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How 9/11 Changed America’s Relationship with the World

One of the casualties of the attacks may have been the budding internationalism of the 1990s.
September 11, 2020
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The sun rises behind the skyline of Brooklyn and the Statue of Liberty in New York City on September 6, 2020 as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

“The events of September 11, 2001, fundamentally changed the context for relations between the United States and other main centers of global power, and opened vast, new opportunities.” This is a sentence from the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), released a year after the atrocities in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

But 18 years later, the idea that the United States was entering an era of vast, new opportunities at the turn of the century sounds like ill-fated idealism. In practice, that idealism ensured that the burgeoning internationalism of the 1990s—which really did represent an unprecedented opportunity to fundamentally rethink the relationships among states in the post-Cold War world—was forgotten amid the chaos of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The beginning of Bush’s first term coincided with the emergence of a radical new principle in international law. When Kofi Annan presented his annual report to the U.N. General Assembly in 1999—its last meeting of the 20th century—he addressed the “prospects for human security and intervention in the next century.” Annan observed that “strictly traditional notions of sovereignty can no longer do justice to the aspirations of peoples everywhere to attain their fundamental freedoms.” He argued that “The State is now widely understood to be the servant of its people, and not vice versa.” He acknowledged that the “genocide in Rwanda will define for our generation the consequences of inaction in the face of mass murder.” And he made the case that state sovereignty isn’t limitless—it can be forfeited if a government commits mass murder or bears responsibility for other egregious violations of human rights. 

Throughout the 1990s, the international community decided again and again that intervention would be justified to repel aggression and protect vulnerable populations. After Saddam Hussein invaded and attempted to annex Kuwait, the U.N. authorized military action against Iraqi forces in the country and a U.S.-led coalition quickly restored Kuwaiti sovereignty. During the war in Bosnia, U.N. and NATO forces were authorized to protect deliveries of humanitarian aid, patrol safe zones and no-fly zones, and enforce the ceasefire that was negotiated at Dayton in November 1995. During the conflict in Kosovo several years later, U.N. Resolution 1244 authorized the “deployment in Kosovo, under United Nations auspices, of international civil and security presences.” While the NATO bombing campaign that preceded the adoption of this resolution did not have U.N. approval, this only made the debate over the parameters of humanitarian intervention more pressing (along with the controversial no-fly zones that had been established by the U.S., Britain, and France in Iraq after the Gulf War).

In a 2000 report, Annan acknowledged criticism of the intervention in Kosovo, but continued: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenicato gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” By the end of 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (established by the Canadian government) released a report titled “The Responsibility to Protect.” The report concluded that “sovereign states have a responsibility to protect their own citizens from avoidable catastrophe—from mass murder and rape, from starvation—but that when they are unwilling or unable to do so, that responsibility must be borne by the broader community of states.” At the 2005 U.N. World Summit, member states formally affirmed their commitment to Responsibility to Protect, which was abbreviated as R2P.

The foreword to the 2001 report that outlined the justifications and principles of R2P is dated September 30, 2001—just weeks after the September 11 attacks. The authors note that they have “no difficulty in principle with focused military action being taken against international terrorists and those who harbor them.” This was consistent with the widespread support for the United States’s invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation for the attacks. But the American response would ultimately culminate in the Iraq War—a conflict which many supporters of R2P energetically opposed. At a time when the international community was grappling with difficult and nuanced questions about state sovereignty, the authority of international institutions, and humanitarian intervention, the Iraq War immediately distorted this conversation and may have set it back by many years.

The incompetent prosecution of the war made matters even worse. The Bush administration severely underestimated the number of troops it would take, the length and cost of the commitment, and just about every other predictable consequence of a military occupation of a traumatized and sectarian state like Iraq.

The Iraq War alienated major European allies like Germany and France, unraveling the cohesion NATO had displayed immediately after September 11. It suggested that the United States’s commitment to multilateralism and international institutions was superficial, and called into question the justification of future humanitarian interventions that specifically invoked R2P (such as Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized a no-fly zone in Libya and “all necessary measures” to protect civilians). And it has made the United States and other Western powers wary of making commitments to protect civilians in a conflict far more destructive than the wars in the Balkans: the Syrian Civil War.

The Bush administration often employed high-minded rhetoric about human rights, freedom, and democracy to explain and defend its foreign policy. One section of the NSS declared that the United States would “champion aspirations for human dignity,” such as the rule of law, free speech, and “limits on the absolute power of the state.” The U.S. would use its “voice and vote in international institutions to advance freedom” and “make freedom and the development of democratic institutions key themes in our bilateral relations.” As examples of how the United States had supported “lonely defenders of liberty” in the past, the NSS cited American involvement in “central and eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, or in Belgrade in 2000” (emphasis added).

