How Did 9/11 Change U.S. Foreign Policy?

Presidents Bush and Obama visit the 9/11 Memorial with their wives on September 11, 2011. The legacy of 9/11 is the subject of ongoing debate.

On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a variety of policymakers, scholars, and pundits have (at times heatedly) discussed and debated the broader significance of 9/11.  A common theme is that American foreign policy changed dramatically in the aftermath of the attacks, representing either a necessary reorientation toward a new threat environment (as defenders of the Bush administration suggest) or an over-reaching and self-defeating policy shift (as its critics allege).  But how exactly did 9/11 change American foreign policy, and how revolutionary were these changes?

The Bush administration certainly changed its foreign policy priorities, moving from a focus on relations with great powers such as China and Russia to an emphasis on the nexus between non-state terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and “rogue states” such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, with known or suspected WMD programs.  Bush and his advisers also moved away from a reliance on deterrence and containment (status-quo oriented pillars of the Cold War era) and embraced the need for more transformational policies of preemptive action and regime change under certain circumstances.  Bush also jettisoned his pre-9/11 aversion to “nation building” and came to view failed states not only as a humanitarian problem but as a security threat of the highest order (insofar as they provided potential safe havens for terrorists).  Finally, Bush famously articulated a “freedom agenda” that centered on democracy promotion, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, as an antidote to extremism.

But how revolutionary and long-lasting were these changes?  Noted historian Melvyn Leffler joins John Lewis Gaddis and other insightful scholars in noting that notions of preemptive action, unilateralism, primacy, and idealistic democracy promotion are nothing new in American foreign policy:

“The long-term significance of 9/11 for U.S. foreign policy, therefore, should not be overestimated. The attacks that day were a terrible tragedy, an unwarranted assault on innocent civilians, and a provocation of monumental proportions. But they did not change the world or transform the long-term trajectory of U.S. 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.”

What do you think?  Was the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy a radical break from America’s past?  If so, how?  Which of these Bush-era policies have continued under President Obama, and which (if any) has Obama reversed?  Is America safer or more vulnerable as a result?

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