The world in 2031: How September 11 could shape our future

Last week, the Harvard academic Niall Ferguson offered an optimistic prediction of how our world could look, 30 years after the September 11 attacks. But is the future really so rosy? Will our society and way of life survive the traumas of war, terrorism and climate change? Here, three leading historians look ahead - to a time we can only imagine
Click to follow
The Independent US

The new Thirty Years' War by Paul Kennedy

It seems very hard and strange now, to look back more than 30 years to that shocking morning of September 11 2001, and to attempt to reflect on how the world has changed and not changed during those decades. In the catastrophe's immediate aftermath and, in fact, for many years afterwards, it was common to believe that the world's scene was totally different; that the landscape of national and international politics had been transformed by the sabotage and deliberate crashes of four aircraft on American soil.

That certainly was the drumbeat message of the Bush administration of the time and, if anyone can recall those days, for the subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, the emergency military expeditions to defend the oilfields of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and the welter of terrorist attacks upon Europe, North America and Japan in the critical years 2008-2012. They all seemed to justify an apocalyptic view.

How curious, in retrospect, appears that broad post-September 11 conviction that we were on the verge of Armageddon or, to use a softer but still powerful phrase, that we had entered a new Thirty Years War, this time between universalistic liberal values and the fanatic, destructive counter-attack of fundamental Islamicists.

Yet our later knowledge of how the world unfolded in ways very different from those ultra-gloomy assumptions is not just a display of being wise after the event. After all, what were regarded as the major tendencies in global affairs before al-Qa'ida struck the Pentagon and the Twin Towers? Surely they the following: the United States was unquestionably the global No 1, albeit facing serious financial imbalances and militarily overstretch abroad; Asia, led above all by China and India, was rising both economically and militarily; Russia, under Putin's coldly calculated mix of domestic and external stratagems, was steadily recovering its place in world affairs; Europe was getting older and slower but was still a nice place in which to live; Africa was grappling, with mixed results, with more disasters than any other broad region of the Earth; and the Middle East, with exceptions, could not manage the 21st century.

Thirty years later, those major tendencies seem to have held their course, and were to be far less disrupted by the impacts of the September 11 attacks than some of us assumed at the time. Just look at the world around us, in this pleasant early-autumnal week of 2031. The United States still possesses the greatest overall combination of military, economic and technological strengths, but it has been considerably checked and sobered by the fiscal crises and military setbacks of the decade that followed the Bush administration's decision to fight in both Afghanistan and Iraq, so that it now sensibly pursues policies of cooperation - with the other powers, and with international agencies - and much more restraint abroad.

China and India have indeed risen, not without enormous wrenches in their domestic social fabrics, and are now major, responsible actors on the world scene. Putin's clever Bismarckian policies of internal and external improvements paid off; here is the fourth big player on the world chessboard. Europe worries incessantly about itself but, actually, is just fine, a comfortable antidote to America's habit of self-improving and Asia's blinkered commitment to 15-year-plans. Africa endured hell for the first half of these past three decades - continued civil wars, genocides, failed states, environmental calamities - but resourceful peoples in Botswana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Morocco, South Africa and elsewhere fought off those common foes and advanced, stronger than before, for the tests they endured.

The Middle East was different, but that was true before September 11, even if the subsequent events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt between that date and the second decade of our 21st century intensified its convulsions. The annual Arab Development Reports composed by the UN Development Programme early in the 21st century had pointed to the many hindrances that would prevent this region from smoothly entering the comity of nations. Regional experts and CIA analysts warned that the area was unstable, unhinged, in so many ways.

Still, the convulsions of 2009-2012 came so thick and fast that, for all their failures, the policy-makers of those years can hardly be dismissed as buffoons; to be fair, they were humanly incapable of dealing with the almost-simultaneous collapse of the regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the worsening of the Iraqi civil war, the generational struggle for power in Iran, and, above all, the horrifying Iranian nuclear devastation of Tel Aviv as well as much of the city's surrounding suburbs.

The Israeli nuclear counter-strike killed 10 million Iranians, but the ancient Persian entity itself remained, eviscerated but not obliterated. The Great Powers were paralysed, for what exactly was one supposed to do following an Iranian-Israeli nuclear exchange? Frightened, they sought for compromises on all fronts, multiple UN-led peacekeeping missions, and then disentanglement and post-nuclear clean-up. Americans were aroused, but simultaneously scared at going back into that mire - and who exactly did you "nuke" just because Tel Aviv had disappeared?

