To what extent has the agenda of world politics changed by the al-Quaeda attacks on the USA on September 11th 2001?

Since the end of the Second World War, various forms of threat have challenged global order. Clearly nothing since 1945 has been so devastating, but waves in the ocean that is the modern world order have challenged global leaders into difficult times. At first with the continuing rise to power of the Soviet Union and their massive efforts to strive towards nuclear domination against the United States, the world braced itself for the onset of potential nuclear war. Never was this so evident than in 1962 and the events of the Cuban missile crisis. But as the Cold War slowly came to an end with the dismantling of the USSR, world politics looked to be finally settling towards a far more peaceful period. “The international community is now pre-occupied with other issues such as the search for a ‘New World Order’, the disparities in wealth between developed and developing countries and environmental issues” (White, Little & Smith, 2001, p2), but on September 11th 2001, it became clear that this agenda needed to be firmly changed. A terrorist group had killed thousands on American soil, though many would argue that it was not unexpected (Fred Halliday quotes in ‘The World in 2000’ having discussed the embassy bombings in East Africa which were also linked to al-Quaeda that: “there is no reason to believe that such actions will not recur…”(Halliday, 2001 (pre Sept 11th), p51)), it changed Western foreign policies. The seeming ease at which al-Quaeda had infiltrated US commercial airplanes and driven them into the heart of the capitalist West, made evident to not just America, but the rest of the world the vulnerability of anyone considered an al-Quaeda enemy.

Before we look to what extent world politics changed after September 11th, it is important to see what made up the International agenda preceding it. As I have just mentioned the Western world seems pre-occupied in its efforts to eradicate world poverty and erase the pending environmental threats created from over a century of industrialisation. After 1945, war has been prevalent globally; none so devastating as World War Two, but yet the globe has seen conflict everyday since 1945. However as we moved into the 21st century, we left behind the Cold War, the East-West divide almost disintegrated with the fall of the Berlin war, and nations have been able to concentrate on economic growth as oppose to defence. This is especially true of the United States (though still they have the biggest national defence budget in the world). The 21st century seemed to bring peace and prosperity to the Capitalist West; until September 11th. White, Little and Smith argue that global agenda is one of ‘advance and defend’ (White, Little & Smith, 2001, p5). Though this obviously includes advances in technology and economy, and not just that of defence (or advance) from potential attack. But even before September 11th, we see the rise of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism. The rise of the Muslim world has caused conflict in many areas, causing great concern to some Western countries. It is an important issue of world politics, and one that was seen as “an inevitable confrontation between Islam and the West” (White, Little ; Smith, 2001, pp6-7)

September 11th therefore changed the importance of Islamic relations and the Western world, but it is not Islam that is responsible for the atrocities, it is the terrorist group al-Quaeda. The agenda of world politics had to change to

confront Terrorism. Terrorism had always been an enemy, but whereas before it was considered merely a ‘low-intensity conflict’ (Kaldor, 2001, p2), now it dominated world affairs. The events of September 11th had been broadcast live around the world, it had shown that USA, the worlds most powerful country, to be as frail and susceptible to attack as any other Western country. The United States had to respond, and the birth of the ‘War on Terror’ began. George W. Bush, the president of the United States responded in 2002 saying: “The storms of violence cannot go on. Enough is enough”. (Kegley ; Wittkopf, 2002, p404)

Terrorism is now a global threat, before September 11th, terrorism had always been considered (with a few exceptions) that of a group or cause bringing attention to a wide audience what they stood for. “Terrorists want a lot of people watching, not a lot of people dead” (Kegley ; Wittkopf, 2004, p440). But this is where a major transition has occurred, for now terrorist want to cause as much damage as possible: “pursued by fanatical extremists to annihilate through maximum blood shed rather than to persuade” (Kegley ; Wittkopf, 2004, p442) They hold dangerous weapons of lethal proportions and seek to actively destroy their targets. They are a small minority with no state endorsement, but as September 11th showed they have the capabilities to launch attacks anywhere.

After the bombings in East Africa, which again were targeted at US embassies and linked to al-Quaeda, the US retaliated by firing cruise missiles into Afghanistan, a place considered highly likely to have harboured terrorists. (Halliday, 2001, p51) It was of little surprise that just one month after the September 11th atrocities, Afghanistan was once again under attack. This time however the US led attack was far more ruthless in its attempts to not only to end the Taliban regime, known for its extensive links to al-Quaeda, but to destroy al-Quaeda, its camps, its training ground and its infamous leader; Osama Bin Laden. The main issues arising from the war in Afghanistan was one of fairness, was this a Just War?

