Well readers, I just finished my final final exam of first semester on this computer five minutes ago! I need to unwind a little before reflecting too eloquently on this semester, but I can say that as usual, it has been a crazy semester, though fortunately not as crazy as both semesters were last year due to the fact that there were no major medical incidents, and it seemed like the amount of homework was a lot more manageable. Even so, school would not be school without that one demanding and stressful assignment during the semester, and this semester was no exception.
This semester, the most demanding assignment by far was an assignment for a politics course on International Relations and conflict. The assignment was to write a twelve to fifteen page research paper incorporating a minimum of ten scholarly sources, analyzing a contemporary conflict based on international relations theories. As usual, despite every college student’s best intentions to avoid procrastination on such an involved assignment, between a total lack of motivation to read the scholarly articles I had found, and the fact that all of my professors, even the politics professor had additional assignment I had to do in the weeks leading up to the due date for the paper, I found myself up until 2:00 in the morning last Monday night finishing the paper. Then, Tuesday morning, I had to take three more hours in the computer lab putting the parenthetical citations from my sources in the text, and then creating my bibliography. Actually now that I think about it, my procrastination was slightly less obvious than in the past because the paper was due by 5:00 last Tuesday evening, and I hit send on the e-mail of my paper at 1:15. There was a time when I would have hit send at 4:59 (smile). Anyway, the result of this procrastination is that my paper is not perfect. It was supposed to be a minimum of twelve double spaced pages, not including the bibliography, but it ended up being twelve pages including the bibliography.
Speaking of the bibliography, it may not be formatted correctly since the style manuals have always overwhelmed and confused me. On Monday night when I was getting down to the wire and still had three sources to read, I resorted to reading just the first couple pages of each article, so my information may not be as complete as it could have been, though hopefully, I read enough that it won’t be as incomplete as a shorter paper I had to write for the same class about foreign aid being sent to corrupt governments. In that paper, I had mentioned that a better alternative to sending foreign aid would be to have government collaborate with nongovernmental organizations like the Peace Corps or the Red Cross who could help poor people more efficiently and with less corruption and bureaucracy than governments. It turns out the Peace Corps is an entity of the government, and the Red Cross is not officially a nongovernmental organization. I am still utterly amazed that despite this stunning display of idiocy and a lack of research on my part, the professor gave me 24 out of the possible 25 points. But I could just see this teacher getting revenge at a later date when I see a quote from this paper in the humor section of Reader’s Digest or submitted to Jay Leno. My name wouldn’t be attached to it of course, but I would know whose paper it was (smile). Anyway, while this paper isn’t perfect, I am especially proud of it, and therefore wanted to give it a little more recognition than just stuffing it in to a folder to collect dust until I find it a couple years later while cleaning my room and throw it away, which has been the fate of many a paper I worked hard on over the years. However, I do recognize that the imperfections of this paper would probably cause it to be turned down by an official scholarly publication, so despite the fact that a blog isn’t the most typical place to publish research papers, I am going to self publish my paper in this blog. If you don’t want to read it, I understand, although I hope you will read it because the topic I chose, the attacks of September 11, is very interesting and relevant, and a little education never hurt anybody (smile). But even if you don’t want to read it, maybe someone in cyber space who stumbles on it will read it, or at the very least, I can come back and enjoy the fruits of my hard work long after the hard copy makes its journey to the landfill. So without further ado, here is my paper. Happy reading!
An Analysis of International Relations Theories and How They Relate to 9/11
by Allison Nastoff
During the 20th century, the United States definitely saw its fair share of conflict and events that changed the course of history, from United States involvement in World War I and World War II, to the cold war which led to fears of a nuclear war and unsuccessful efforts to contain Communism in places like Vietnam and Korea. There was even a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a military base in Hawaii, an attack which Americans never thought could happen and thus one of those events where grandparents still remember where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about it. But it could easily be argued that none of these events were nearly as profound, nor shook Americans to their core as the defining event so far in the 21st century; the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. on September 11, 2001, an event so devastating and occupying such a profound place in America’s collective consciousness that it is simply referred to as 9/11. If our grandparents thought Pearl Harbor, an attack on a remote military base could never happen, no one ever imagined there could be an attack on America’s mainland, on civilians in the heart of New York City, or at the Pentagon, the command center for the most powerful military in the world. Thus, even more so than Pearl Harbor, the events of 9/11 shattered America’s sense of security and invincibility, and became a defining moment that is still influencing United States foreign policy and the course of history.
