The World Trade Center attacks were horrifying, but the intervening years have been safer and more prosperous than we might have expected, writes Richard Fenning.
Each generation assumes it lives through tumultuous times. But as we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the last decade will surely be remembered as one of extraordinary volatility and insecurity. We now assume that 9/11 not only changed the world, but set in train a global geopolitical rollercoaster ride.
The evidence seems compelling. 9/11 propelled al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden from shadowy obscurity to global infamy overnight. The US and its allies went to war in Afghanistan to destroy the group’s capability to stage a repeat performance, before being distracted into regime change in Iraq.
Al-Qaida and its affiliates continued to plan attacks. Some succeeded, others were frustrated by massive international counter-terrorism efforts. But we became conditioned to the inevitability of future attacks. This anxiety was used to justify forms of intelligence-gathering - extraordinary rendition, water-boarding - we had previously preferred not to know about.
Public support fractured. Moral clarity was partly replaced by cynicism in the West as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq became less about building shiny new nations and more about bringing our troops home with a modicum of dignity intact. Western opinion seemed to oscillate between aggressive defensiveness from the political right and hand-wringing contrition from the left. There seemed little space for consensus.
In the Muslim world, responses varied. In countries like Saudi Arabia, pragmatic support for the US remained firm, founded on shared animosity to Iran, and fear of local, radical Islamism. In Pakistan, the Afghan spillover ruptured fragile political stability, culminating in the killing of bin Laden by US Special Forces a few miles from a top military establishment. The prospect of an enduring peace between Israel and Palestine remains pretty much where it was ten years ago: nowhere.
But to everyone’s surprise - including a deflated al-Qaida - the decade ends with the ‘Arab spring’ dispatching rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya. Syria hangs in the balance. Theirs is an unfinished story in which unpredictability is the only certainty.
Threats do seem to be multiplying. Somalia, no longer a state in anything other than name, is currently ravaged by an entirely avoidable famine, while teenaged pirates push ever further from its shores to hold the global shipping industry to ransom. Where Somalia leads, Yemen follows.
The spate of natural disasters in recent years - Louisiana, Haiti, Queensland, Japan - further magnifies the sense that our fragile planet is in peril. And economic performance provides no comfort. The US and Europe are still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis, while the US’s economic woes have reduced its political processes to a farce. Or is it the other way around?
Greece is now - to adapt a phrase - Upper Volta with temples. And even if the euro survives, it will be many years before the cause of greater pan-European integration regains any genuine credibility. While the UK is trying not to be smug about the misfortune of its continental near-neighbours, its banking system is up to its neck in euro debt. In Europe, only Germany seems to know the secret elixir for strong growth combining upper-end manufacturing with a modern service economy.
So is it any surprise that this catalogue of calamity and woe should leave us feeling insecure? Of course not. But it is an inaccurate view of the world.
For a start, it is a singularly trans-Atlantic perspective. The last ten years feel very different if you have spent them in Beijing, Bangalore or, indeed, Bogotá. We take for granted the extraordinary economic transformation under way in India, China, Turkey, South Korea, Brazil and many others.
But it is India and China that stand out for the way they have reshaped the world. Inevitably, the West tends to focus on China as a rival and India as a partner. This may be reality or a function of cultural familiarity. In consequence, less attention is given to the stabilising impact of China’s integration into the world economy and the opportunities that this creates.
Of course, much could go wrong. A successful outcome to China’s cultivation of free-ish market capitalism without Western-style democracy is not assured. So much depends on China’s meritocratic leadership steering a steady course both internationally and domestically, and managing a declining and increasingly expensive labour force. By contrast, Manmohan Singh apart, India prospers despite, not because, of its political leadership.
But the key point is that nearly all the world is open for business on an unprecedented scale. And Chinese and Indian growth has been hugely important in creating this prosperity. Since 2001, the global economy has grown from $47 trillion to $74 trillion, the world’s population has increased by 800m, and millions have been lifted out of poverty. At some point in 2008, a majority of us started living in cities, an accelerating trend with significant implications for improved literacy and productivity in the developing world, but also for security, infrastructural capacity, supply-chain integrity and intellectual-property protection.
Despite these massive changes, since 9/11 there have been fewer wars, fewer coups, fewer refugees and fewer terrorist attacks than at any time in the recent past. More people than ever before will be able to live longer and more safely, earn more, trade more freely and fairly, and improve their children’s prospects. Even in perennial under-performer Africa there will be 20 elections this year, not all of them models of Scandinavian-style democracy admittedly, but nevertheless progress of sorts.
This is not to underplay the seriousness of the problems we face. Nuclear proliferation, terrorism, extremism, famine, poverty, fraud and corruption, resource nationalism, organised crime, environmental degradation, economic shocks: all these and more are stacked up all around us. They will command all our ingenuity and a quality of political leadership not obviously in abundant supply.
But this has been a decade when we have made a profound shift in improving our per-capita prosperity and security and, crucially, our dependence on each other. The US may fear China, but it needs it to fund its budget deficit. China may resent continued US economic supremacy, but it needs access to US markets to keep economic growth at the level needed to maintain social cohesion. Of course, this degree of economic inter-dependence heightens the contagion risk, but, overall, mutuality is a stabilising restraint.
So, 9/11 did not alter the fundamentals that will shape the next decade: China’s rise; the progressive integration of emerging markets into global decision-making; the explosion in ‘south-south’ trade; rapid urbanisation; resource scarcity; and a ‘civilian surge’ of political activism, powered by ubiquitous social networking. The world does not follow neat lines. It is noisy, contradictory and never quite how it seems.
The good news is that many companies are better at dealing with all of this than governments - better at distinguishing risk from fear and better at responding to the unexpected. Others are less able to adjust, seeing risk where they might see opportunity and feeling lost when events overtake their carefully laid plans. Success in the future will favour those best able to see the world as it is: more chaotic and unpredictable, but also safer and more prosperous than we might feel able to admit on this sad anniversary.