The conventional narrative in Russia has been that American spurned Russia’s outstretched hand after 9/11 and thus lost an opportunity to build a solid anti-terrorist coalition. Russia remains hostile to the US footprint in areas close to its borders, particularly its presence in Central Asia, and to improving US bilateral relations with states that were once part of the Soviet Union.
I am in New York City now – the city I was born in – watching the preparations for the tenth anniversary of 9/11 at the World Trade Center.
I am proud of this city, of the people who, having witnessed the destruction of the Twin Towers, went on to recover and rebuild. I am proud of their unwillingness to give in to fear, whether from Al Qaeda of from those who want to divide the world – and even American citizens of different religions – into “them” vs. “us.”
9/11 put the “Global War on Terror” front and center in US foreign policy as the country entered uncharted waters in dealing with threats to the American homeland. On the plus side, ten years later, we have avoided another major attack and destroyed much of the Al Qaeda network. And we have been joined in these efforts by many countries, including Russia.
But ten years is not long enough to make a historical judgment about the success or failure of this policy. At home, the war against Al Qaeda assumed the mantle previously reserved for the struggle against Nazism and Communism, despite the very real differences in the source of the threat and the means required to fight it. For ten years, we have focused like a laser on this serious challenge, but by now it is clear that it is by no means the only challenge we face. The task before us is to deal with other political and economic dislocations at home and abroad – the rise of new powers and global threats to our physical surroundings. Since the 2008 economic crisis an increasing number of Americans believe that the most important challenges we face are at home, principally the need to jumpstart our economy and put people back to work.
The problem is that a country preoccupied with its situation at home will face difficulties leading abroad. It is unclear if Americans would eventually balk at the costs involved in continued global leadership and instead turn inward or seek easy answers (and scapegoats) for international problems. Both the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq are no longer supported by a majority of the American people. The 2012 presidential election will provide a test case on the electability of candidates who understand the limits of US power or who want America to “come home.”
The tendency of other countries has been to either bemoan or delight in America’s predicament.
The conventional narrative in Russia has been that American spurned Russia’s outstretched hand after 9/11 and thus lost an opportunity to build a solid anti-terrorist coalition. Yes, Russia saw the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating before 9/11 and warned about Al Qaeda as a threat, and its recent assistance in establishing the Northern Distribution Network has been invaluable. But Russia remains hostile to the US footprint in areas close to its borders, particularly its presence in Central Asia, and to improving US bilateral relations with states that were once part of the Soviet Union. As violence escalates in the Northern Caucasus, it is clear that Russia’s security policy has made a bad situation worse; in addition, the rise of Nashi and other extremist voices does not bode well for building better ethnic relations or creating a truly “civil” civil society.
Tentative steps have been taken by both the United States and Russia to face some of the issues that still divide us. But what started out in 2000 as a promising decade has led to many more disappointments than we anticipated. Building on the very real successes of Washington’s reset policy, let’s hope that the coming decade will not disappoint us yet again.