One only needs to tune in to the news on any given day and hear reports of the ongoing war on terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, or of yet another foiled terrorist attack such as the car bomb that led to the evacuation of Time Square on May 1, 2010, to understand how 9/11 is continuously shaping the course of history. But while the media is full of rhetoric about terrorists that have been captured or killed, or the need to improve homeland security, one question that is rarely addressed on a critical and analytical level by the media is the question of why we were attacked in the first place. Critically examining this question is essential because while the killing of 3,000 civilians doing nothing more than going to work on an ordinary September day was reprehensible, neorealism and constructivism, two theories in the study of international relations could explain the motivation behind these terrorist attacks. Understanding the motivation behind these attacks might allow Americans to reform their behavior so that American hegemony is less threatening throughout the world, thus preventing future terrorist attacks much more effectively than any military initiative or new controversial homeland security measure by addressing the root causes of terrorism. In support of this argument, Jeff Victor, author of an article published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution argues that “A comprehensive review of the literature suggests that a lack of systematic scholarly investigation has left policy makers to design counterterrorism strategies without the benefit of facts regarding the origin of terrorist behavior-or, worse, guided by theoretical presumptions couched as facts” (Victor 2005). Therefore, “investigating the terrorist mind may be a necessary first step toward actualizing modern political psychology’s potential for uncovering the bases of terrorist aggression and designing an optimum counterterrorism policy” (Victor 2005).
For realism, the dominant theory in International Relations, the primary goal for states is security, and achieving this goal is a zero sum game, meaning that some states win while others loose. The main assumption of realism is that power is the key to achieving this security because the more powerful a state is on the international stage, the less likely it is that weaker states will dare to challenge that power. Especially after the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it became clear that the United States was the winner by the standards of this theory. In fact, many would argue that after the Cold War, the United States had achieved the ultimate goal of the realist theory which was to achieve the status of world hegemon. Being the hegemon means that a state becomes more powerful than all other states both in terms of hard power from a strong military and technological superiority, but also in terms of soft power gained by establishing prestige and influence all over the world. Even United States ideas like liberal democracy and capitalism have become hegemonic in that they have set the standard for how all other states are encouraged to govern, and people all over the world view these ideas as mutually beneficial and legitimate. In fact, the validity of realism is supported by the fact that periods in history where there was a clear hegemon saw less conflict than periods of multipolarity or even bipolarity because hegemonic states establish norms and a sense of order in the anarchic international structure. But history has also shown that inevitably, there will come a time when others see the hegemon as a threat to their own security, and thus the hegemon will eventually be challenged. Therefore, it could be argued that the attacks of 9/11 were the result of others seeing United States hegemony as a threat that needed to be challenged.
