By Anatol Lieven
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington led to a remarkably unanimous response, not just from the West but also from the entire international community.
For the only time in its history, NATO invoked the principle of collective defence enshrined in Article 5 of its founding treaty. This guarantees that the alliance will respond to an armed attack on one of its members.
You do not have to look far to find the reasons for the unanimity of response. The attacks were not merely deeply shocking in themselves, but were seen by most countries as representing common threats from terrorism in general and Islamist terrorism in particular. This was especially true not just of non-Muslim states with rebellious Muslim minorities (such as Russia, China and India) but of all those Muslim regimes that Islamist revolutionary groups had declared to be apostates of the US.
Even beyond the specifically Islamist character of al-Qa'ida, terrorism, especially terrorism on this scale, was naturally seen as a threat by every organised state. A number had been suffering terrorism campaigns for years before September 11, especially Russia, India, Israel, Algeria, Turkey and Britain. Others had suffered such campaigns in the past.
Several hoped September 11 would incline the US to a deeper appreciation of their problems with terrorism, even encourage it to offer real help against their own insurgencies. Only Israel, however, has really been able to succeed in this goal.
Certain states also hoped that the new US focus on terrorism would lead to Washington abandoning or scaling down other strategies. President Vladimir Putin hoped the Bush administration would abandon NATO expansion and seek a true alliance with Russia. In much of the world, including the West, there was hope the Bush government would abandon some of the harshly unilateralist and nationalist policies of its first eight months in power and return to a more Clintonesque approach.
Much of the supportive international response to September 11 was therefore conditional. It was rooted specifically in the self-interest of the states concerned, and more widely in a vague belief in an alliance between states for the protection of states.
Of course, none of this actually happened. Those who hoped for it underestimated both the nationalist spirit of the Bush administration and the degree to which the American public had been infuriated by the attacks. The belief that September 11 would convince Americans of their vulnerability and need for allies proved false. Instead, fury,, combined with the triumphalism of the post-Cold War period, created a widespread belief that the US had the physical power and moral right to act unilaterally on the world stage. This belief was exploited with success by neoconservatives and others in the Bush government, who hoped to cement a permanent US global hegemony.
September 11 and the Bush administration's global war on terror did contribute to an important shift of power on the world stage - only that this shift was wholly unforeseen either by al-Qa'ida or by the Bush administration.
One could almost speak of an analogy to World War II, where the victorious great powers, the US and the Soviet Union, were not even combatants when the war began; and all the powers which were combatants at that time ended up defeated (including Britain, which saved its honour but lost its empire and global economic role).
The clear victor of the global war on terror appears to be China. Before September 11, the Bush administration, as reflected in statements by Condoleezza Rice and other officials, was focusing on China as a great power threat, and on how to contain this.
The stupendous rise of the Chinese economy in the first decade of the 21st century would almost inevitably have hardened Bush administration attitudes.
In addition, the malignant antics and nuclear ambitions of the North Korean regime provided an obvious and increasing source of potential tension between Washington and Beijing. Instead, for a crucial decade, while China grew, the US found itself bogged down in conflicts in the Muslim world. US political attention and immense resources were not merely diverted to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and to homeland security, but military spending was chiefly directed to army and counter-insurgency, not to the naval and air forces that could have challenged China along its littoral. At the same time, US political and military prestige was shaken and actual and potential US allies discouraged.
President Barack Obama has changed many aspects of his predecessor's approach. The overall strategy has been to reduce certain US commitments while trying to work more closely with allies. With regard to Russia, Obama has adopted some of the policies that Putin hoped Bush would espouse. In the Middle East, an attempt has been made to put some real content into the freedom agenda. Efforts to wind down the Afghan war with honour continue.
In many ways, Obama is following the kind of agenda that most of the world had hoped Bush would follow. He is doing so, however, on the basis of greatly weakened US power, especially relative to China. Chiefly responsible are fundamental economic shifts that may be beyond the power of any US government to seriously influence. But September 11, and much more the Bush administration's response to it, have also played their part in helping China's rise.
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington. This is an extract from his essay in the latest edition of American Review published by the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, now as an iPad application.