What has been the lasting significance of 9/11? What lessons should both countries take from the twenty years since 9/11 for this next phase of the Australia-US alliance? A selection of USSC experts below give some brief analysis.

Victoria Cooper, Research Associate

I don’t remember 9/11. All I know, and have ever known, is the world inherited after the Towers fell. When the Biden administration speaks of ending the US “forever wars”, the idea of “forever” resonates most for young people who have grown up unable to remember a time before Afghanistan. I don’t remember the terror on 9/11. I only know the terror that followed. My memories begin with others’ memory of the Towers falling.

Gorana Grgic, Lecturer in US Politics and Foreign Policy

The “lessons of unhistory” and paths not taken are important to try to truly understand the effects of policy decisions that were made in the wake of 9/11. As we look back at the past two decades and with the prevailing sense that in many ways the United States squandered its resources and global good will as a result of decisions made by the Bush administration, it is worth asking to how might have a different presidential administration reacted to 9/11? Namely, to what extent would their reaction to the tragic events of that day have led to a chain of decisions that effected the most profound changes in American society, politics and foreign policy.

Jane Hardy, Visiting Senior Fellow

In October 2001, I was in Pyongyang with Australia's Ambassador to China to re-establish relations with North Korea, which had broken in 1975. The North Korean Foreign Minister, a gracious elderly gentleman, emotionally asserted that US military aircraft that had recently flown over the Korean Peninsula were preparing for an attack. In reality, a US Air Force squadron had repositioned to Osan Air Base to rebalance US assets and posture after a US carrier strike group sailed from Asia to the Middle East. He recounted his childhood memory of US air power and the Korean War. Regardless of his fear and misreading, I realised the terror attacks would reverberate across Asia. And that in addition to joining the US in the Middle East, Australia would bring substance and capability to our collective efforts to stabilise the Asia region. That has occurred.

Stephen Loosley AM, Non-Resident Senior Fellow

Future military intervention at scale is most unlikely. Any intervention must be driven by a consistent, localised strategy to win, and not by a political timetable. Counterterrorism will now be dominated by over-the-horizon initiatives underpinned by more sophisticated technologies. In 20 years’ time, 9/11 will still be regarded as an atrocity but it will be seen as a spasm of terrorist activity, not an existential threat to the West. The dictators will be emboldened by the manner of US withdrawal, but democratic values must always be defended vigorously, meaning that the value of effective and committed US allies is magnified.

Jared Mondschein, Senior Research Fellow

In the two decades since September 11, it seems that Americans now recognise what many other parts of the world had already concluded long before the twin towers fell: terrorism cannot be defeated or eliminated – only mitigated. But as the primary focus of US foreign policy shifts from terrorism and the Middle East to the rise of China and the Indo-Pacific, the question now becomes whether there are lessons readily available for this era of strategic competition. There very well may be but there unfortunately may not be an appetite to learn them.

Brendon O’Connor, Postgraduate Coordinator and Associate Professor in American Politics

In 1998-1999 I worked as a drug policy researcher in the World Trade Center. Thus, the events of 9/11 were personal and political to me. I saw the attacks as clearly an act of unjustified terrorism, but I quickly became very concerned about the Bush administration’s response to the attacks. The Global War on Terror was a very unwise response to a deadly but numerically minor grouping of anti-American forces. The response of occupying Afghanistan, and invading and occupying Iraq, are the two great policy mistakes of the 21st century. These actions significantly reduced US power and stature in the world.

Bruce Wolpe, Non-Resident Senior Fellow

It was a globe-shaking event that changed the world. But it took 20 years to finally end the US and allied involvement in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a failed war. Have we learned from it? It was absolutely right to destroy those who attacked the United States. But nation-building a democracy cannot be imposed from without. That has a chance to succeed if there is a true working partnership with those in the country who want to build a better future. And, if Afghanistan and Iraq are not to be repeated, for US leaders to understand the limitations of brute military power alone and the best use of it.