But perhaps an even more relevant theory to explain the reasoning behind 9/11 is the theory of constructivism. This is due to the fact that according to the realist theory, states are the primary actors in the international structure, and thus when conflict occurs, it occurs between states. But Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 was not a state actor. Despite this fact, the United States continues to use the attacks of 9/11 as justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and by doing this, it could be argued that United States foreign policy is not addressing the real issues surrounding terrorism.. Evidence confirming this can be found in an article written for an issue of The Pacific Review in which it was noted that “the neoconservative worldview that underpins both action and rhetoric is fundamentally realist considering states as the essential actors in international relations. American hard power, most particularly of a military kind, is designed to function in interstate situations, i.e. within the conventional parameters of international relations. In Afghanistan, and then later in Iraq, the US public was provided with a clear enemy presented as an evil regime, the Taliban and then Saddam Hussein. The verifiable element of truth in both conjectures was sufficient to bring large-scale popular support for the US provoking these two conflicts” (Camroux and Okfen 2004). So while realism could play a minor role in explaining the attacks of 9/11 since terrorist groups resent and want to defeat the threatening influences western civilizations exert throughout the world which is a characteristic of realism, the fact that these terrorists are not officially state actors should not be ignored by the United States. The theory of constructivism therefore seems to be more useful for acknowledging this fact. Unlike realism which narrowly focuses on conflicts and interests within the state institutional structure, the theory of constructivism emphasizes social structures, as well as the fact that just as there are social norms within each particular society, there are norms within international relations. This means that state interests are not always the same because they depend on a state’s social values or sense of identity. When applied to explain the end of the Cold War for example, this means that while realism theory treats the United States like all other winners of conflicts throughout history by stating that the Cold War ended because the United States became the hegemon, achieving security by emerging with the most advanced military and technological superiority, the constructivism theory attributes the end of the Cold War to the fact that the ideas of democracy and capitalism won out over the Soviet Union’s idea of communism, to the point that these ideas themselves have become hegemonic, in the sense that they define the collective identity Americans cherish, and they have become the social norm that many other states follow as well. If applied to the attacks of 9/11, this means that the terrorists who attacked the United States were not attacking because of the traditional realism focused goals of challenging the hard power of the United States to achieve security, but were instead attacking to challenge the hegemonic ideas established by the United States, especially the idea of capitalism.
This argument is clarified in an article written by David Malet, who is in the Department of Political Science at George Washington University. “Hegemonic Great Powers create the expansive institutions that maintain their security interests, as well as permit global commerce and the diffusion of their cultures. But the resultant relative losses suffered by displaced traditional authorities lead some to use violence in an attempt to sever these links and preserve their declining position. The evidence indicates that it is the cultural and economic “soft” power of the United States, spread by the Western institutions created through its hegemony, which has been its most effective tool in wielding influence elsewhere. The objective of transnational Islamist groups representing displaced existing systems is to reduce this penetration of Western commercial and social influence that threatens their authority” (Malet 2008). But before delving deeper in to justifying this argument, it is important to fully understand some history and key events leading up to 9/11, as well as exactly what transpired on that historic and infamous day.
Between the seventh and tenth century, Islamic governments were the most powerful in the world, controlling all of Spain, North Africa and the Middle East (Goldstone 2002). But in the crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, Christians once again took control of the Holy Lands of the Eastern Mediterranean and Spain in the Western Mediterranean (Goldstone 2002). Then in the 13th and 14th centuries, Russia expanded to the north and Spanish empires expanded in the west (Goldstone 2002). At this same time, the Ottomans were establishing an Islamic empire in Turkey, an empire that had become very powerful by the 17th century, stretching from Morocco to Iran, and pushing the West out of Turkey, Greece, Romania, parts of Hungary and the Balkans (Goldstone 2002). But by the 20th century, the west had the upper hand again when European powers broke up the Ottoman Empire (Goldstone 2002). This course of history leads Jack Goldstone, a scholar at the University of California, Davis, and author of the book “Understanding September 11” to argue that “for Islam to reassert itself and expand at the expense of the West in the 21st century would be simply the normal pattern of history” (Goldstone 2002). Thus he argues, “it should be appreciated that however unrealistic this aspiration seems to modern Western peoples, it is not a wholly irrational or unfounded aspiration among Muslims. Moreover, in many regions of the world, the Muslim Religion is today the fastest growing religion by the peaceful means of conversion and natural population growth” (Goldstone 2002). While the majority of Muslims coexist peacefully with other faiths, radical International Islamic terrorist organizations like Al-qaeda view this pattern in history as justification for their attacks against the West, especially the United States, the most powerful and influential state in the West (Goldstone 2002).
