Three Lessons from a Two-Decade Failure

The debacle in Afghanistan this summer confirmed what many have long suspected: that much of the West’s foreign policy since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been a failure. The task now is to reflect on past mistakes and forge a new strategy for wielding power and influence in a multipolar world.

MADRID – Twenty years ago, the September 11 terrorist attacks shocked the world. “We are all American” became a global slogan of solidarity. Suddenly, the West’s post-Cold War invulnerability had been exposed as an illusion. Globalization, which had become the reigning paradigm and established Western economic dominance in the 1990s, turned out to have a dark side.

Two decades after the attacks, it is difficult to overstate their consequences for the West and the wider world. A violent non-state actor determined the international agenda to an extraordinary degree. While the hegemony of the West, led by the United States, remained unquestioned, the unipolar moment of the 1990s seemed to be coming to a close, and US foreign policy would be fundamentally reshaped by the “global war on terror.”

In the context of the time, it was no surprise that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan met with overwhelming international support. The 9/11 attacks could not go unanswered, and it was the Taliban who had provided a haven for al-Qaeda to plan, organize, and launch the operation.