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Analyse the changes that occurred within US foreign policy after the 9/11 attacks.

On September 20th, 2001, President George W. Bush (2001, n. pag.) gave a speech addressing the events of nine days before: “On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars, but for the past 136 years they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941.” The speech drew upon the notion that America had been attacked and also laid the blame firmly at the door of terrorism whilst interpreting it as an act of war. Although the emotive rhetoric was designed to stir support for a response, it also heralded a new era in US foreign policy. Defined as a “foreign policy crisis” by Bolton (2008, p. 6), it was inevitable that it would elicit a response by American policymakers but the extent to which it has changed US foreign policy has been hotly debated. As such, this essay will discuss the changes in post-9/11 US foreign policy, identifying areas that marked a departure from the policy in place prior to 9/11. It will analyse each to determine the extent to which it was a direct response to the terrorist attack and evaluate how the change impacted upon long-term foreign policy strategy. This will be done with a view to concluding that many of the changes to US foreign policy in the post-9/11 era have been a response to the evolving security threat posed by terrorism and did force policy to evolve in order to accommodate strategies that address modern problems. However, those changes may have made an immediate impact but did little to alter the long-term course of US foreign policy.

Foreign policy arguably changed direction within days of 9/11 with the most immediate and most obvious change being the shift in focus towards terrorism. Bentley and Holland (2013) highlight that the focus had been foreign economic policy under Clinton but 9/11 produced a dramatic movement away from diplomacy and towards military solutions via the War on Terror. There was also movement away from policy that prioritised relations with the great powers of Russia and China. Earlier unilateralism had negatively impacted upon relations with both nations, thus causing deterioration that extended beyond the Cold War era hostilities and prevented effective relations between East and West (Cameron, 2006; Nadkarni, 2010). However, the American desire to create a “world-wide anti-terrorism alliance” (Nadkarni, 2010, p. 60) brought about a relative thaw between the nations and facilitated discourse in order to cater for shared security concerns. This change provides evidence of an immediate shift in US interests and this manifested in foreign policy. As such, this is an extremely important change that occurred post-9/11, especially as it emerged out of the first response to the attack and served to dictate US actions abroad for more than a decade afterwards.

The shift of focus from the great powers and towards terrorism provided policy space to address security threats via the three pillars of the Bush administration’s national security policy, which had become a fundamental element of foreign policy as, for the first time since World War II, the attack on American soil brought both ostensibly dichotomous strands of policy together. The pillars were missile defence (a continuation of policy prior to 9/11), pre-emption and homeland security, both of which were embraced after 9/11 in response to it (Lebovic, 2007). Although elements of this were rooted in domestic policy, the pre-emption aspect of policy was also manifest in foreign policy because non-state terrorist groups and rogue states became inextricably linked to US foreign policy as targets to be dealt with under the new priorities outlined in the wake of the terror attacks, although this was somewhat more gradual than the initial shift to focus on terrorism. Indeed, the Bush Doctrine marked a fundamental shift towards utilisation of policy that incorporates both pre-emptive action and preventative action, which marked the decline of the reliance on containment and deterrence that dictated policy from the Cold War era onwards (Jentleson, 2013; Levy, 2013). The pre-emptive strikes were indicative of a strategy that sought to defend by attacking those who posed an immediate security threat to the US and allowed policy to justify the unilateral military pursuit of specifically American interests. This suggests that 9/11 was used as an effective excuse to create foreign policy that better mirrored the ideology of the government than what was in place in the months prior to the attack.

There is extensive criticism of the policy that reinforces the assumption that the government manipulate foreign policy to suit its own ends. For example, Ryan (2008, p. 49) argues that Iraq, which was labelled a rogue state, was already a focal point of foreign policy but the events of 9/11 allowed policymakers to push their specific agenda: “Influential strategists within the Bush administration seized on the horror to gain assent from liberal Americans to move the country towards a war in Iraq that neoconservative strategists desired, but that many within the US… shunned.” Holland (2012) concurs, arguing that coercive rhetoric was used extensively in order to sell the War on Terror via culturally embedded discourse. In addition, Miles (2013, p. 110) advocates that “…Bush’s placement of rogue states at the centre of America’s response to 9/11 was welcomed as an opportunity to overthrow a number of old threats and terror loving tyrannies who stood in the way of democracy and freedom.” This perspective certainly offers a credible insight as to how 9/11 was manipulated in order to push foreign policy in a certain direction, and indeed one that was a continuation of what had gone before. However, the need to manipulate public opinion is indicative of the fact that foreign policy had deviated from that in place directly prior to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre.

