Ten years after the mouse roared
Harvard professor Joseph Nye.
September 1st, 2011
11:55 AM ET

Ten years after the mouse roared

Editor's Note: Joseph S. Nye, Jr, a former US assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of PowerFor more from Nye, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

By Joseph S. Nye, Project Syndicate

Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States ten years ago was a profound shock to both American and international public opinion. What lessons can we learn a decade later?

Anyone who flies or tries to visit a Washington office building gets a reminder of how American security was changed by 9/11. But, while concern about terrorism is greater, and immigration restrictions are tighter, the hysteria of the early days after 9/11 has abated. New agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, the Director of National Intelligence and an upgraded Counter Terrorism Center have not transformed American government, and, for most Americans, personal freedoms have been little affected. No more large-scale attacks have occurred inside the U.S., and everyday life has recovered well.

But this apparent return to normality should not mislead us about the longer-term importance of 9/11. As I argue in my book The Future of Power, one of the great power shifts of this global information age is the strengthening of non-state actors. Al Qaeda killed more Americans on 9/11 than the attack by the government of Japan did at Pearl Harbor in 1941. This might be called the “privatization of war.”

During the Cold War, the U.S. had been even more vulnerable, in technological terms, to a nuclear attack from Russia, but “mutual assured destruction” prevented the worst by keeping vulnerability more or less symmetrical. Russia controlled great force, but it could not acquire power over the US from its arsenal.

Two asymmetries, however, favored Al Qaeda in September 2001. First, there was an asymmetry of information. The terrorists had good information about their targets, while the U.S. before September 11 had poor information about the identity and location of terrorist networks. Some government reports had anticipated the extent to which non-state actors could hurt large states, but their conclusions were not incorporated into official plans.

Second, there was an asymmetry in attention. A larger actor’s many interests and objectives often dilute its attention to a smaller actor, which, by contrast, can focus its attention and will more easily. There was a good deal of information about Al Qaeda in the American intelligence system, but the U.S. was unable to process coherently the information that its various agencies had gathered.

But asymmetries of information and attention do not confer a permanent advantage on the wielders of informal violence. To be sure, there is no such thing as perfect safety, and, historically, waves of terrorism have often taken a generation to recede. Even so, the elimination of top Al Qaeda leaders, the strengthening of American intelligence, tighter border controls, and greater cooperation between the FBI and the CIA have all clearly made the U.S. (and its allies) safer.

But there are larger lessons that 9/11 teaches us about the role of narrative and soft power in an information age. Traditionally, analysts assumed that victory went to the side with the better army or the larger force; in an information age, the outcome is also influenced by who has the better story. Competing narratives matter, and terrorism is about narrative and political drama.

The smaller actor cannot compete with the larger in terms of military might, but it can use violence to set the world agenda and construct narratives that affect its targets’ soft power. Osama bin Laden was very adept at narrative. He was not able to do as much damage to the U.S. as he hoped, but he managed to dominate the world agenda for a decade, and the ineptness of the initial American reaction meant that he could impose larger costs on the U.S. than were necessary.

President George W. Bush made a tactical error in declaring a “global war on terrorism.” He would have done better to frame the response as a reply to Al Qaeda, which had declared war on the U.S. The global war on terror was misinterpreted to justify a wide variety of actions, including the misguided and expensive Iraq War, which damaged America’s image. Moreover, many Muslims misread the term as an attack on Islam, which was not America’s intent, but fit Bin Laden’s efforts to tarnish perceptions of the U.S. in key Muslim countries.

To the extent that the trillion or more dollars of unfunded war costs contributed to the budget deficit that plagues the U.S. today, bin Laden was able to damage American hard power. And the real price of 9/11 may be the opportunity costs: For most of the first decade of this century, as the world economy gradually shifted its center of gravity toward Asia, the U.S. was preoccupied with a mistaken war of choice in the Middle East.

A key lesson of 9/11 is that hard military power is essential in countering terrorism by the likes of Bin Laden, but that the soft power of ideas and legitimacy is essential for winning the hearts and minds of the mainstream Muslim populations from whom al Qaeda would like to recruit. A “smart power” strategy does not ignore the tools of soft power.

But, at least for America, perhaps the most important lesson of 9/11 is that U.S. foreign policy should follow the counsel of President Dwight Eisenhower a half-century ago: Do not get involved in land wars of occupation, and focus on maintaining the strength of the American economy.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Joseph Nye. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • September 11 • Strategy • Terrorism • United States

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. sept11epicpoet

    Roosevelt said, speak softly but carry a big stick.

