The World after 9/11

43614311 - manhattan skyline and the towers of lights at sunset in new yorkHow has the world changed fifteen years after 9/11? How have these changes affected the western hemisphere and emerging countries in particular?

It’s been said that the attacks marked the privatization of the “enemy.” The enemy ceased to be a state and became a group of individuals with a large degree of autonomy from any state. The diffuse nature of the enemy, and its complexity, gave rise to, or accelerated the use of, new techniques and methods employed by the military and intelligence apparatus. (Transnational drones, for instance, are highly emblematic of the post-9/11 world.)

On the American home front, after 9/11 the always delicate balance between liberty and security tipped towards the latter. The role assumed by the National Security Agency and the Patriot Act became symbols of the severe price paid by individual freedoms.

Outside of the United States, the most obvious major consequence of 9/11 was the rise of the Middle East (as well as the Maghreb) and Islam as the nerve-center of Western geopolitical and ideological preoccupations. The mistrust that surrounds all things Muslim is highly noticeable. The other side of this coin has been the resurgence, or strengthening, of populist nationalism.

Political phenomena that seem very different from each other, such as the rise of Trump and Sanders in the United States, or Syriza and the National Front in Greece and France, to mention only a few, reflect the protectionist, anti-foreign mentality of the post-9/11 world. To be sure, the financial crisis and the perception that international capitalism was the culprit have played a role, but post-9/11 nationalism had already laid the ground for the kind of economic nationalism we saw after 2008/9.

The new nationalism comes with new perceptions. Too many of us have come to see the “other” with suspicion and sometimes with rancor. If the other is Muslim, those sentiments are particularly heightened. The recent decision by several French municipalities to ban the “burkini” (later reversed by a French court) is symptomatic of the knee-jerk reaction to what is different about the other, as was the banning of the burka and the veil a few years earlier.

For Latin America, the terrorist attacks meant a major shift in the priorities of the governments and public opinions of developed countries vis-à-vis the emerging countries. People forget that George W. Bush began his administration with the very public intention of legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants and taking relations with Latin America to a new level of engagement, through the Free Trade Area of the Americas. After 9/11, Bush changed his focus and lost interest in the region. (Latin American left-wing populism, which opposed the idea of the hemisphere-wide free circulation of goods, services and capital, also played a part.) The war on terror consumed the rest of Bush’s foreign policy—and a large part of his domestic agenda. Obama, for all his criticism of Bush, did not change that.

The existing barriers that hamper the free circulation of goods, services, capital and people, and those that are likely to come into being in the not too distant future, also owe something to 9/11. Not a single Middle Eastern or African country is included in the U.S. visa waiver program, while the Europeans who enjoy this luxury do so on the condition that they have not traveled to Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and a few other predominantly Muslim countries. In all of Latin America only the people of Chile and French Guiana (who are actually citizens of France), can partake in the program. 9/11 wasn’t the only cause of trade and travel restrictions—the impact of the financial crisis and the end of the commodities boom also had something to do with this—but the post-9/11 atmosphere has served as an enabling, encouraging context.

There is an important lesson in this. There is no linear path and direct progression towards universal civilization. The twenty-first century was supposed to be all about emerging countries marching towards development via globalization, a world gradually but steadily devoid of barriers in which every country would espouse increased integration with every other (with China, of course, spearheading the ascent of the group). But there are still too many roadblocks on the path to civilization, and 9/11 has contributed in a major way. Both the fanaticism coming from a part of the world where religion is still intertwined with politics and the fearful chauvinism of secular nations merit blame.

Most of the emerging countries espouse only limited freedoms, and many that seemed intent on breaking the shackles of tyranny, particularly those of the Arab Spring, have opted for dictatorship again. Others, such as Putin´s Russia, have re-enacted the worst imperialist traditions of the Czarist and the Soviet eras. The western hemisphere, for its part, has yet to espouse real multinational integration and has not even come to reaching a common understanding of institutional and economic development.

The consequence is much slower progress and a more crooked trajectory towards universal progress than we expected in the new century.  In areas such as liberal democracy, free trade, transnational finance, and the circulation of people across borders, the setbacks are too important to ignore. Progress is more contradictory and messy than we hoped. Throughout history it was always so. The post-9/11 era has made us relearn this truth.

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