Europeans were numbed. Putin kept his lips tightly closed. And why should the ever-more-prosperous Asia get involved in stupid religious and ideological wars far to the west? So Israel limped on, awfully damaged, still protected by the US, but facing an unclear future.

Thirty years after the September 11 attacks the Middle East remains unstable, even if moderate political groups are gaining ever more support from a newer generation of Arabs in the Gulf, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. The most promising fact is that al-Qa'ida is a distant memory, like the anarchists of the 1870s and 1880s. They scared people for a long while, but ran themselves into the sand, especially with their foolish bombings in Shanghai and Beijing in the years 2010 to 2012 to protest at Chinese security measures against Muslims in the country's western provinces.

With an aroused China joining an already belligerent USA in the war against terror, with Putin agreeing and Europe and the rest of the world scuttling to destroy any home-grown terrorists, and with all possible al-Qa'ida financial supporters arrested by cooperative measures among banks (instigated by President Bush), they are now a busted flush. Indeed, the terror organisation is becoming a distant memory.

So, where are we, 30 years after the twin towers came down? Older, certainly; perhaps a bit wiser. It has not been a happy planet, especially in much of Africa and the Middle East. But, in truth, we are in 2031 a lot better off than most of the pundits of 2001 thought we might be. That itself is cause for some rejoicing. But not much.

Paul Kennedy is professor of history at Yale University. His latest book is 'The Parliament of Man: The United Nations and the Quest for World Government', Allen Lane, £25

An age of technological medievalism by Michael Clarke

The future is another country, we do things differently here; and we never cease to be intrigued by our own schizophrenia of 30 years ago. How did we not see it all more clearly then? Why did we make so light of the West's stunning consumer victory over Communism? We had lived with the possibility of nuclear annihilation as a matter of course, and then in the very decade of victory, made a war out of terrorism, convinced ourselves it was the principal problem we faced, then fought it as if we really wanted to lose.

The fact that we did not was even more curious, and probably astonishes our terrorist adversaries more than us. To be sure, we made it hard for ourselves; getting pulled into three battlefields of the jihadis' own choosing - in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. Osama bin Laden's final tape before he succumbed to his kidney disease was full of triumphalism: he had begun the war that others would win; he had used al-Qa'ida to mobilise radical Islam into fighting for itself; and Western leaders had huffed and puffed their way down blind allies. Many of us gloomily agreed with him when we saw that last grainy broadcast. We had failed to win a battle of ideas with the Islamo-fascists, our confidence in ourselves, and our liberties, were on the wane.

Yet it was ideas that finally buried the terrorist challenge: not those of Western governments, but the individual ideas, the technological drive and the creative instincts that fashioned what we now label as the new "technological medievalism". The international system changed so dramatically in that second decade of our century it overtook the war on terror, made it look trivial in the West and unfashionable across the Islamic world.

It was the big crises of the second decade that provoked those systemic changes we now recognise but still struggle to understand. The Middle East went into political meltdown in a chaos that went beyond the capacity of the major powers to contain, and cruelly exposed the long-term lack of any political leadership within the region itself. The United States declared victory and left. The Russians and Chinese dabbled in the fire and got burned. After that, the powers effectively isolated the region and let it spiral into the abyss in which it still is.

In the midst of the energy crisis they could ill afford to do this, but they lacked the capacity to do anything else. The energy crisis reached a political peak in the middle of that decade, resulting in some of the tense stand-offs between the United States and China, while Russia tried to throw its energy weight around Asia and Europe, only to find it lost more than it gained from the resulting tensions. It was a nasty and dangerous time. We got through the period without a formal exchange of nuclear weapons among the 12 nuclear powers, but not without nuclear use by those who had some access to the technology.

While the major powers of the world looked increasingly hamstrung, the effects of climate change, environmental stress and human insecurity arising from crime, poverty and resource-scarcity remained unaddressed, except in endless rhetoric. In 2015 we passed a critical milestone when more than 50 per cent of the world's population was "urbanised" - almost 80 per cent in the developed world. We got used to the concept of mega-cities that would either cope, and be prosperous; or fail, and be sinks of misery and instability. If we spoke about the new American empire in 2001, it had come to feel more like the third-century Roman empire by 2021.

