this way: When the anniversary articles come to be written on 11 September 2031, will commentators look back on a 30 years war against Islamist terrorism, comparable to the cold war, as the defining feature of world politics since 2001? I think not. They will most likely see this longer period as being defined by the historic power shift from west to east, with a much more powerful China and a less powerful United States, a stronger India and a weaker European Union.
As the Stanford historian Ian Morris points out in his mind-stretching book Why the West Rules — for Now, this geopolitical shift will occur within the larger frame of an unprecedented rate of technological advance, on the bright side, and an unprecedented array of global challenges, on the dark side.
Of course, this is only historically informed guesswork. But if things develop in anything like this direction (or in another direction unrelated to Islam) then the post-9/11 decade in US foreign policy will look like a detour — a massive, consequential detour, to be sure — rather than history’s main road.
Moreover, if the Arab spring fulfils its modernising promise, the terrorist attacks on New York, Madrid and London will look more than ever like blasts from the past: an ending, not an opening. Even if the Arab spring wanes into an Islamist winter this still does not mean that the struggle with illiberal and violent Islamism will be the defining feature of the next decades. Violent Islamism will remain a significant threat, but not, I suggest, the defining one.
What if the 9/11 attacks had not happened, and the US had continued to concentrate on the competition with China? What if it had realised how the West’s own victory at the end of the cold war, and the resulting globalisation of capitalism, had unleashed economic forces in the East which would become the greatest long-term challenge to the west? What if Washington had concluded that this competition required not more military might, but more and smarter investment in education, innovation, energy and the environment, and the full unfolding of America’s soft power? What if it had recognised that, faced with the renaissance of Asia, the relationship between consumption, investment and savings inside the US had to be rebalanced?
Instead America fought two wars at what economists would call a huge opportunity cost. It’s not just a matter of how much investment in human resources, skilled jobs, infrastructure and innovation the US could have bought for $ 4 trillion — or even for half that amount, if you make the generous assumption that $ 2 trillion was actually needed to reduce the terrorist threat to the US by military, intelligence and homeland security means.
Above all, it’s the opportunity cost in terms of national focus, energy and imagination. If you want to understand a country, ask who its heroes are. In this decade, the US has had two kinds of hero. One kind is the businessman-innovator: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates. The other is the warrior: the marine, the Navy SEAL, the firefighters, all “our men and women in uniform”.
What president Barack Obama says about job creation will be more important to them than even the most eloquent words he might muster when he speaks in Washington’s National Cathedral on the September 11 anniversary. Honour to those warriors, but the heroes America needs now are the heroes of job creation.
The author is a european Studies professor at Oxford University.
Guardian News Service