Al-qaeda is a network of terrorist organizations founded in 1988 and 1989 as the Cold War conflicts in Afghanistan were winding down (Goldstone 2002). Led by Osama Bin Laden of Saudi Arabia and Mohammed Attef of Egypt, Al-qaeda’s mission is to “destroy the dominance of Western power and culture in the world, and particularly to drive out all western forces and allied secular regimes in the Muslim world” (Goldstone 2002). What makes the goals of Al-qaeda so dangerous is that unlike other types of terrorist organizations, and most other power struggles in history, Al-qaeda does not seek simply to free a particular territory from western influence, but to defeat the influence of the West throughout the world (Goldstone 2002). This is why Al-qaeda has attacked United States embassies in Africa, governments like Egypt that are allies of the United States, and ultimately, civilians working in the epicenter of United States capitalist and military power on 9/11 (Goldstone 2002).
From the realist perspective, one could argue that while the attacks of 9/11 were not launched by an official state military, the coordinated militaristic methods the terrorists used to challenge United States hegemony were realist in nature. After all, the planning for the 9/11 attacks had started as early as 1996 when Kuwaiti born Khalid Sheikh Mohammed proposed the idea of hijacking airplanes to Al-qaeda leadership who determined that while hijacking had been unsuccessful in the past, it was less risky than a ground attack (Ilardi 2009). Then, once it was determined that hijacking would be the method of attack and Al-qaeda had the four targets of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the Capitol building and the White House in mind, Al-qaeda did reconnaissance flights to view these targets and determine the feasibility of crashing the planes in to these targets (Ilardi 2009). Furthermore, the terrorists knew how to enter the United States legally and blend in to American culture for months without arousing any suspicion, all the while participating in flight training and simulation and even flying on several commercial flights to see if their boxcutters could get through airport security, and observe when the cockpit doors were opened in flight to determine the best opportunity to hijack the plane (Ilardi 2009). The result of this strategic and militaristic level of coordination was the unprecedented attacks of 9/11 which killed 2,823 people in Manhatan and 189 people in Washington D.C. (Borch 2003), an attack that was realist in that it presented a formidable threat to United States security, a point clarified by Robert Patman in an article titled “Globalisation, New US Exceptionalism and the War on Terror.” “The events of 11 September brutally exposed the limitations of the exclusive strain of US exceptionalism. On that fateful day the terrorist attacks on the homeland of the world’s only superpower confirmed that globalisation is transforming both the nature of the sovereign state in the international system and the relations between the two. The USA found itself subject to non-state violence that had already blighted the lives of so many people elsewhere during the post-cold war era. In the security environment of a globalising world, extraordinary power does not guarantee invulnerability” (Patman 2006).
An additional observation noted by Gaetano Joe Ilardi of the Victoria Police and Global Terrorism Research Centre in Australia, that gave the attacks of 9/11 a realist element was the observation that Alqaeda’s counterinteligence protocol in preparation for the attacks “revealed a detached objectivity that allowed it to form and respond to accurate and highly detailed assessments of its operating environment” (Ilardi 2009). Thus, “the hijackers’ effective use of cover demonstrated a capacity to suspend their strong ideological beliefs in the interests of the operational needs and realities at the time” (Ilardi 2009).
Despite these realist elements, the dominant theory explaining the attacks of 9/11 is constructivism. As evidence for this, one need only turn to intelligence cited by Gaetano Joe Ilardi which stated that Alqaeda wanted to attack “the World Trade Center seen as symbolic of U.S. economic power, the Pentagon, a symbol of its military power, the U.S. Capitol as emblematic of U.S. policy on Israel, and the White House, a symbol of general U.S. political power” (Ilardi 2009). So while Al-qaeda may have abandoned their ideological views, it should not be forgotten that these ideological views were behind these attacks, making them more constructivist in nature. It should also be noted that there is an additional theory of international relations which is the theory of liberalism. However, it seems as though the role of liberalism in explaining both the attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent response of the United States following these attacks, is insignificant if it is present at all. This is because the theory of liberalism states that state goals are not limited to power and security, but that instead, state goals can include other aspects such as promoting economic development and human rights, and since humans are naturally cooperative, states would cooperate to pursue these additional goals. Yet this theory is irrelevant when applied to Al-qaeda since first of all, as already mentioned Al-qaeda is an international organization unaffiliated with one particular state. But more importantly, while many of these terrorists come from states that lack opportunities beyond menial labor and where governments are corrupt and don’t respect human rights, these grievances are not part of the ideology that motivate terrorist attacks like 9/11, and thus they see no need for negotiation or cooperation with states. “With such groups, no negotiation over autonomy or governance in a particular nation was more than just a temporary truce. What such movements sought was nothing less than the international overthrow of liberal capitalism and the remaking of governance and authority in their own mold (whether fascist or communist)” (Goldstone 2002). In responding to the attacks of 9/11, the United States also seemed to abandon the theory of liberalism. Evidence of this is abundant in the fact that after 9/11, United States foreign policy seemed less interested in economic relations with other countries and less concerned with countries that violated human rights, choosing instead to ally with countries that pledged to assist them in the war on terror, even if the governments in these countries are corrupt, hindering economic development, or violate human rights (Kerton-johnson 2008; Easterly 2010).
