After Another Anniversary of September 11, 2001

Posted on September 14, 2010


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The nine years since the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center have been, for me, nine years of research to make sense of the events of that day. I have concluded that nations and international cooperations (which are made up of nations) must find new ways to contend with entities that are not nations, but which act in the global political sphere. This doesn’t mean giving up on the goal of stability in a community of nations. It means picking and choosing among the useful characteristics of long-established institutions and discarding what has become obsolete or overtly destructive.

On the day that passengers over western Pennsylvania forced down a plane aimed at the White House, ossified boundaries of national sovereignty, distance, and cost had been failing to stop forces of economic demand for at least a decade and a half. Globalization had been outpacing political evolution with terrible consequences in terms of poverty and exploitation of developing countries. Nations both great and vulnerable had already lost control over money, people, products and information. National governance and conventions couldn’t plug up a tidal wave of communication, workers and commerce.

Historical institutions and political barriers that once seemed as sturdy as the Maginot Line have been pressured by globalization for decades. As a result, between 1990 and the present, over 30 new nations were reconfigured, dissolved or came into existence—more than in any other historical period except the wave of decolonization after World War II.  Shocking transformations like the breaking of nations, the implosion of the communist world, and the events of September 11, 2001 are evidence that the affairs of the United States, of other nations, and of international governance need to be conducted differently.

Efforts by totalitarian countries to place watertight seals on borders resulted instead in their collapsing under the pressure of workers, commodities, and ideas that wanted to flow freely. The breaching of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union stunned onlookers, but it need not have.

Here in Pennsylvania, we have seen centuries-old retaining walls unwisely mortared by new property owners. The old stone walls were built to keep earth in place but to let the rain run through. When the water can’t seep between the rocks, it overwhelms the barrier and the whole hillside comes down.  Expanding this metaphor to foreign affairs, it is a mistake to fail to understand what nations are and are not, and what they can and cannot achieve. Trying to control flows too absolutely may result in complete failure.

It is possible to see evidence of this along the line between the United States and Mexico. Border policies in need of update have destabilized communities between the countries rather than protecting them.

There is also grave peril in apprehending every globally relevant action as a reflection of national will. Seven thousand miles from a congregation whose pastor proposes to burn a Koran in reaction to the murders by 19 terrorists, citizens of other countries may interpret such misguided rage as an insult from Americans overall. Al Qaeda no more represents Muslims, nor the citizens of predominantly Muslim nations than Terry Jones represents Christians or Americans.

As a result of such inflexibility and miscategorization, either more collapses are impending, or the nation as it was conceived more than three centuries ago must update and refine its mission. The end stage of this massive shift is unpredictable. This acknowledged, I recommend that great nations—like the United States, and members of the EU and the G20 seek clarity about which responsibilities nations must fulfill, such as protecting and promoting the wellbeing of their citizens. What national governments shouldn’t do is trying to impose impermeable barriers or strictures, such as dictating cultural norms, or misunderstanding the lashing out of a few as the actions of a nation or entire religious group.

The flailing of non-nation actors and entities should not be confused with national policies.  Leaders and public intellectuals must reinvent global political order that continues to privilege nations as the most promising political structure but also identifies what a legitimate nation is or is not. Doing this may mean building on what is sturdy and useful in the institution of the constitutional democracy and discarding what is too rigid or fragile. It may also mean turning the problems cause by insurgencies and poor policy back over to nation-state governments rather than making all problems the responsibility of NATO, the UN, other macroregional alliance or the great, rich, imperialist powers, such as the U.S.

The way that we as individuals are empowered to do this is by choosing our words with precision. One persistent mistake in public discourse, for example, is the term “Af-Pak.” This pseudo-military jargon denies the potential for redemption, goals of autonomy, identity and rich culture of the two countries by conflating them.

Leaders and public intellectuals must reinvent global political order. The call to re-imagining international organization came nine years ago, so why haven’t they? One reason is that it’s difficult to know what hub the world turns on. Politicized ethnic identity? Something above nations? Or the global economy? My answer is that we have lost sight of the potential of the nation and that we must tirelessly pursue the necessary maturation that can follow from the trauma of 9/11.