This was a strange way for the Bush administration to illustrate its point. Some of the neoconservatives with the most influence in the White House weren’t supporters of the humanitarian interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s. In 2000, soon-to-be Vice President Dick Cheney claimed the U.S. military had been “overused” by the Clinton administration and argued that troops should be withdrawn from Bosnia and Kosovo.

When President Bush announced during the 2000 presidential campaign that, under his administration, the United States would withdraw from the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, Condoleezza Rice declared: “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.” Rice had expressed her antipathy toward humanitarian intervention at length in Foreign Affairs a few months earlier, arguing against a foreign policy that promotes the “interests of an illusory international community,” urging the future president to “ask whether decisive force is possible and is likely to be effective,” and stating, “Because the military cannot, by definition, do anything decisive in these ‘humanitarian’ crises, the chances of misreading the situation and ending up in very different circumstances are very high.”

Rice was particularly concerned about the United States getting bogged down in what she described as “civil administration and police functions,” which would “degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do.” As she put it in Foreign Affairs: “The president must remember that the military is a special instrument. It is lethal, and it is meant to be. It is not a civilian police force. It is not a political referee. And it is most certainly not designed to build a civilian society.” A few years after Rice’s article was published, the U.S. military was desperately trying to police the streets of Baghdad and build a civil society in a country that had been ravaged by decades of totalitarianism, sectarianism, and war.

After the September 11 attacks, it seemed as if most of the world stood in solidarity with the United States—particularly its closest allies in Europe. Within 24 hours, NATO had invoked Article V for the first time in its history. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder described the attacks as a “declaration of war against the entire civilized world.” French President Jacques Chirac announced that France was “entirely with the American people.” British Prime Minister Tony Blair observed that “mass terrorism is the new evil in our world today.” Chris Patten, who then served as the EU’s external relations commissioner, described September 11 as “one of those few days in a life that one can actually say will change everything.”

Although there was some resistance to the war in Afghanistan, major U.S. allies (including Germany and France) immediately pledged to support the military effort to oust the Taliban and pursue al Qaida. At its height, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan was comprised of 130,000 troops from 50 countries. Between 2001 and 2014, a quarter of U.N. countries were represented in the ranks of the ISAF. In the 2002 NSS, the Bush administration insisted that this sort of multilateralism was a priority for the United States, calling for the development of “agendas for cooperative action with other main centers of global power;” the establishment of “international relationships and institutions that can help manage local crises when they emerge;” and the cultivation of a “distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.”

However, the administration also announced that its commitment to multilateralism was limited. While the U.S. would “constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone.” The U.S. would “respect the values, judgment, and interests of our friends and partners,” but “we will be prepared to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require.” It’s no surprise that the Bush administration was so concerned about asserting the United States’s right to act unilaterally in September 2002—within six months, American soldiers would be marching on Baghdad.

When it came to the United States’s policy toward Iraq, September 11 really did change everything. Just hours after the attacks, aides to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recorded him saying, “Judge whether good enough [to] hit S.H. at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden].” According to former counterterrorism director Richard Clark, the day after the attacks, Bush instructed him to “go back over everything, everything. See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way…. I want to know any shred.” Less than a week later, Bush was telling his advisers, “I believe Iraq was involved.” In The Assassin’s Gate: America In Iraq, George Packer quotes then-Chairman of the Defense Board Advisory Committee Richard Perle’s assessment of Bush’s attitude toward Iraq: “Nine-eleven had a profound effect on the president’s thinking…. The world began on nine-eleven.”


A president who had been hostile to nation building just a few months earlier had set a course for the most colossal nation building project since World War II. Although the Bush administration declared its commitment to “building the infrastructure of democracy,” protecting “basic human rights,” and constructing a global “balance of power that favors freedom,” these goals were never universally shared among the advisors around the president. Some were more interested in the deployment of American power as an end in and of itself—a global balance of power that favored freedom, human rights, and democracy in some circumstances, but which mainly favored exerting the United States’s influence as broadly and decisively as possible.

A corollary of this view was unilateralism. While the 2002 NSS made diplomatic noises about the United States’s commitment to its allies and international institutions, it also asserted the United States’s right to act alone and made the case for preemptive war: “For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack…. We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.” These claims were clearly intended to lay the intellectual groundwork for the administration’s invasion of Iraq with reference to international law but with no concern for its content.

Although an impressive-sounding 40 countries participated in the United States’s “coalition of the willing,” international support for the Iraq War was nothing like the support for the war in Afghanistan. Major allies like France and Germany were opposed to the war, which created a deep and consequential rift within NATO. The alliance as an organization didn’t formally participate in the war and had no permanent presence in Iraq, due to the intense internal disagreement over the decision to invade.

