9/11 undermined trust in the competence of government

Michael Cox
Emeritus Professor,
London School of Economics

In response to the question: September 11 changed America, but did it change the world?

A year after 9/11, I got into an academic spat with a colleague about how to make sense of the attack and whether it would have a significant long-term impact on world politics. I tended to the view that its consequences were likely to be great; that it would indeed ‘shake the world’. My colleague rated its importance much less highly, insisting that unlike the Cold War, it would not define the state system, or like the end of the Cold War, change the structure of the international order.

We did, however, agree on one thing: that it would have been almost impossible to have anticipated the precise way in which the Bush administration decided to respond to 9/11. There was no logical reason, for instance, for it to have interpreted the attacks as constituting the beginning of a “long war”. It could just as easily have viewed 9/11 as a one-off. Nor was there any necessary connection between 9/11 and the US decision to invade Iraq 18 months later. If anything, this action was less determined by 9/11 than by the nature of the Bush administration, the people in it, and their reading of the past, not to mention their idiosyncratic understanding of the Middle East and its problems. Indeed, another US administration, led by Al Gore, would almost certainly not have invaded Iraq. But we are still forced to ask the question: how did those few hours on 11 September 2001 change the world?

9/11 changed the United States itself, and not for the better.

The climate crisis, for one thing, had nothing at all to do with what occurred in September 2001. We all did that. Nor was globalisation much changed by 9/11; global business just went on and on! It is true that economist Jim O’Neill came up with the idea of the BRICs economies (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) in the wake of 9/11 and because of 9/11. But their later development had little to do with the attack itself. Asia’s economic rise also had little to do with 9/11; and unless I have been reading the wrong books, the great crash of 2008 was more determined by financiers and bankers than terrorists.

But, even if we accept that 9/11 did not define the world in, say, the same way as the Cold War — my colleague was therefore correct in issuing a health warning — its impact nonetheless was immense.

First, 9/11 changed the United States itself, and not for the better, making it less tolerant towards others, more nationalistic, and increasingly more divided against itself. Moreover, when the war in Iraq began to go badly wrong, which many in the wider international relations community predicted it might, it undermined trust in government or, more precisely, in the competence of those who ruled. In any functioning democracy, scepticism of those in power is no bad thing. But when a lack of trust segues into a complete distrust of all established politicians — something Donald Trump exploited to the full in 2016 — then the way is left open for the populists. And we know what followed when they took over the White House.

While the United States remained bogged down fighting wars across the Middle East…China steadily progressed along its trajectory towards major power status unimpeded.

The 9/11 attacks, followed by the Iraq war, also impacted on British politics by destroying the reputation of Prime Minister Tony Blair. However, it was not just Blair’s reputation that suffered. So too did the “Third Way” project and along with it the whole idea of New Labour. And we all know to whom the Labour Party then turned in 2015: Jeremy Corbyn, an avowed enemy of New Labour and of what for decades had been mainstream Labour Party thinking on foreign policy which hitherto had included a “special” relationship with the United States, strong support for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and for Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. Corbyn turned all this on its head and pushed the Party in a completely new direction. This was no doubt popular with his left-wing supporters, but proved much less so with the British electorate, and in 2019 Labour suffered a crushing defeat from which it might take at least a generation to recover.

Finally, in terms of the wider world, there is, I suggest, a link of sorts between 9/11 and perhaps the most important development of the following 20 years: China’s explosive entry onto the world stage. China would no doubt have risen in power and stature without the attacks. But in the War on Terror, the United States was prepared to make every concession to build bridges to potential rivals — defined as “responsible stakeholders” — such as China. This may have been a wise and necessary policy back then. But while the United States remained bogged down fighting wars across the Middle East, from which it has been trying to extract itself ever since, China steadily progressed along its trajectory towards major power status unimpeded, that is until the United States woke up to the fact that it might have a serious long-term challenge on its hands; one that will prove every bit as difficult to deal with — if not more so — as 9/11.

One can only hope it does a better job responding this time round.

Challenge the expert

Lydia Khalil, Lowy Institute’s resident expert on terrorism and extremism, challenges Michael Cox’s key arguments.

Were the 9/11 attacks and the execution of the War on Terror really the things that undermined trust in democratic governance and gave rise to populism, as you argue? What about other events or factors such as the 2007–08 financial crisis and the rise in inequality from decades of neo-liberal economic policies? Could those events and factors possibly be more consequential?

I think I was referring more to the Iraq war than 9/11 itself, and here there is little doubt that what one writer has called a “blunder” has certainly raised questions in many people’s minds about the trustworthiness of those who made the case for it. But as you rightly suggest, many things have undermined trust in government over the past 20 years, including the fallout from the 2008 economic crisis, a realisation that globalisation does not benefit all, and a feeling that there is, to use an old-fashioned term, “one law for the rich and another for the rest of us”. I would also now have to include the ineffective ways (and that’s putting it politely) in which a number of Western governments have dealt with the COVID crisis. Populist distrust has also fed on a deep strain of nativism in Western countries, which has looked for scapegoats to explain away society’s ills — from unemployment through to low wages and poor job prospects — and found them, unfortunately, in immigrants and refugees.

You say 9/11 didn’t exactly define our world in the way the Cold War did. Will the new era of great power competition between the United States and China be more defining in the way that the Cold War was?

I am not sure about it being “more defining” or less. This will all depend on how this particular competition works out over the longer term. But there is no doubt that the relationship is in crisis, and neither side looks like it sees a way of returning to the “good old days” when the United States saw China as a “responsible stakeholder” and China viewed the United States as a useful “partner”. All that has now gone out of the window, to be replaced by a great deal of fevered rhetoric on both sides, made all the more dangerous because of domestic politics and the playing up of enemy images of the “other”. It is worth recalling though that the Cold War proper did in the end remain “cold”, and unlike some analysts, I still think there are powerful incentives on both sides to manage the relationship with great care. It is simply too important — and “too big to fail”.

You point to the War on Terror — the Iraq war in particular — as setting back the cause of New Labour and damaging the cause of centre-left politics across democracies. Is it really fair to lay the blame on the Iraq war for the crisis facing centre-left political parties? What about the structural decline of the traditional Labour voter base?

I was primarily talking about the United Kingdom and Tony Blair, not centre-left parties more generally, which have had a hard time defining a role for themselves, partly for the reason you give and partly because it is no longer easy to know what a left-leaning government would do differently from a conservative one. Look at the United Kingdom, where even Boris Johnson has talked of “levelling up”. But all is not lost. Indeed, post-COVID, there is a broad agreement that we will need to “build back better”, which in plain language means that we can no longer rely on the market alone to address the challenges ahead. As a recent International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds panel put it, in the future the state is going to have to “step in to support a weakened private sector get the economy on its feet. In emerging markets, where the private sector and the savings base are small, government participation in the economy is critical to support and develop existing sectors, but also to catalyse the creation of new sectors, such as renewable energy, technology and healthcare that will help the country thrive in the future”. In such a challenging environment, centre-left parties could easily play an important role. Perhaps Joe Biden is showing us all the way?

Professor Michael Cox is Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, and co-founded LSE IDEAS, a foreign policy centre based at the LSE which aims to bring the academic and policy words together. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Catholic University in Milan and is the author, editor, and co-editor of several books, including most recently The Post-Cold War World (2018), a new centennial edition of Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace (2019), a reissue of E. H. Carr’s 1945 classic Nationalism and After (2021), and forthcoming Agonies of Empire: American Power from Clinton to Biden.