Paradigm Shifts and 9/11: International Relations After the Twin Towers

Journal article

Cox, Michael (2002) Paradigm Shifts and 9/11: International Relations After the Twin Towers, Security Dialogue 33 (2).


By any measure, the atrocity of 11 September 2001 was an extraordinary event, if for no other reason than that it was the first direct attack on US space since the British burned the White House in 1812, an event which occurred in the context of a much larger war. However, it was not just the collapse of the Twin Towers and the partial destruction of the Pentagon that made the attack internationally significant. It was what followed – first in terms of the US response to the attack and second in terms of the attack's impact upon the larger international system – that lent the event such importance.[1] Certainly, any two-hour attack that had the capacity to accelerate a peace process in one part of the world (Northern Ireland), undermine it almost completely in another (Israel), bring about important modifications to US relations with enemy and friend alike, and lead to one of the biggest US military buildups for over 20 years has to be regarded as being of more than just passing interest to students of international relations (IR).[2] Indeed, the subject is likely to be the source of numerous discussions, conferences, edited volumes and special issues of academic journals in the future. It already has been.[3] Naturally, this assumes that we all accept that 11 September was a major event in the history of world politics – a proposition that at least a few writers might wish to challenge. It also presupposes that academics in the field of IR should always respond to major international events, another assumption that some would dispute on the grounds that academics have the right to be irrelevant. Finally, of course, it takes for granted that which many would dispute: the notion that theories in general, and IR theories in particular, are in turn influenced and shaped by what happens outside the heads of theorists. According to one school of thought, this not only denies autonomy to theory, but also assumes that theories are merely a reflection of – rather than a means of explaining and understanding – that entity we call the real world.

But, assuming that we can agree that 11 September was significant, that even the most simon-pure of academics should be concerned about thinking through its implications, and that the world out there might influence thought, what impact is 11 September likely to have on the research agenda of international politics? This is an intriguing question that is already beginning to stir debate among scholars. One of the more developed responses has been provided by Barry Buzan.[4] He tries to answer the question by first looking at four of the principal theoretical perspectives that helped shape IR as a subject after the end of the Cold War: neorealism, globalism, regionalism and constructivism. Admittedly, his summing up of each one is spare; he leaves out the postmodernists, not to mention the feminists; and he agrees that many things could still happen to throw everything back into the melting pot. Yet there is no hiding his main argument: none of these four approaches should have too much difficulty in coping with 11 September. Each in fact, to use Buzan's words, 'can claim a piece of the action'. Certainly, none of the main theoretical perspectives will be fatally or even significantly challenged by what has happened. Indeed, many pre-existing debates within IR will hardly be affected at all. We should not reach for our revolver just yet. Our conceptual world has not gone into free fall because of what happened. In fact, what happened, he insists, might turn out to be far less significant than many are now claiming. We should not, in other words, overstate the historical significance of 11 September. It was not a Pearl Harbor, an end to the Cold War or even an oil crisis. If anything, it was more like the Cuban Missile Crisis, that is to say 'a relatively short sharp, event' that will not be without its consequences but that will not in the end be transformative. Hence, we should be careful not to overstate things. Obviously, 11 September should be seen as being important, possibly very important. Only time will tell how important. However, on balance, it is unlikely to be revolutionary in its intellectual consequences.

There is much to recommend Buzan's cautionary tale. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere myself, we should all beware historians and writers on IR bearing false and inflammatory analogies.[5] We should also avoid intellectual hysteria. After all, many things in the world have not changed – and will not change – because of 9/11, including the very uneven distribution of material resources in the world, the influence of neo-liberalism on economic discourse, the process of European integration, the problems associated with NATO enlargement, the AIDS pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa, the continuing decline of Russia, the economic rise of China, the financial crisis in Japan and, or so it would seem, that 'special and unique' relationship between the UK and the United States.[6] Nor should we think that well-established theories are likely to be validated or invalidated by one single event. Here, the history of IR would support Buzan's measured approach. Take World War I, for example. A terrific vindication for the truths of realism, or so one might have thought. But, as Carr later noted in his famous polemic, far from diminishing the influence of liberal idealism on Western discourse, the war in the end had the unfortunate consequence (in his view) of giving it a new shot in the arm.[7] The same could easily be said about the end of the Cold War. As Buzan correctly points out, the events of 1989 had a marked impact on IR as a subject. However, instead of this doing much to weaken the influence of radical thinking – as one US writer on the subject claimed it was bound to[8] – almost the opposite appears to have happened. In fact, in one form or another, critical IR, in its feminist, postmodern and materialist forms, is still alive and well. If anything, those who have come under the most sustained attack since the collapse of communism have not been those espousing theories hostile to the current world order but those rather less critical people, collectively known as 'realists', who still think that states matter and that capabilities are the critical variable when it comes to explaining change in the international system.[9]