The question of a Just War is the hardest arising from the post September 11th political agenda. Jean Bethke Elshtain states that “a carefully worked out and unprovoked act of terror against non-combatants of one’s own country is injury – an act of war – that demands a response” (Booth ; Dunne, 2002, p263). Afghanistan was that response. But with September 11th it is difficult to target an enemy, who by their very nature are covert and underground. In attacking Afghanistan the coalition forces were targeting al-Quaeda, but at the same time they were demolishing the Taliban regime, a power that were clearly not the perpetrators of September 11th. However this is in George Bush’s own words a ‘War on Terror, and as the Taliban had been sympathetic of al-Quaeda then the dismantling of their regime allowed for a country to be eradicated of terrorist cells. In this sense it is arguable to entitle the confrontation Just.

The end of 2002 and the very beginning of 2003, saw the major swing in foreign policy. Afghanistan had been the USA’s response to September 11th, it had been quick and decisive. It sent out a strong message that terrorist did not frighten America: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”1 But the US led attack on Iraq early in 2003 showed to the world that the West (especially America and Britain) were not prepared to sit around waiting for another attack. They believed that not only did terrorists subsist in Iraq under the full knowledge of Saddam Hussein’s regime, but also that Saddam Hussein had capabilities to unleash Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) within 45 minutes. Bush claimed Hussein was on the brink of becoming a Nuclear power, and had all intention to use this power. As Winston Churchill so famously quoted: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Kegley ; Wittkopf, 2004, p8), Bush could remember the past, just one year before he mounted his justification on war in Iraq, the World Trade Centres had fallen. His Political agenda became controversial because Saddam Hussein had never invaded America.

He had an appalling human rights record after his purges on the Kurdish inhabitants of his country, but whether this required foreign military intervention was seriously questioned. Bush simply could not afford to wait any longer. Though al-Quaeda had struck before with massive casualties in East Africa, the victims had been mostly African, and it was thousands of miles away to affect American people. September 11th showed that no longer could a defence stance be taken, and Iraq was the first to discover this. Once again, like Afghanistan, the American led force into Iraq took a moral stance claiming that the Iraqi people were suffering under Saddam’s brutal dictatorship, and his previous massacres, prominently that of the Kurdish village of Halabja.

One thing that did arise from the invasion of Iraq was the lack of UN backing. Bush declared straight away that an invasion would take place with or without the UN’s approval.2 By doing this the United Nations becomes seemingly worthless, an establishment that over the past 50 years has proved highly successful at preventing international conflict.

The United States agenda on world politics has therefore changed so much since September 11th 2001, that in order to protect its inhabitants, in what it believes is a threat of potentially catastrophic proportions, it will ignore the United Nations. It affects world politics for not only the reason that many Western countries joined the American led invasion (Britain, Poland, Spain, Ukraine, Italy, Denmark for example) but America, being the most powerful country in the world is powerful enough in itself to change political agendas. After World War One many saw America’s non-membership of the League of Nations as a major reason for the rise of Germany. Had America had a major influence within the league, and had the league been successfully armed than war may have been prevented at an earlier stage. I am not suggesting a Third War is on the horizon, but merely that even though America ignored the UN, it will receive backing.

In conclusion it is difficult to look on a broad scale how world politics changed following the al-Quaeda attacks on the USA. Even before the attacks, Islamic fundamentalism and the growth of terrorists groups such as al-Quaeda, foreign policy had slowly begun to swing towards the problems arising. September 11th was merely the catalyst that accelerated the political machine into full force. Both al-Quaeda and America were fighting a war: “Each putting their global coalitions together and mounting attacks into the enemy heartland over long distances, but the principles behind their operations were timeless” (Booth & Dunne, 2002, p45). I have focused mainly on the United States during this essay and for the one good reason that no other country was greater effected by September 11th as America. “The United States is the keystone in the arch of a hegemonic order in world politics” (Booth & Dunne, 2002, p234) But asked how ‘world politics’ has been changed, we must consider that the United States plays a massive role in the contemporary world arena, and whatever they choose to do in terms of their global agenda, it sends reverberations around the world. But with the recent war in Iraq, it is clear that not only America considers the threat from terrorists one that needs immediate attention. It has divided many countries opinion, some less keen to actively pursue countries such as Iraq with connections to terrorism. Colin Gray poses the question “has September 11th effected any noticeable major changes in political behaviour within the realist paradigm?” (Booth & Dunne, 2002, pp226-7) For which I would agree with his answer. Really all September 11th has done is reconfirm what was already realised as the new Post Cold War foreign policy, that terrorist organisations exist and must be eradicated. September 11th highlighted the need however, for the process to be increased if such atrocities are to be avoided in the future.