It really was the day the world changed

A few days ago, I negotiated a service contract for the boiler in my new house in Washington DC. At the end of a long telephone exchange, I had to make a decision: did I want a fixed oil price, or a variable one? The variable price was lower. Nevertheless, I preferred the fixed price.

“When we invade Iraq,” I told the saleslady. “Oil prices will go up.” She howled with laughter: “You’re the fourth person to say that to me today.”

But it isn’t only me, and it isn’t only the other people calling to have their boilers serviced: a surprisingly high percentage of Americans have also begun to assume that we will, sooner or later, invade Iraq. And a surprisingly high percentage of Americans have come to accept that such an invasion – dangerous, expensive, and bloody though it may be – is inevitable.

More to the point, if and when such an invasion happens, a surprisingly high percentage of Americans will support it. In the immediate wake of September 11, more than 80 per cent of Americans told opinion pollsters that they would back an invasion of Iraq. A year later, 60 per cent still say the same – even though the Bush administration still has not really put the case for invasion to the country, even though no link has been proven between Iraq and al-Qaeda, and even though no one has yet proven beyond doubt that Saddam Hussein actually has the capacity to cause mass destruction in the United States.

I am not writing this, however, in order to make a point about Iraq. I am writing this in order to make a point about Americans. Not everything has changed in this country since 9/11: churches are no longer full, the media has returned to gossip and movie stars, and it is possible to criticise the President again. Here in Washington, a notoriously Democratic city, flags are still waving, but anti-Republican bumper stickers abound.

Not everything has changed in foreign policy either. No one has yet solved the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, and no one seems likely to do so in the near future. Sino-American relations haven’t changed much either, and there aren’t new sets of policies for Africa or Latin America or Japan.

Nevertheless, some basic assumptions have changed. Most Americans now assume, for example, that sooner or later we will have to go to war again, if not with Iraq then with someone else. Most Americans are also willing to accept a much lower standard of provocation. September 11 was the Hollywood nightmare scenario that came true – and now most, with very little convincing, will agree that terrorism is worth trying to stop before it takes place – whatever the cost. People now understands the principle of “preventative invasion”, that wars can be launched, nowadays, not because of what a hostile regime actually did, but because of what it might do in the future.

But then this change in assumptions is part of a larger phenomenon as well. Writing in this newspaper nearly a year ago, I observed that in the immediate wake of the terrorist attacks, the diplomatic world had turned upside down. American troops had landed in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, former Soviet republics which, at the time, few Americans could find on a map.

The Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban Afghan opposition, had become our close allies, following years in which Northern Alliance leaders barely received diplomatic recognition. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who had seemed set on opposing the American President at every turn, suddenly reversed his position and allied himself with the United States.

At the time, I wrote that “the war on terrorism is the new Cold War”. By that, I meant that the war on terrorism – or perhaps it is better to write the War on Terrorism – was about to become the new organising principle around which American diplomacy would organise itself. And that, in fact, is what has come to pass. After a decade in which the governing principle of American foreign policy was something best described as “democracy promotion”, we have now entered a new and different era.

Already, America has new allies and new enemies, chosen not for their democratic credentials but for the assistance that they will or will not give us in the War on Terrorism. I’ve mentioned the Russians, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Northern Alliance – but we also care, suddenly, about India and Pakistan in ways that we didn’t care before.

We are angrier, suddenly, about the anti-Americanism in Saudia Arabia than we were before. For better or for worse, we are less sympathetic, sudddenly, to the sufferings of the Palestinians, given that their society produces precisely the sort of terrorists whom the United States most wants to oppose.
Like a creaking, ancient oil tanker trying to turn around in the water, America’s foreign policy bureaucracy has also begun to transform itself. What used to be dusty, forgotten bits of the State Department – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation bureaucracy, for example – have already begun to receive more money and to wield more influence. More Americans than ever before have begun to question the relevance of multi-lateral institutions as well: it was not the United Nations, after all, which invaded Afghanistan last autumn, and it will not be the United Nations that invades Iraq.

Nor, for that matter, did George Bush consult with the EU in the days after the attack: he talked to Prime Minister Blair, President Chirac, Chancellor Schroder. As a result, all of the Clinton-era talk of a world without nation states – a world in which transnational institutions would gradually take over the management of international affairs – now seems redundant to most Americans as well. A year after September 11, the nation state suddenly looks like the only political institution capable of waging the long war against the terrorist threat.

This doesn’t mean that Americans don’t need or want allies – just that Americans no longer feel they can count on their allies, in times of real crisis, to provide the necessary men or hardware or support. The attitude is best captured, perhaps, by an old New Yorker magazine cartoon depicting a group of American generals sitting around a conference table. One of them stands up and says: “Gentlemen, it is no longer enough to be a superpower. We need to become a super-duper-power.”

Yet although American attitudes have changed, not everyone else’s attitudes have changed, or at least not so quickly and so profoundly. Most of all, attitudes in Europe have not changed – as the differences in debate about Iraq on both sides of the Atlantic again help to illustrate. To Americans who support an invasion, the European Left-wing opposition to it – from the British Labour Party, the German Social Democrats, some of the French Left as well – doesn’t seem merely wrong, it is actually incomprehensible.

As a former inhabitant of the United Kingdom, I am constantly asked to explain the situation. I do my best, talking about German electoral politics, splits in the Labour party, the French identity crisis. But sooner or later, whoever I am talking to mentions Munich, and tells me that appeasement is what Europeans do best.

And indeed there is a sense in which some Europeans, at least, do seem still to be stuck, if not in a Munich-era mentality, then at least in their Cold War mentality. They are happy to take the high ground, to criticise American belligerence and unilateralism just as they once criticised America’s anti-Soviet rhetoric.

They are happy to interest themselves in the fate of America’s “victims”, and to clamour for greater UN involvement. One suspects they – along with much of the Arab world – will nevertheless be equally happy if Saddam Hussein’s regime is toppled by the American military, just as so many were secretly relieved to be protected by the American nuclear umbrella.

For its part, the Bush administration seems to believe that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world comes to share America’s new foreign policy perspective. Recently, when asked about foreign opposition to an invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defence, shrugged off the question and said that the great debate on these issues was only beginning. There was, he said, a need for a “discussion of the reality that the democratic countries of the world today, in the 21st century, are living in a world where weapons of mass destruction exist and are proliferating”.

But while Rumsfeld is right about the need for debate, I’m not sure that he is right about its inevitable outcome. Over the next few days, the American media will be saturated by coverage of the September 11 anniversary. Millions of Americans will attend ceremonies, or observe moments of silence, or sing God Bless America, the song that has become the unofficial 9/11 anthem.

Europeans, a year and an ocean removed from the events, will have no such emotional involvement. Nor will the shock of 9/11 ever truly be comprehensible to any outsiders who have never felt impregnable to invasion, the way Americans have always done. The changes that have taken place over the last year are permanent, profound and real. Ignore them at your peril.

Scroll to Top