All this and much more is obvious and clear, and we should thank Buzan for pointing out that some of our more traditional ways of thinking about international politics can still be employed with some confidence. At times like these, when others seem to be losing their heads, it is good to know that someone of Buzan's stature is managing to hold on to his! But his paper still leaves open the more concrete question of how exactly 9/11 will affect the larger IR research agenda. It may well be the case that the various theories of IR will not be much influenced by what took place (though I suspect realism has already received a healthy shot of adrenalin since late last year). I would also agree with Buzan that no single event – even one as dramatic as 11 September – should logically or necessarily have a major transformative impact on the discipline and its practitioners. But it will surely have some impact – which brings me to research agendas for the future. Here one does not have to be the proverbial rocket scientist to know which topics and which grant applications are likely to be wending their merry way to the many research councils around the world. Some have presumably already landed on the desks of the movers and shakers in the IR community. A million here for failed states, another couple of million there for the revolution in military affairs, and no doubt several million more for asymmetric war. There might even be some money on the table for some investigation of that old chestnut known as peace processes, and perhaps a dime or two for Just War, though I doubt whether you'll get much these days if you want to study the UN and humanitarian intervention. This much is self-evident. So what I want to do here is not to restate the obvious but to stand back a bit and hopefully make a few useful observations about what IR ought to be doing and should be studying (though whether or not it will remains another question) in the wake of 9/11.

The first thing IR has to do is to take more seriously those particular political phenomena it did not take too seriously before. To use a sporting analogy, it should go fishing a bit more in the waters of the periphery and bring back to port those scaly items – such as international terrorism, messianic religion and pre-modern forms of opposition to modernity – that it tended to throw back or ignore in the past. This is not only important for its own sake; it could also be very important in understanding the reasons for the next attack, and the one after that. For these will surely come. On 11 September, the worst happened. However, there is no guarantee that something even worse will not happen again, and it would look silly, if not downright irresponsible, if IR did not have something to say about it – not because we might want to talk to power or because IR should be policy-relevant, but because it needs to have something to say about a series of problems that are alive and well (and potentially dangerous) and are unlikely to go away in the near future.

I would also want to suggest, secondly, that IR needs to take the United States and US foreign policy far more seriously. This might seem an odd thing to say, but I am not at all sure that we in the field actually did enough proper research on the USA after the Cold War, in part because of the end of the Cold War itself. We also tended to leave the United States to other people – to the specialists on foreign policy, to the diplomatic historians and, in some cases, to the policymakers themselves. Furthermore, in Europe, we were also inclined to leave America to the Americans on the not unreasonable grounds that they had more to say about their own country than we Europeans. No doubt some felt too that, given US parochialism and sense of amour propre, Americans would not be much interested in what 'outsiders' had to say about the place anyway. But my position on this is quite clear, and has been so since I wrote my first book on US foreign policy:[10] the United States is simply far too important to be left to the Americans. Indeed, one of the more welcome intellectual consequences of 11 September is that Europeans are at last making their voices heard. This is not only good because it will widen the range of debate; it is good because it will give some of the more critical and dissident voices in the United States an external point of reference.[11]

Talking of Europeans leads me to make a third point about research agendas, and this relates to the transatlantic relationship – an area where we in Europe can play a particularly useful role in illuminating problems and exploring new difficulties.[12] The topic is hardly a new one. However, in the weeks and months before 9/11, it was becoming an increasingly exciting area of discussion – partly because of the fallout from Kosovo, partly because many in Europe were becoming increasingly aware of the growing gap between European and US capabilities and partly because of a growing recognition of the rise and further rise of that most American of phenomena in the 1990s: unilateralism.[13] Much ink had already been spilt before 11 September in exploring transatlantic problems. One American even wondered whether the two continents were heading for divorce.[14] But the discussion has become more interesting still in the light of 9/11. This debate has only just begun, and it is likely to run and run – now and for the foreseeable future.[15]

Fourthly, as Buzan points out, we clearly need to think seriously about regions. That is self-evident. And there is little doubt which two regions are currently at the top of the intellectual agenda: the Middle East, which is now never out of the news, and South Asia, because of the knock-on impact of 9/11 on India and Pakistan and relations between those two nuclear states. This is all perfectly legitimate. The danger, though, is that we will all become so fixated on one of these two areas that we might just forget about the rest. There is nothing wrong with riding a wave of interest. We have all done it at one point or another in the past, and we are doing it now in the wake of 9/11. But there is a difference between following a trend and being trendy. There is also a danger that we could ignore the security implications of problems emerging in other regions: Latin America, Asia-Pacific and, of course, sub-Saharan Africa, which in human terms at least is by far the most disastrous (and deserving) area in the modern international system. In short, in the rush to understand one or two very unstable and important areas in the world, we should be careful not to let the rest of the globe fall off our radar screens.

