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Impact of 9/11 Attacks on International Relations

What impact did the attacks of 9/11 have on international relations


On September 11, 2001, the day that the collective consciousness of the world has designated as ‘9/11’, the United States suffered the deadliest terror attack in recent world history, leading to the death of almost 3000 people. The attacks also led to the US government declaring a ‘war on terror’. This had some ramifications in international relations and international law, as the ‘war on terror’ saw the Bush administration using 9/11 to leverage support for invading Iraq and then Afghanistan, two events that had impact on the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The administration also authorised the use of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which is under American control for housing terror suspects that were picked up from different parts of the world and tried by Military Commissions. The use of Guantanamo Bay for terror has been decried by international community, with Lord Steyn describing Guantanamo Bay as a ‘legal black hole’, where the prisoners could be detained indefinitely without interference of courts. There are many such events and decisions that have marked the US foreign policy in the wake of 9/11, which were not acceptable under international law, but which the US unilaterally carried out.

The impact of 9/11 is varied and can be seen in many different aspects of international law and relations. For the sake of brevity, this essay will focus on the 9/11 impact on the American foreign policy, which showed realism in the wake of 9/11 and how it unilaterally took certain steps. This saw a realignment in American relations with countries like the UK and Pakistan, which became American allies in the ‘war on terror’. However, at the outset it is pertinent to note that these realignments in international relations were rooted in the concept of national security and America justified its actions post 9/11 attacks in language that was couched in security terminology. The essay argues that despite the magnitude of the attacks and the aftereffects, there is nothing new or different in American foreign policy that would show a marked change in the way it perceived international relations, nor is there any such change in the way the world perceives America. America was and remains a country that is in the position to impose its will on the other regions of the world. In that sense, the idea of American indispensability and consequently, its ability to take unilateral actions that impact international relations, remains the same as it was before 9/11.

Impact of 9/11 on American Foreign Policy and International Relations

The immediate aftermath of 9/11 saw a number of scholarly efforts to understand the impact of 9/11 on international relations. For instance, Michael Cox said that it has become common to talk of post 9/11 era just as it was common to make references to postwar era or the post-Cold War era. Stephen Walt stated that the terrorist attacks that “destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon triggered the most rapid and dramatic change in the history of U.S. foreign policy.” About 14 years after some of this work was written it is pertinent to consider how far the impact was really felt on international relations in context of the US foreign policy.

Barry Buzan has said that “Terrorism, like other forms of political violence, not only undermines the individual’s security directly, it is likely also to increase the threats to individual security offered by the state itself, as well as those coming from other states.” The events of 9/11 and the post 9/11 ramifications point to the truth of this statement. The attacks that directly impacted America, indirectly went on to impact the rest of the world. The events of 9/11 woke the world to the threat of al Qaeda, which was directly blamed by the US for the attacks and the perception that there were similar such attacks that could possibly take place in the US and other countries in the world, predominantly the Western world that could be victimised by Jihadis. The strong perceived threats to both individual and state security led to the justifications for the Bush Administration declared ‘war on terror’, that unfortunately became the method for further violations of individual security in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, as Barry Buzan notes terrorism undermines security both to individual and state as well as threat to individual security from the state itself.

Despite the immediate international hysteria due to 9/11, some scholars argue that 9/11 has not had a very major impact on international relations. This is said in the background of comparison between 9/11 and other major events in recent history that had major impact on international relations, such as, World War I, Pearl Harbour, and the end of Cold War. Buzan also argued that each line of international relations theory claimed relevance in explaining September 11 and its aftermath and that neither the balance of claims nor the nature of the tensions amongst these existing theories has been changed due to the impact of 9/11. Here, a mention of realism is important.

As a theory, realism has yet again been proved to be the driving force behind American foreign policy after the events of 9/11. In effect, the aftermath of 9/11 saw the US foreign policy taking a very aggressive and unilateral stance on how it viewed its own security and what it expected from its friends and allies. President Bush famously remarked, “every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” This was the American point of view and it marked an increasingly realist positioning in the American foreign policy. This led to the American led efforts in ‘war on terror’, which also marked the departure from settled principles on international law on prohibitions of interventions and use of force.

In its post 9/11 actions, American foreign policy has not made any significant departure from its hegemonic viewpoint, that became an integral part of its foreign policy after the Second World War. In this, America has increasingly viewed itself as the the guarantor of global security, wherein its presence or absence itself can determine the success or failure of multilateral endeavours. Therefore, the post 9/11 Bush Administration stance of ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ to make world nations either actively support or passively acquiesce

with American actions, is not a significant departure from its foreign policy and the world response to the unilateralist aggressive stance to America was not a significant departure from the established international relations. This is also confirmed by the international response to the US-led invasion of Iraq soon after 9/11, which saw a breach of norms‬ regarding non- intervention and the sovereignty of‬‬ states, which are central to the pluralist strand‬‬ of international relations‬‬. The post 9/11 world also saw that despite American breach of international law, other states did not offer diplomatic or military support to Iraq, despite there being a UN regime for the correction of such international wrongs. Within the UN itself, the one organ that could take decisive action against the American invasion of Iraq, was the Security Council. However, as US and its coalition partner UK, are permanent members of the UN Security Council with the veto powers, such action was inconceivable. This is a privilege of the permanent membership, that the US has along with the other permanent members enjoyed since the establishment of the UN. After 9/11, Bush Administration used these privileges to continue a unilateral foreign policy agenda towards those that it considered as terror sponsoring nations, but with lesser international censure for some time at least, because the world was still coming to terms with the gravity of the terror attacks and there was a lot of moral panic that similar such attacks were being planned against America and other Western nations.

One author takes a significantly different view in his work, where he argues that 9/11 acted as a catalyst in the change in American foreign policy returning it to the crusading realism that was seen in American foreign policy of 50 years ago. He postulates that the events of 9/11 were a watershed moment in American foreign policy. However, his arguments are also exposed to some criticism. Even if it is considered that 9/11 provided the Bush Administration with a solid justification, which could be presented to the American public for its foreign policy in the invasion of Iraq and then Afghanistan, it does not mean that the American governments had not

taken similar steps in the past for different reasons. There are a number of direct interventions, such as in Vietnam and Iraq that US has entered into in the past as well. The difference is that the earlier instances were justified on different basis, whereas post 9/11, the American government has justified its actions on the basis of security.

There was in fact nothing new in the American foreign policy after 9/11 and the post terror attacks events simply see America continuing with its earlier policy but with a different justification that was grounded in a security agenda, which given the post 9/11 atmosphere of moral panic, was easier to implement. It may be said that the Bush doctrine was simply a continuation of earlier policies, but it was couched in a more aggressive and rhetoric language. The use of rhetoric helped it get more attention from the people of the US as well as around the world. This led to a spinning of literature that hypothesized that something new and novel was taking place in international relations, with the United States adopting a different foreign policy strategy. However, the only real change that happened was how the United States viewed security as well as threat to security and how much force it was willing to mobilise in order to counter that threat.


Contrary to the arguments of some writers, the American foreign policy did not see a watershed moment in the events of 9/11 in the same way as postwar and post Cold-War events were seen to influence foreign policy and international relations. There was a continuation of the foreign policy that was already well established in the philosophy of exceptionalism and indispensability of the US.



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