From an international legal standpoint, the war in Afghanistan was far more defensible than the Iraq War. U.N. Resolution 1368 was adopted by the Security Council on September 12, 2001, and it recognized the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defence in accordance with the Charter” and expressed the Council’s “readiness to take all necessary steps to respond to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.” On September 28, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1373, which reaffirmed the right of self-defense and laid out a series of obligations for states to “combat by all means, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts.” Although the war didn’t receive explicit authorization under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter—the provision that, for example, authorized UN intervention under American command in the Korean war—it’s clear that the Security Council regarded the use of force as legitimate and the ISAF functioned under a Chapter VII mandate.

The Iraq War, on the other hand, was justified with reference to U.N. Resolutions 678 and 687 from the early 1990s, neither of which envisioned the use of force more than a decade later. Resolution 1441 (adopted by the Security Council on November 8, 2002) threatened Iraq with “serious consequences” for “non-compliance with Council resolutions and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles,” but the Security Council asserted that it would determine what those consequences were and how non-compliance would be assessed.

The Iraq War was met with massive protests around the world and condemnation on a vast scale. The United States’s allies and the broader international community generally interpreted the invasion of Afghanistan as self-defense after a horrific atrocity, while the Iraq War had no such justification. Any arguments about democracy or human rights were obscured by the Bush administration’s decision to emphasize nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. But most importantly, the Iraq War dramatically reshaped the United States’s thinking about how it uses its power—as well as what U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had described two years before September 11 as the “developing international norm in favor of intervention to protect civilians from wholesale slaughter.”


In 2007, one of then-Senator Barack Obama’s first promises as a candidate for president was to extricate the United States from Iraq—a war he had once described as “dumb” and “rash.” After Obama announced his candidacy, The New York Times reported that “More than anything, Mr. Obama’s aides said, they believe the biggest advantage he has over Mrs. Clinton is his difference in position on the Iraq War.” Eight years later, candidate Trump described the Iraq War as a “terrible mistake” and constantly decried the United States’s “endless wars” in the Middle East.

The extent to which the Iraq War contributed to the political backlash that led to Trump’s election is impossible to know. But one near-certain consequence of the war has been a shift in Americans’ attitude toward military interventionism. According to a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, just 27 percent say military interventions contribute to keeping the United States safe. In fact, significantly more Americans (46 percent) say military interventions make the country less safe. While a significant majority of Americans have expressed ongoing support for the war in Afghanistan in recent years, a majority of Americans have the opposite view of Iraq—agreeing with Trump that the war was a “mistake.”

The fear of getting drawn into another Iraq was the main reason the Obama administration was reluctant to deploy the military in places like Syria. In stark contrast to the neoconservatives who preceded him, President Obama didn’t have grand ideas about how the deployment of American power could remake the Middle East or any other part of the world—he believed the post-Bush era of U.S. foreign policy should be guided by a simpler principle: “Don’t do stupid shit.” As Obama explained to Jeffrey Goldberg in 2016: 

After over a decade of war, with obligations that are still to this day requiring great amounts of resources and attention in Afghanistan, with the experience of Iraq, with the strains that it’s placed on our militaryany thoughtful president would hesitate about making a renewed commitment in the exact same region of the world with some of the exact same dynamics and the same probability of an unsatisfactory outcome.

But this didn’t prevent Obama from taking action in Libya as regime forces advanced on Benghazi and Muammar Gaddafi vowed to hunt down the “cockroaches” who resisted him “inch by inch, house by house.” After pointing out that Libya was already collapsing into civil war when the NATO air campaign was launched, Obama outlined his strategy: “We got a UN mandate, we built a coalition, it cost us $1 billionwhich, when it comes to military operations, is very cheap. We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict.” In a different interview, Obama said, “Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria … there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction.” However, when asked directly about the success or failure of the Libya intervention, Obama replied, “It didn’t work.”

According to Obama, his strategy of “leading from behind” (another stark turnaround from the Bush years) gave the United States’s allies too much credit: “I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up.” As Brookings Institution scholar Shadi Hamid explains, it’s important to “distinguish between the intervention itself and the international community’s subsequent failure—a failure that nearly all the relevant actors acknowledge—to plan and act for the day after and help Libyans rebuild their shattered country.” Hamid mentions several measures that could have helped to establish political stability in Libya and perhaps staved off the second civil war: earlier training for the Libyan army, the deployment of peacekeeping forces, the expansion of the U.N.’s mission, diplomatic pressure on the Libyan government, electoral reform, and pressure on Gulf states not to interfere.