Finally, I would make a plea for the proper study of history, not for its own sake (though some in IR are woefully uninformed about the past), nor because history contains easy-to-remember lessons, but rather because we cannot but think historically when confronted by large-scale events like 11 September. When in doubt, reach for a satisfying analogy; and certainly, in trying to make sense of 9/11, we have all dredged our historical memories in order to understand what happened. This is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, it is essential if we are to say sensible, as opposed to silly, things about the events in New York and Washington on that extraordinary day. But, as Paul Schroeder has reminded us, 'there are more or less intelligent ways to engage historical knowledge in the service of the present'.[16] Reasoning by historical analogy can be suggestive or misleading; and, to be frank, whether we think the most useful parallel to be drawn is with the Cold War, Sarajevo in 1914 or Pearl Harbor in 1941 is more likely to be determined by what we want to say or prove about 11 September than it is by anything remotely to do with historical accuracy. One writer has even tried to compare the USA's earlier war against the Barbary pirates and its present war against terrorism (though I always thought this to be a little unfair on the pirates).[17] And so it will go on, and usefully so, as we try to think through the implications of 11 September. The jury is out as to which historical event in the past best illuminates the series of events in 2001 that some believe shook the world and others imply might be 'barely more than a skirmish' which rattled it a bit.[18] For the moment, it might be better if the jury stayed out until we receive further news from the front. As Buzan wisely reminds us, we do not and cannot know the full extent of what 11 September signifies historically because we do not know whether it is a one-off event or the beginning of something much bigger. Until we do, we should all perhaps be a little circumspect in what we say about its potential and likely consequences for the study of history in general and international relations in particular.

Prof. Michael Cox
Department of International Politics University of Wales, Aberystwyth, Visiting Senior Fellow, Norwegian Nobel Institute, Oslo


* An earlier and longer version of this piece was presented to the conference on the 'Research Agenda in International Politics in the Aftermath of September 11th', Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, 10–11 April 2002.

[1] I have dealt with 11 September in 'September 11th and U.S. Hegemony: Or Will the 21st Century Be American Too?', International Studies Perspectives, vol. 3, no. 1, February 2002, pp. 53–70; 'American Power Before and After 11 September: Dizzy with Success', International Affairs, vol. 78, no. 2, April 2002, pp. 261–276; and 'Meanings of Victory: American Power After the Towers', in Ken Both & Tim Dunne, eds, The Great Terror and Global Order (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002).

[2] The two quickest books have been Fred Halliday, Two Hours That Shook the World: September 11, 2001 – Causes and Consequences (London: Saqi, 2002) and Strobe Talbott & Nayan Chanda, eds, The Age of Terror and the World After 11 September (Oxford: Perseus, 2002).

[3] For journals see, inter alia, The National Interest for late 2001 and Winter 2001–02 (numbers 65 and 66); Foreign Affairs, vol. 80, no. 6, November/December 2001; International Security, vol. 26, no. 3, Winter 2001/2002; International Affairs, vol. 78, no. 2, April 2002; Survival, vol. 43, no. 4, Winter 2001; and International Relations, vol. 16, no. 2, August 2002).

[4] Barry Buzan, 'The Implications of September 11 for the Study of International Relations', draft manuscript, conference on the 'Research Agenda in International Politics in the Aftermath of September 11th', Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, 10–11 April 2002.

[5] Cox, 'American Power Before and After 11 September' (note 1 above), p. 262.

[6] The term was used by Tony Blair in a speech to the Texas A & M University, 7 April 2002.

[7] See E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years' Crisis (with new introduction by Michael Cox; Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001; 1st edn, 1939).

[8] Steven Walt, 'International Relations: One World, Many Theories', Foreign Policy, no. 100, Spring 1998, pp. 29–46.

[9] I discuss this in Michael Cox, 'The Continuing Story of Another Death Foretold: Radical Theory and the New International Relations', in Michael Brecher & David Harvey, eds, Millennial Reflections on International Relations (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming).

[10] Michael Cox, US Foreign Policy After the Cold War: Superpower Without a Mission? (London: Pinter, for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1995).

[11] Even that old theorist of US decline has intervened in the new debate about the United States – if only to argue that the USA is no longer in decline; see Paul Kennedy, 'The Eagle Has Landed', Financial Times, 2–3 February 2002.

[12] See William Wallace, 'Europe, the Necessary Partner', Foreign Affairs, vol. 80, no. 3, May/June 2001, pp. 16–34; and Anthony J. Blinken, 'The False Crisis over the Atlantic', Foreign Affairs, vol. 80, no. 3, May/June 2001, pp. 35–48.

[13] See Stewart Patrick, 'Don't Fence Me In: The Perils of Going It Alone', World Policy Journal, vol. XVIII, no. 3, Fall 2001, pp. 2–14.

[14] Ivo H. Daalder, 'Are the United States and Europe Heading for Divorce?', International Affairs, vol. 77, no. 3, July 2001, pp. 553–568.

[15] See Martin Walker, 'Post 9/11: The European Dimension', World Policy Journal, vol. XVIII, no. 4, Winter 2001/2002, pp. 1–10.

[16] Paul Schroeder, 'The Risks of Victory: An Historian's Provocation', National Interest, no. 66, Winter 2001/02, p. 22.

[17] Rand H. Fishbein, 'Echoes from the Barbary Coast', National Interest, no. 66, Winter 2001/02, pp. 47–58.

[18] See Lawrence Freedman, 'The Third World War?', Survival, vol. 43, no. 4, Winter 2001, pp. 61–87.

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