    September 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      "Do not get involved in land wars of occupation, and focus on maintaining the strength of the American economy." Indeed, Eisenhower was no friend of militarism. He ended the Korean War and stuck to his "Containment" doctrine in foreign policy. Nevertheless he let himself be dragged into the Cold War by George Kennan and John Foster Dulles.

      September 2, 2011 at 4:56 am | Reply
      • a small thought

        Yeah, but don't forget "Containment" failed big time in Vietnam and that was far from looking out for American economy. Besides, especially after the debt ceiling fiscaso that Congress played out, looking out for the economy is easier said than done.

        September 4, 2011 at 11:33 pm |
  2. KRM1007

    Unless the Palestine and Kashmir issues are resolved this menace is not going away. One need not have a Phd from Princeton to figure this out.

    September 1, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • Mac Qurashi

      Right on. UN resolutions in the case of Kashmir and Palestine were ignored while the India and Israel keep flaunting them. Terrorism springs when a people are suppressed and dehumanized on a daily basis. Same kind of feeling sparked the American Revolution against the British and laid the foundation of the United States of America. I wonder if the King of England had thought about George Washington as a terrorist.

      September 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Terrorism resembles a tidal wave, it ebbs and flows. We had a period of terrorism in Germany, the U.K. Italy and Spain long before the Islamic extremists emerged.

      September 2, 2011 at 5:08 am | Reply
    • Karel de Grote

      I do agree with you....in particulair America's middle east policy controlled by jewish americans is the core reason for worldwide terror in the air and on the ground. The islam world has decided to fight back...... Meanwhile, it appears to me the USA has not learnt a lesson, it uses the current turmoil in the middle east to unsettle Syrie and create a civil war in that country hoping Iran will also be infected sooner or later they hope Israel will emerge as the only ME super power.

      September 4, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Reply
  3. Onesmallvoice

    With Al Qaeda lacking both the finances and sophisication to pull off such an attack on it's own, 9/11 was most probably an inside job, at least in part. What is known as that this attack played quite heavily into the hands of the Bush Administrtion, bringing this country closer to one man rule anytime since the Civil War.

    September 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Reply
    • shawna

      i do not believe it was suppose to be an inside joke because of the way they had it set up i belive they knew exactly what they were doing and they kew what they were going to get out of what they did.

      September 2, 2011 at 10:13 am | Reply
  4. Peter

    Not to put another Bush/Cheney pair in the white house.

    September 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  5. ShameONyouPOLITICS

    That 911 was an inside job.

    September 2, 2011 at 3:51 am | Reply
    • mikijohn

      vote for you. I do have an agreement with you

      September 2, 2011 at 3:58 am | Reply
    • mikijohn

      vote for you.

      September 2, 2011 at 3:59 am | Reply
  6. shawna

    i think that the goverment should help out the firefighters with their cancer treatments because the firefighters risked their lives saving other people's live's and i think that is the least the govererment can do for them. if they do not want to help i say that the firefighters should hold a charity to help them earn enough money to be able to pay for the cancer treatments and to recover from cancer.

    September 2, 2011 at 10:10 am | Reply
  7. MSF

    Joseph Nye has made some excellent points. And Eisenhower's vision seems crystal clear. Isn't it interesting that men who have felt the cost and pain of conflict, face to face, make the best leaders? I firmly believe the USA needs to scrap the corrupt control of money over politics, immediately. As in WWII, a conflict's purpose, should be clear, and stopping an ever present danger. With no room or tolerance, for war profiteering, or personal enrichment. Excellent article. You're welcome at, Twitter @NayssMark.

    September 2, 2011 at 10:26 am | Reply
  8. ranjit


    September 2, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  9. r DURANT


    September 3, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  10. Sandra Smith

    The lessons learnerd are that Governments lie to their own people. The real culprits of 911 have not been punished. All the evidence points to Israel being the organiser of the terrorist attacks. Only Israel benefitted from the attacks. The Jews who control America have deceived the American people.

    September 4, 2011 at 7:15 am | Reply
  11. Gimble

    It was not a mouse that roared, it was a rat that gnawed. Be careful how you describe an enemy.

    September 5, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  12. Gimble

    Sandra Smith, You are an idiot. Try using your pitiful brain before opening your hateful mouth. What proof have you to make such God Foresaken statements.

    September 5, 2011 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  13. george from europe

    This attack,was payback for neverending occupation of us army around the world. The pride of usa is lost...forever

    September 9, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  14. Not turning a blind eye

    "personal freedoms have been little affected."

    September 11, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply

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