Sept. 11, 2001, we were living in the post-Cold War era. At 9:37 a.m., just 52 minutes later, as the third hijacked airliner careened into the Pentagon, the post-9/11 era had begun. Everyone told us that everything had changed.
It was the beginning of a new chapter in history. The image of thousands of people perishing as the Twin Towers collapsed in a cascade of fire and dust, live on television, was a bookmark for the ages. There was a world before this tragedy, and then there was something very different that was about to follow. Rarely have so many agreed about the meaning of a single moment.
Five years on, this response must be understood as one being born out of shock. Certainly, for some, there could not have been a more life-changing moment. Collectively, we feared what was about to end.
Globalization would surely grind to a halt. Borders â€” in particular, the need to maintain them â€” would undergo a renaissance as governments looked to shield themselves from the next attack. Global trade, capital flows and immigration could no longer be what they once were. National economies would cool, as the realization of a "clash of civilizations" grew hot.
Yet, if you look closely at the trend lines since 9/11, what is remarkable is how little the world has changed. The forces of globalization continue unabated; indeed, if anything, they have accelerated. Across broad measures of political, economic and social data, the constants outweigh the variations. And, five years later, U.S. foreign policy is marked by no greater strategic clarity than it had on Sept. 10, 2001.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were theatrical terrorism of the worst kind. But the tragic drama of that day did not usher in a new era. No, if there was a day that changed the world forever, it was 15 years ago, not five. New Year's Eve, 1991. It was on that day, far away from any cameras, that the Soviet Union finally threw in the towel, dissolving itself and officially bringing an end to the Cold War. From that moment on, the United States reigned supreme â€” "the sole superpower," "the hyperpower," "the global hegemon," call it what you like. And from that moment on, the world was out of balance â€” and it still is. The tragedy of 9/11 was a manifestation of the unipolar disorder the world had already entered a decade earlier. A day after 9/11, we were still living in the post-Cold War era, we still are today, and that is precisely the problem.
Where we left off
The global economy offered the first sign that a new, darker day hadn't dawned. On Sept. 10, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 9,605.51. Once markets reopened on Sept. 17, it took only 40 days for the market to close above that level again. Hard-hit businesses such as the tourist industry bounced back remarkably fast. In 2005, more than 800 million tourists traveled abroad, up from 688 million four years earlier. Confidence returned so quickly that we are not even shying away from building skyscrapers.
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