11 September: the geopolitical lessons, 22 years on

More than the al-Qaeda attacks, it is the reaction of the United States that constitutes a strategic shift, analyse two IRSEM researchers, Maud Quessard and Élie Baranets.
11-Septembre : les leçons géopolitiques, 22 ans après

On 11 September 2001, the jihadist terrorist organisation Al Qaeda carried out suicide attacks in the United States, hijacking four airliners and launching them at their targets. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, and two places symbolic of American power were struck: the World Trade Center in New York for financial power, and the Pentagon, not far from Washington, for military power.

More than two decades later, the geopolitical repercussions of these events are still being felt. As part of their work, two researchers from the Institut de recherche stratégique de l'École militaire (IRSEM) are examining various fields relevant to the analysis of the aftermath of 9/11:

  • Maud Quessarddirector of the Euratlantic-Russia section and a specialist in American foreign policy;
  • Élie Baranetsa researcher in international security specialising in the causes of armed conflict, the link between political regimes and wars and, more specifically, the strategic impact of political discourse.

In the end, the United States' reaction did them a disservice.

For Elie Baranets, "it was not at all obvious that this event would become a major strategic turning point for the world's major balances": "A non-state actor attacked the United States, but the latter did not come out on its knees. On their scale, beyond the very significant emotional charge, the damage was rather marginal. Maud Quessard notes the "shock" caused by the fact that "for the first time, major American institutional bastions such as the Pentagon were attacked".

In their view, the changeover occurred because of the choices made by the US administration at the time in response to the attacks. "What made it a major event was the way in which the United States dealt with it", analyses Élie Baranets: through its military commitments in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and the definition of an "axis of evil" bringing together Iraq, North Korea and Iran. "These interminable wars have exposed the weaknesses of the United States, weakening it both externally, because it has lost legitimacy and prestige, and internally, because of their budgetary cost and their impact on the electorate", says Maud Quessard.

In her view, these "strategic errors by the decision-makers of the Bush administration confirm the end of the 'American century'", marked by a desire to impose American political conceptions on the world, which began in 1918 with President Wilson's "Fourteen Points". In a famous phrase, the French researcher Pierre Hassner described the United States' post-11 September reaction as "Wilsonism with a boot".

Maud Quessard sums up this period as "a muscular and messianic unilateralism aimed at promoting the regime changeand perceived as a Western crusade". At the same time, "these errors also signal the failure of the neo-conservative movement", which inspired George W. Bush to adopt this policy. Finally, they validate the prediction of the American political scientist Samuel Huntington about the "clash of civilisations".

A "change of narrative" then took place, comments Elie Baranets: "During the Cold War, the successive narratives related to opposition to a major power; when they won, we moved on to that of the undisputed dominant power. After 9/11, another narrative emerged: that of the "global war on terror". It is through the application of this new narrative, which is very Manichean and will be used to justify wars elsewhere in the world, that the strategic shift is taking place.

Relative cooling of US relations with France

Subsequently, Presidents Obama and then Trump sought above all to put "America first", in other words, domestic affairs first. "They wanted to remain involved in world affairs, but in a less visible way", notes Maud Quessard.

In the meantime, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, following an American lie at the UN, has significantly cooled transatlantic relations, particularly with France. "This war marked a breaking point and a marked estrangement between Paris and Washington", explains the researcher. "Throughout this period, there was a difference in world views.

"2003 was a moment of prestige for France", notes Elie Baranets. But behind this political divergence, which was on display for the whole world to see, came "very close anti-terrorist cooperation, with the sharing of information, particularly in Africa, where American resources were extremely valuable to France".

The researcher adds that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine a few years ago, "the United States and France have been making a doctrinaire shift towards less asymmetric conflict and more high-intensity conflict. And we are making this change together".

The fact remains that during this " Global War on Terrorism "As Maud Quessard points out, the world has seen "a rise in difficulties that the Americans did not see coming, and that Bush and Obama have not managed to stem". Internally, there has been "a major rift between the vision of politicians and that of the military", which was again reflected in the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, which officers such as former General Petraeus did not want.

Externally, 9/11 and its aftermath have "put American diplomats in a difficult position on the ground in sensitive countries", adds the researcher: "Bunker embassies, little work on the ground, and a problem of visibility for American foreign policy. Under Obama, drone attacks were not accompanied by any narrative to explain them to the local population. In Pakistan, this has led to one of the highest levels of anti-Americanism in the world".

In the meantime, China has had a free hand to emerge

While under the Clinton administration (1993-2001), the United States began to show concern for the Indo-Pacific region, the Bush administration became more hesitant: "When asked whether China was their partner or their competitor, they found it hard to decide, especially as China cooperated in the fight against terrorism", notes Maud Quessard, "While 9/11 weakened the United States and took it out of the region, China continued to rise. Then came the 2008 financial crisis.

"In American framework documents, the idea of the great competition for power rather than the war on terror only came about fifteen years after the 2001 attacks", notes Elie Baranets, for his part, who believes that it is clear that without the longevity of the narrative of the global war on terror, "the United States would have strategically seized on China's rise to power a little earlier".

Moreover, the UN episode in 2003 made the Americans look like "hypocrites", reinforcing the thesis that their embodiment of a "law-based international order" (rules based international order) was "superficial": "This argument is being put forward a lot today by the Americans' competitors, such as Russia and China", adds the researcher, who develops: "China is trying to show that the United States is not respecting its status as guarantor of the liberal international order, which Beijing believes it has illegitimately granted itself. In so doing, China is using its violations of liberal principles in the aftermath of 9/11 to try to challenge the US position as guarantor of this international order. It is a way of enhancing their own status, since in its speeches China poses as the true protector of a law-based order and of world stability, a position of benevolent great power that it claims to deserve, both in terms of the power it has amassed and its behaviour on the international stage.