Some thoughts on the 9/11 Decade
For those of you interested, the United States Study Centre has put up all of the audio and video from the summit it hosted last month: The 9/11 Decade. I plan to make some time to listen to some of the speeches I missed but in the meantime wanted to write a few notes about a couple of things that really stood out for me. Had been planning on doing so for a while but real life has intervened. So here it is, better late than never and consisting of my attempts to turn scrawled notes into coherent sentences in a 2am blog post.
One thing that stood out for me (at least in the sessions I saw) was the focus on China, which one could consider quite interesting given the summit was titled the 9/11 decade. But in some respects, it’s not so curious.
For those who remember back to 2000/2001, and particularly for those who were in an International Relations stream at the time, it’s all too easy to recall that before 9/11 came along and re-ordered everything, the next great big threat was China. And boy was it being hyped. It’s forgotten now because of what came along after, but at the time there was lots of talk about the new Cold War, and then we had the Hainan Island spy plane incident in early 2001 and it was all doom and gloom forecasts from some quarters, and from others, arguments that there was not a new cold war but instead we’d all have to contend with a multi-polar system, and a number of regional hegemons, particularly in the Asia Pacific region.
What fascinated me was to hear these things repeated again—almost word for word, a decade later, and after virtual silence on many of these topics (outside of those who specialize in the area). Of course there are a few different things now. Back in 01 the US was strong, and so the discussion was not so much centred on questions like whether the US is in terminal decline, which was an ongoing theme at the summit. So this is a new addition to the discourse and gives rather obvious pause for thought as to how the strategic consequences of the detour into using counter terrorism as an organizational pillar of International Security are going to be viewed by historians over the longer term—particularly in relation to its impact on US power & capabilities across a number of indices. But, I digress.
Anyway, it was interesting because even those at the summit who were optimistic for America’s capacity for replenishment did seem to grudgingly accept that a change towards multipolarity is coming. I was, however, struck by those who thought that China needs containing. Not by the argument itself but rather the lack of evidence behind it—although in fairness this may be more symptomatic of limited time in sessions. What struck me even more though was the firm belief held by some (again with little behind them in terms of supporting evidence) that the United States could actually contain China.
It seems to me that as things currently stand the best anyone can realistically talk about is power balancing, rather than containment, particularly given the geopolitical realities of the region and also of other regions in which the US sees itself as having vital interests.
Speaking of China and containment, I managed to catch the last of Robert Kaplan’s session, where he was talking about blue water naval capabilities and regional dynamics in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in relation to territorial disputes and SLOC’s. I found it interesting, although a little alarmist, but that’s just because I woke up the next morning and literally the very first thing I thought about was China, blue water navy capacity, regional instability, and things going boom. So clearly it stuck in my mind. But I digress.
Another continuity I noticed at the summit was in relation to the complaint/argument that the International Institutions we currently have are (already) insufficient and nowhere near robust and expansive enough to deal with the range and types of situations we will face in the future. Again, this is nothing new. But it was interesting to see this theme emerge, particularly alongside the theme of the US in a potentially terminal decline–as the last lone superpower. This tied in with another theme: the need for a greater focus on international institutions, cooperation and soft power, diplomacy etc etc. Again, none of this is new. But it has been long drowned out by the absolute militarization of counter terrorism and elevation of counter terrorism to an organizing pillar of international security.
It seemed to me that if the summit with its wide variety of speakers and attendees was any indication, then the pendulum may have finally swung back. Maybe, just maybe, we can now move beyond the exceptionalism that has characterized the treatment of terrorism as a security threat. I only hope we do not go from one extreme to another and end up with another new cold War/China threat scenario.