Perhaps embracing the liberalism theory to a larger extent would be a more effective strategy for combatting terrorism, a point argued well in the article “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq.” “Critics charged that the administration’s characterization of its campaign against Al-Qaeda and like-minded organizations, including state sponsors, as a war had led the United States to embrace a militarized policy poorly suited to the threats facing the nation. In war, the military is the primary responsible agency and armed force the primary policy tool, but combating terrorism requires international coordination and persuasion to gather intelligence on terrorist cells, to sustain cooperation on terrorist financing, to capture terrorist leaders, and to address terrorism’s root causes” (Krebs and Lobasz). But while there has been some discussion in favor of embracing a more liberalist view in combatting terrorism, one only need follow the news coverage of the ongoing military efforts to capture terrorists to realize that liberalism has not yet become widely accepted in United States foreign policy toward terrorism. Given that the lingering effects of September 11 on security and course of foreign policy for Western civilizations, especially the United States are still ongoing, the theory that will ultimately prevail and determine the future influence of the United States and the threat posed by terrorist organizations like Al-qaeda remains to be seen. Yet based on the fact that Al-qaeda’s motivation for all of its terrorist attacks, especially the attacks on 9/11 center around the ideological view that Western influence must be defeated in favor of Islamic influence, it would be logical to predict that constructivism is the prevailing theory. But what is uncertain is whether the United States will come to recognize more fully the fact that constructivist views were behind the attacks of 9/11, and thus combatting terrorism by constructivist means might be more effective than the current realist strategy. One might ask: how could the United States combat terrorism through constructivist means? Perhaps western powers could start by implementing a suggestion Jack Goldstone outlined in his article, which stated that since many of the terrorists involved in organizations like Al-qaeda are educated elites who all too often receive education from schools that rely on extremist charities for funding and thus learn extremist views about the West, an effective means for combatting terrorism might be to help governments of Islamic countries finance schools so they are not funded by extremist groups (Goldstone 2002). But more importantly, the West could encourage textbooks and media outlets that are balanced, taking neither a Eurocentric approach which has caused so much resentment in parts of the Islamic world, but at the same time fostering a more moderate viewpoint and objective study of global history (Goldstone 2002). It is true that taking a more constructivist approach may not eliminate the threat in the immediate future since it might take a generation or two before people are receptive to this more balanced education. But it should also be noted that no matter how many terrorists are captured or killed by traditional military force, as long as organizations like Al-qaeda can continue recruiting more people to their cause, the threat posed by Islamic terrorism will never be eliminated. Given the unpredictable nature of political science, the future influence of the West, and the theory that will prevail and determine the ultimate winners in the war on terror cannot be predicted with certainty. But based on the evidence presented in this analysis, one would hope that constructivism will prevail.
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Malet, David. 2008. “Faith in the System: Conceptualizing Grand Strategy in the Post 9/11 World Order.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Krebs, Ronald and Lobasz Jennifer. 2007. “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion and the Road to War in Iraq.” Security Studies 16 (3).
Easterly, William. 2010. “Foreign Aid for Scoundrels.” The New York Review of Books.
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