rise of extreme movements like the Tea Party movement.

Trying to predict the future is one of those things that usually lead you to looking like an idiot. It’s pretty much inevitable that you will be wrong, so it’s usually a fool’s errant. However, as a fool, I might offer some prediction. I think it is already pretty clear that America is not the superpower it once was. Much like the British Empire at the turn of the last century, its power is fading and I can only see it fading further. I don’t think anyone is in a position at the moment to offer a suggestion as to who might place America at the top, if indeed any single nation will. If the 19th century was Britain’s and the 20th was America’s, time will tell to whom the 21st belongs. 

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