US foreign policy has also responded to the increased demand for humanitarian assistance to aid failed states and nation building to ensure their reconstruction following 9/11. Shannon (2009) points out that the reconstruction of Afghanistan following the US invasion there has essentially helped to prevent the failure of the state, improve the quality of life for its people, introduce freedoms and democratic processes that were absent before and aided the avoidance of the state being controlled by terrorists. This was certainly a change from previous foreign policy: “Before 9/11, nation building was often caricatured as a form of idealistic altruism divorced from hard-headed foreign policy realism… In the post-9/11 era, nation-building has a hard-headed strategic rationale: to prevent weak or failing states from falling prey to terrorist groups” (Litwak, 2007, p. 313). This summary of the extent to which attitudes changed highlights the fact that a greater role in states that required humanitarian assistance was incorporated into foreign policy out of necessity rather than ideological choice. There was a distinct need to limit terrorist activity as far as possible and this actively manifested in this element of foreign policy. As Litwak (2007) points out, humanitarian action was not a staple element of American foreign policy by any means and so this, more than any other element of foreign policy, does signal that a change occurred within the strategic objectives inherent in the War on Terror. However, there are criticisms of this particular change because the US is charged with failing to follow through with humanitarian aid to the extent that it should have done. For example, Johnstone and Laville (2010) suggest that the reconstruction of Afghanistan was effectively abandoned with a failure to create institutions that would withstand future threats to freedom and democracy. This suggests that this particular area of strategy was not well thought out and did not achieve its ultimate aims. However, the fact that it was included in US foreign policy post-9/11 suggests that there was a concerted effort to implement a multifaceted policy to tackle terrorism as a new and dangerous global strategic threat.

However, despite the fact that the analysis here points to a change of direction for US foreign policy in the wake of 9/11 that was specifically designed to tackle the causes of and security threat posed by terrorism, some critical areas of policy did not change. For example, the long term objectives of the US were still manifest within new policy but they appeared in a different form that essentially provided a response to a different threat. Leffler (2011, n. pag.) argues that 9/11:

…did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of US grand strategy. The United States’ quest for primacy, its desire to lead the world, its preference for an open door and free markets, its concern with military supremacy, its readiness to act unilaterally when deemed necessary, its eclectic merger of interests and values, its sense of indispensability – all these remained, and remain, unchanged.

This summary of the ultimate goals of US foreign policy draws attention to the fact that very little has changed. Although the British government supported the invasion of Iraq in the wake of 9/11, the fact that the United Nations Security Council refused to pass a resolution condoning the use of force did not prevent the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom (Hybel, 2014). This is evidence of the readiness to act unilaterally if it serves their interests. Gaddis concurs, noting that US self-interest remained the same with very little consideration of long term strategy that intervention elsewhere would require. Bolton (2008, p. 6), on the other hand, agrees that many of the changes to US foreign policy were made immediately but he disagrees with the assertions of Leffler and Gaddis concerning their long term impact. Bolton (2008, pp. 6-7) asserts that the changes have caused a longer-term impact, albeit one that has diminished over time as a result of the enduring nature of the national security policy and its evolution to accommodate the threat of terrorism in the wake of 9/11. Although this provides a dissenting voice in one respect, it demonstrates consensus on the fact that the changes in US foreign policy post-9/11 were a direct response to a new global threat but they were implemented alongside existing strategic goals. In effect, the approach may have changed but the ultimate objective had not.

In conclusion, the analysis here has identified and discussed several changes that occurred within US foreign policy post-9/11. There can be little doubt that there was a distinct shift in focus to the need to deal with terrorism after the first attack on American soil for seventy years. Similarly, the policy content evolved to adopt a more humanitarian approach to global crises and a proactive and pre-emptive approach to potential threats. All of these changes did mark a departure from what had gone before in some way. However, although the majority of changes were incorporated into foreign policy within two years and were all undoubtedly a response to the attack and its causes, there is significant evidence to suggest that such actions provided an extension of foreign policy doctrine that had gone before. For example, although the focus of foreign policy shifted from the old Cold War objectives of containment and deterrence to terrorism, the interest policymakers took in some rogue states like Iraq was simply a continuation of established ideologies of ensuring freedom and democracy. Similarly, the US administration of foreign policy changed very little in terms of its determination to act unilaterally where necessary and lead the world in a battle against the latest threat to global security. As such, it is possible to conclude that many of the changes to US foreign policy in the post-9/11 era have been a response to the evolving security threat posed by terrorism. Furthermore, it was necessary for policy to evolve in order to accommodate strategies that address modern problems that were not as much of a priority in the late 20th century. However, whilst those changes made an immediate impact on foreign policy, it did not alter the long-term course of US foreign policy because that remained firmly focused on the outcomes of action elsewhere in the world in relation to American interests.


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