The events of September 11, 2001 have been compared to the attack on Pearl Harbor sixty years earlier. Seventeen years after Pearl Harbor, the United States – and the world - had clearly changed. The US had defeated the Axis Powers and imposed a stable peace on the world. The American people had accepted the costly burden of the leadership of the Western Alliance. This meant a large permanent army in Germany and a bloody war in Korea.
But this strategic stability also led to the dramatic economic miracles of the 1950s. Everyone in the United States saw their incomes rise. Everyone saw a great future. No nation could remotely compare itself to the US’s strength, prosperity, equality, and optimism. That was 1958.
How has the US changed in the seventeen years since September 11th, 2001? I see three main changes.
1. The United States is more isolationist, less internationalist.
The candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders revealed that a significant portion of the American electorate no longer believes in the internationalist consensus which had prevailed before 2001. Both candidates rejected the bipartisan interventionist foreign policy which produced the Iraq War. Both challenged the free trade regime. An “America First” foreign policy and tariffs to protect American industries were non-starters prior to 9/11. Today they are at the center of the political discussion.
2. The United States now faces a serious geo-political rival in China.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became the only remaining Super Power. Some commentators in the so-called Neo-Conservative camp argued that United States should strive to secure a “unipolar” world in which United States power would remain the decisive arbitrator. Some even suggested the US take measures to prevent the growth of centers of power which might challenge American hegemony.
Although some suggested that the European Union might become a rival center of power, economic and military power began to shift to China following 9/11. The strategic distraction of the Middle East is part of the explanation. The United States spent around 5 trillion dollars and suffered 60,000 casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. That money could have been invested in badly needed infrastructure repairs, health care reform, or new weapons systems aimed at future threats. While the United States was bogged down in the Middle East – fiscally and militarily – the Chinese continued their quiet but steady expansion.
Seventeen years after 9/11 the United States’ place in the world is diminished.
3. The divide between “Middle America” and the Ruling Classes has grown larger.
After 9/11, the sons and daughters of Middle America waged the wars in the Middle East. One of Senator Tim Kaine’s son joined the Marines. But ruling class recruits were largely AWOL. Most aimed for the Harvard-to-hedge-fund career path. The two Americas quite literally experienced two different wars.
Real median household income hardly grew after 2001. This slow economic growth hit Middle America particularly hard. The coastal states with their information and financial services-based economies, however, did just fine. While the deindustrialization of the heartland continued, the Ruling Class only watched its fortunes rising. The housing crisis of 2008 – probably the largest forced internal migration since the 1930s, which resulted in at least 5.5 million mortgage defaults – compounded this division and impoverished Middle America.
All that to say, it’s hard to find much positive in intervening seventeen years since 9/11. Compared to 1958 – 17 years after Pearl Harbor – it’s downright depressing.