Hamid makes a more fundamental point about what he describes as a “warped foreign policy discourse in the U.S., where anything short of success—in this case, Libya quickly becoming a stable, relatively democratic country—is viewed as a failure.” This is why Obama believes the Libya intervention didn’t work, despite the fact that it protected civilians (which was the original mandate) and in all likelihood prevented the first civil war from lasting longer than it did. It’s also why many journalists and politicians blame the chaos in Libya today on the United States, although the first civil war was already well underway when NATO got involved and the second civil war didn’t begin until two and a half years after the air campaign ended. Former Vice President Joe Biden now emphasizes the fact that he “argued strongly against” the Libya intervention and observed that the country would “disintegrate” and become a “Petri dish for the growth of extremism.” But this argument assumes none of these things would have happened in the absence of NATO involvement—an assumption that isn’t grounded in reality.

Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, 560,000 people have been killed, almost 13 million have been displaced, and the fighting has put immense pressure on neighboring countries. The war also contributed to the migration crisis in 2015, which created deep divisions in the EU and fueled the rise of nativist right-wing parties across the continent. Although some critics of U.S. foreign policy have tried to claim that limited actions like the Obama administration’s decision to arm and equip Syrian rebels are responsible for the chaos, the involvement of Western powers in Syria has been miniscule compared to Iran and Russia, as well as in proportion to the sheer scale of the conflict. While it’s conceivable that heavier U.S. involvement in Syria could have made the situation worse, it’s also possible that early action could have saved lives, deterred other countries from joining the fight on Assad’s side (particularly Russia), and created the conditions for a political settlement more quickly.

Obama drew a direct line from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to his reluctance to take robust action in Syria. This is no surprise, given the war fatigue that set in during the Bush years and the Obama administration’s determination to reverse course. However, there are costs to disengagement, and we should face them just as honestly as we face the costs of engagement. As the rest of the world focused on the spread of COVID-19, Idlib was under sustained assault by Russian and Assad regime forces, which blasted schools, hospitals, markets, and residential areas with indiscriminate bombings and artillery. Within just three months between late 2019 and early 2020, one million people were displaced from Idlib and the surrounding areas—a single episode in a war that has caused untold human misery across the region.

While we shouldn’t pretend to know what would have happened in Syria if Western powers hadn’t ceded influence to Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime, it should at least give non-interventionists pause that their counsel was heeded and a grinding, decade-long catastrophe unfolded anyway. 


There’s now a tendency to treat all post-September 11 military interventions as if they’re interchangeable examples of hubris and overreach—according to this view, America’s involvement in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria has been driven by the same mindset that produced the Iraq War. But each of these interventions should be considered on its own terms—from the context to the consequences. For example, it’s easy to lump Afghanistan and Iraq together almost two decades after September 11, but there’s a reason much of the world supported (or at the very least, understood) the decision to retaliate against al Qaida and the government that harbored it. The United States had a clear right to defend itself against an organization that had just massacred 3,000 civilians on American soil. 

After invading Afghanistan and removing the Taliban from power, the United States had no easy options. Either withdraw and allow the Taliban to fill the vacuum or commit to a sustained presence in the country. This is the same basic dilemma the United States faces today, and now that the Trump administration has negotiated a “peace” agreement with the Taliban (whose ties to al Qaida remain strong), we may soon discover what a post-American Afghanistan looks like. Reasonable people can disagree about the extent of America’s responsibility in Afghanistan over the past 19 years, but there were huge costs no matter which course of action the U.S. took. 

Meanwhile, the comparison between the Iraq War and interventions in Libya and Syria makes little sense. We don’t know what the world would look like today if the U.N. and NATO had worked to reconstruct Libya after the first civil war or established no-fly zones and deployed peacekeeping forces in Syria in the early days of the war. But even if these actions had been taken, they would have been efforts to prevent the expansion of conflicts that were already underway, which is what made them candidates for intervention under R2P. While life under Saddam Hussein was a nightmare for most Iraqis, the fact that he had committed his most egregious crimes many years earlier (combined with the fact that there was no active conflict taking place in Iraq at the time) made it difficult to build international support for the war. 

Over the past two decades, liberal interventionism has been derided as a cover for American militarism or a hopelessly quixotic concept that always leads to quagmire and failure. But the idea that states don’t have a right to massacre their citizens is an affirmation of the most basic principles outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as in the laws and constitutions of many countries around the world. The world was horrified by what it witnessed in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania almost two decades ago, but it should be just as horrified when warplanes target hospitals and neighborhoods in Idlib or when a dictator’s forces prepare to open fire on civilians in Benghazi.

As we remember the lives lost on September 11, we might take a moment to acknowledge the lives that are being extinguished right in front of us every day. It would be a tragedy if the legacy of September 11 turned out to be greater indifference toward the suffering of vulnerable people around the world. A more fitting tribute would be a renewed discussion about the international community’s responsibility to protect the victims of violence and cruelty—a continuation of the discussion that was just getting underway when the horror of September 11 changed everything.

Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson has written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Quillette, Editor & Publisher, Areo Magazine, Arc Digital, Forbes, Splice Today, and The Kansas City Star. He was formerly the opinion page editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal.