Twenty years on from the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States, what is the legacy of that September morning at the start of the century? 

In part it is two wars – one of which has just ended, so to speak, weeks short of the 20th anniversary. 

It is the 241,000-odd people killed in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone since 2001 and about 200,000 civilians killed in Iraq – exact figures aren’t known

Those numbers dwarf the 2996 killed during the initial attacks, in which al Qaeda operatives flew planes full of people into the World Trade Centre’s twin towers, the Pentagon, and another which crashed into a field – said to be headed towards the US Capitol. 

There are the millions of people displaced by the US-led conflicts after the attacks, long-lasting health effects for those who were at ground zero and survived, the cost, and of course, conspiracy theories and memes that followed. 

Reaching further, 9/11 shook the US both domestically and in its global standing, and affected international politics.

The ‘suckers ploy’

The US was suckered, former intelligence and defence policy analyst Dr Paul Buchanan says.

“There is this old guerilla tactic known as the ‘suckers ploy’. And basically, you know, a bunch of guerillas are in a village ... a military convoy goes by and they fire upon it and they all run into the jungle.

"The convoy turns around and they annihilate the village. What you remember is the annihilation of the village, not the initial fire on the convoy.

“And what [Osama] bin Laden did was a sucker ploy on grand scale.

“The attacks were spectacular … But they were not going to shake the foundations of the United States, the socioeconomic and political pillars, unless the United States over-reacted and responded disproportionately to what was a very nasty threat, but was not an existential threat.

“What did the US do it? It got suckered. It responded by overreacting. It declared a global War on Terror.”

The scale of 9/11 may have been new, but University of Otago professor of international relations Robert Patman says it didn’t come out of nowhere.

“There seemed to be a diagnosis by the administration this attack came out of the clear blue sky and that it was not anything to do with America's responsibility and that the United States would have to declare a new War on Terror or terrorism.

“The diagnosis, in my view was incorrect. Al Qaeda had been attacking the United States since ‘93 and had already been involved in a series of terrorist attacks in the United States, so it didn't come out of the clear blue sky. But the most important thing is perhaps if the Americans did not, if the Bush administration did not, accurately diagnose the origins of 9/11, or the causes of it, then that means there was fair chance that its prescription - its response to 9/11 - did not hit the mark.

“A bit like going to the doctor and you've got a tummy pain and the doctor gives you something for heart failure.”

Buchanan says the attack itself was a natural evolution that began when terror groups began hijacking planes in the 1970s.

“That's the thing that was remarkable about it - bin Laden said he wanted to target the symbols of American economic, political and military might, and so the targets were the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and the third plane was headed towards Congress - and the ability to use an aircraft to make this global – beyond some regional argument - that's the big difference.”

Both Buchanan and Patman say the US response appeared to get off to a good start.

“The American response to 9/11 was primarily militarily centred and the Americans, I think, got off to a reasonably promising start - they went through the UN Security Council, they got authorisation to conduct an operation in Afghanistan,” Patman says.

“But by 2003, I think the [then President George] Bush administration really made a fateful error, and that is invade Iraq which was a unilateral action which did not have the support of some of the key allies of United States.

“I think from that point onwards the international support for America’s so-called War on Terror began to seriously decline. By the time Bush left office, America's standing in the world was probably lower than any time since the Second World War.”

Buchanan says the US was justified to go into Afghanistan to eliminate the al Qaeda training bases and remove the Taliban for giving them a safe haven.

But that was all done by April 2002.

“The US then did two big things: Begin a nation-building programme in Afghanistan and decided to invade Iraq.

"They try to say that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11. He was not. They tried to say that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. He did not.

“And they go in. They occupy not one but two countries simultaneously, drawing resources from the fight in Afghanistan over into Iraq.

“And they get bogged down in both, and there’s never ending - basically guerrilla – wars and they wind up retreating from both.

“In their wake, ISIS was created in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq … that then moved into Syria and then engaged in lone-wolf and small-cell attacks around the world.

“So it's a US invention - talk about unintended consequences.”

In the meantime, the US was breaking apart domestically, Buchanan says.

“Not exclusively due to the foreign wars, but over increasingly hyper-partisan arguments about the US role in the world.”

The response to 9/11 polarised the US because it involved wars of opportunity, Buchanan says.

“The threat … was not existential.”

Americans weren’t fighting for survival, they were fighting for ideology.

Eventually, the consensus underpinning American security policy and 30 years of working under an “umbrella of a foreign policy approach known as liberal internationalism” began to unravel, Buchanan says.

“What did the US do it? It got suckered. It responded by overreacting. It declared a global War on Terror. Dr Paul Buchanan

9/11 and the liberal international order

“Amongst other things, 9/11 really went some way to undermining what has sometimes been called the liberal international order or the international rules-based order," Patman says.

It was undermined because of War on Terror and the subsequent counter terrorist policies of US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

“What we saw during the 20-year period [since 9/11] has been a steady marginalisation of the UN and its authority. We've seen a weakening of international law. The invasion of Iraq was not done with the blessing of the UN Security Council.

“It was a unilateral invasion of a country and according to the then Secretary-General of the UN, that's an illegal action.

“We've also seen the undermining of human rights during this period, America putting its national security above core values such as human rights and we've seen, I think, really the denigration of the democratic ideal ... so for these reasons, I think the rules-based system has come under strain.”

That was bad news for New Zealand, Patman says.

“The Trump administration did a number of things which undermined New Zealand’s interests, for example, it started attacking the WTO, the World Trade Organisation.

“Now that's a quite an important development because … what's attractive about the WTO from a small country point of view is that if you're engaged in a trade dispute with a much bigger party such as the United States ... is that [the WTO disputes resolution panel] is an impartial committee which then makes a decision which is then binding on both parties.

"Of course, that was deeply unattractive to the Trump administration, which saw that its advantages of power were somewhat counteracted by this rules-based system... So the downstream effects of America's response to 9/11 began to have a serious impact on institutions which New Zealand takes seriously.

“Both National and Labour-led governments have always taken the UN very seriously. We're not big enough to make our own rules. Therefore, we depend on a rules-based environment and that's why New Zealand has always supported international institutions.

“That, unfortunately has come under strain in the last two decades.”

Back into US arms

Another outcome for New Zealand has been a defrosting of relations with the US.

International analyst Geoffrey Miller says New Zealand was brought “back into the fold” with the states as a result of 9/11.

Things had been shaky since the 1980s, when Aotearoa took a stand – under the Labour government at the time’s nuclear-free policy – to refuse a US warship entry to the country.

“It (9/11) gave New Zealand an opening and I don't think that was necessarily planned at all,” Miller says.

“I think it was very simple when the attacks happened, there was a wave of sympathy and solidarity with the US and Bush made it very clear - you're with us or against us.

"For New Zealand it was just an obvious thing to help out in Afghanistan. I don't think it was strategic in the sense that you know if we help out in Afghanistan, it might help us get a free trade deal eventually, or get us back on side with the US after the falling out with the 1980s.

“It was just something that NZ went ahead and did.”

The US saw Aotearoa’s commitment in Afghanistan and later, in Iraq, Miller says.

"The US also began to rethink its position, I mean Iraq got them offside with a lot of countries ...

“So I think by the around 2005 or so America was beginning to lick its wounds a little bit and reach out, and I think they realised New Zealand had been a pretty good friend.”

The US is open about the improvement in relations, stating early last year that “bilateral ties have improved dramatically in the past decade”.

US Army soldiers from 2-506 Infantry 101st Airborne Division, Afghan National Army soldiers and a New Zealand Army soldier take cover as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands to transport them nto the Spira mountains in Khost province, in November 2008

US Army soldiers from 2-506 Infantry 101st Airborne Division, Afghan National Army soldiers and a New Zealand Army soldier take cover as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands to transport them into the Spira mountains in Khost province, in November 2008 (Source: AFP)

US Army soldiers from 2-506 Infantry 101st Airborne Division, Afghan National Army soldiers and a New Zealand Army soldier take cover as a CH-47 Chinook helicopter lands to transport them into the Spira mountains in Khost province, in November 2008 (Source: AFP)


9/11 was the beginning of a new era, Miller says.

“[It] just changed the direction of global foreign policy. We went from the sort of post-Cold War period where people thought the world was going to be a quieter kind of place … you know, we weren't going to have these big military conflicts anymore.

"So 9/11 really upended all of that and … changed the direction of foreign policy everywhere, really, there was just a huge focus on terrorism right through that first decade after 9/11.

"The world became just very security conscious and clearly focused on terrorism. For me that’s the biggest legacy of 911. I mean there are others - the airport security, the increased powers given to intelligent agencies after 9/11 all around the world.”

A new sign posted at the entrance to one of the gates in Newark International Airport, September 14th 2001

A new sign posted at the entrance to one of the gates in Newark International Airport, September 14th 2001 (Source: AFP)

A new sign posted at the entrance to one of the gates in Newark International Airport, September 14th 2001 (Source: AFP)

Buchanan’s assessment is similar.

Globally, 9/11 shifted the discourse around national security, he says.

“The whole discourse of national security around the world has been fundamentally changed as a result of 9/11, because now in national security assessments, everybody talks about terrorism.

“It's been used - if you look at the security laws around the world, especially liberal democracies - all of them have been expanded and tightened. Our civil liberties are much less than they were 20 years ago.

“The powers of the state in the security field, under the justification of anti-terrorism are far greater than they were on September 10th, 2001. Powers of surveillance, monitoring, all that sort of stuff. I mean, think of what Edward Snowden revealed … all of that was non-existent on September 10th, 2001.

“They listened to each other. There was state to state espionage. But they didn't listen to their own populations outside of criminal communities in the way they do now.

Buchanan says civil liberties have taken a hit.

“Our freedoms of movement, association communication have all been restricted because of the so-called War on Terror.

"I think that we have to be very clear that the world has changed as a result of 9/11, because liberal democracies in particular have succumbed to the temptation to “securitise” everything.

“Everything now passes through the filter of security in a measure that did not exist on the day before 9/11.”

Miller says there’s always the question of “did we go too far – is this an overreaction?

“But if you go back 20 years ago there was such fear of this happening again.

"I think we forget the climate that we were in after 9/11. There was enormous fears of a repeat attack, of dirty bombs, nuclear weapons, anthrax attacks.”

The aim of 9/11 was to affect our way of life, Miller says.

“While the immediate victims were those 3000 people who were killed in those attacks, the intended victims were the West in general.

"That's why Bush - a lot of the lines that he used were all about you know, they failed, we're continuing on as usual, we're not going to let this change the way we live - but ultimately we did.

“We allowed ourselves to be securitised, we took on all these changes to airport security, everyday life in greater surveillance."

That's why Bush - a lot of the lines that he used were all about you know, they failed, we're continuing on as usual, we're not gonna let this change the way we live, but ultimately we did. Geoffrey Miller

Globalisation post 9/11

Patman says globalisation has deepened in the 20 years since 9/11 and in fact, it in part contributed to it.

“The fact that you could have a non-state actor attack the world’s most powerful country and attack it's very symbols of power ... showed not weakness on the part of the United States, but that all states are now more vulnerable and more connected to each other than before.”

“Virtually all problems facing states big and small cannot be solved unilaterally. If you think about Covid-19, climate change, transnational terrorism, all these problems, by definition, have to be solved internationally and at the moment, however, we're in a bit of a prolonged transition where states are reluctant to acknowledge they can't actually control their destiny in the way they could in the past.”

The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath accelerated a transition that began before they took place, Patman says, a transition in which states are increasingly seeing their ability to shape their destiny limited by interdependence and interconnection.

"We live in a world which is increasingly smaller than it appeared to be in the past because of technological connections.

“During this period, the international rules-based order came under strain, but I don't think we should be too pessimistic about it in the long term - it's a mixed picture.

“In a sense New Zealand is very much connected to this international transition that's been occurring, particularly in the two decades since 911.”

The emerging world order

Buchanan poses a question: Compared to September 10th, 2001, is the United States enhanced 20 years down the road?

"My answer to that is it is greatly diminished and it is greatly divided.”

He says one can only hope Americans born after 9/11 have more humility than older generations.

Patman also says the US has declined internationally.

“It doesn't mean that it will … lose its global pre-eminence rapidly to China or anyone else.

“I think the post-Cold War era and the post 9/11 era has shown that great powers can act unilaterally but the results of such actions have been largely unimpressive.

“The United States could overthrow the government of Iraq but it wasn't able to prevent an insurgency in the country it was occupying and paid a big price.

“China can build artificial islands in the South China Sea but all that action did was mean that Japan and South Korea, its neighbours, increasingly turned to the United States, which presumably China did not want.

"Russia can invade and annex part of the Ukraine. But … it paid a big financial price for flexing its muscles.

"So America's position, its dominance has diminished internationally, but the role of great powers in the international order has changed... great powers can't run the world anymore.”

If they could, they would, Patman says.

Most big problems we face now need international solutions, and that might not be so bad for New Zealand and small to middle powers.

“It means they could have a much greater say in the way the world is run. It depends on whether they step up to the plate.”

So the trajectory for the next couple of decades is mixed, Patman says.

The problem is that the countries which consider themselves great powers still want the perks of being a great power, he says.

But their frame of reference is in the past.

“Unfortunately, the world in the 21st century is completely different from the world of the 20th century.

"I think the long-term picture is positive, but we're going through a very difficult transition and a lot will depend if we can accelerate our transition, a lot will depend on the smaller and middle powers beginning to step into that vacuum of global leadership.

“I think you could say that 9/11 has also shaped the emerging international order.”

Reporting and writing:
Leith Huffadine


Art direction and design:
Vinay Ranchhod