But it was clear by then that people, cities and organisations were making their own decisions. They had accepted that the old 20th-century state was only good for certain things. The technologies of communication, computing and transport that had put more power into the hands of the individual than of the state were given another twist by the impact of biotechnology, nanotechnology and materials science once they really hit the market. National economies became almost completely fractured into regional hot-spots and cool peripheries in the 2020s.

If China had held together for a little longer then its leadership might have harnessed the power of some very hot-spots in Asia the way that India did. But the Chinese government simply could not keep up with the dynamism of key parts of the society. China "regionalised" irrevocably, leaving the Beijing government fading away.

Washington managed to put an ad-man's spin on its own declining relevance. "We're just re-asserting our traditional 19th-century role," it announced. "The economy is dynamic, society can look after itself; we've been arguing against big government for years, now we're practising it."

Europe had long since got used to the idea but still had to give up any notions of a European super-state, or even a unified super-economy.

Our world is one of very postmodern individual values. We've stopped looking for political "isms" to unite us. That's part of history. We've learned to live with a global "non-system" that is far from mere chaos but which perhaps inures us too much to its fierce inequalities, its peripheral miseries side by side with metropolitan power and prosperity; driven relentlessly by the networks of corporate dynasties.

But there is a lot of individual freedom in this world and a local creativity that 20th-century man would not have understood. We are no better than before at dealing with the root causes of climate change, poverty and deprivation, but we have figured out some astonishing ways of dealing with the symptoms.

That is why the jihadi threat faded with an older generation. It was always based on a very 20th-century, fascistic interpretation of collective willpower. Outside the Middle East, Islamic societies adapted to the new medievalism as well and as badly as the rest of us. Not that on our 2031 Earth religion is unimportant, but it was not the meek, but the adaptive, who turned out to inherit it.

Michael Clarke is professor of defence studies at King's College London

The world map redrawn by Lisa Jardine

There are events in history that sear the shared consciousness of what, at the start of the 21st century, used to be known as the First World. We all remember where we were, on the morning of 11 September 2001, when we got our first sight on a television screen of the twin towers shortly after the first and then the second plane had struck. Thirty years on, we can begin to see that the lasting impact of those traumatic events and their aftermath were not as they appeared at the time.

At the time, it felt like war. The aide who whispered in President Bush's ear that a second plane had struck the south tower told him: "America is under attack." In his first phone call, made as he was driven to safety, the President told the Vice-President: "We're at war - and somebody's going to pay."

If this was war, there had to be an enemy - a nation state against whom war could be declared. Targeting first Afghanistan and then Iraq, on the grounds (more spurious in the second case than the first) that nations that harboured terrorists were legitimate military objectives, perpetuated the idea that some territory - some state or nation - had to be held accountable, and retribution exacted.

On the fifth anniversary of the attack in 2006, commentators were still identifying 9/11 as the epochal moment at the start of a global war. By now, however, it was a "war on terror" against an invisible, fanatical, suicidal enemy bent on global destruction. In August, Bush told the American Legion in Salt Lake City: "This war will be long... but it's a war we must wage, and a war we will win... The war we fight today is more than a military conflict; it is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century."

But, since the first decade of the 21st century, our way of seeing the world has irretrievably altered. Who, we now ask, was at war with whom? Was Bush's rhetoric simply that old ruse of defining "the nation" by positing great danger beyond its borders?

We ought to have recognised that the seeds of change were part of the conditions for the cataclysmic event itself. By the beginning of the century, the internet had already made the concept of containment of ideas (and the activities to which they give rise) within conventional national boundaries in effect obsolete. Ideas and contacts, plans and blueprints for action, could be formulated by individuals on opposite sides of the world. They empowered individuals for good or ill, dismantling the structures which had sustained power-from-the-top for centuries.

As the final report of the 9/11 Commission made clear in 2004, in the decade before the attack, border security had been given comparatively low priority. A terrorist attack on US soil was considered extremely unlikely. In fact, controlling those "inside" national borders in 2001, while keeping others "outside", was already an artificial aspiration.

At the same time, easy access to air travel was eroding the distinctions between "immigrant", "migrant" and "visitor". Today, we can see that global mass movement, facilitated by cheap travel, enables contingents of new residents in any country to retain multiple identities, allowing them to participate in many scattered communities, sharing their hopes and fears. Gone are the days when the new arrival had no option but to try to "fit in".

Today, the consequences for global government are well established and have literally redrawn the world map. Nation states are a thing of the past. Territories continue to be administered locally, for convenience, and those residing within the boundaries of "England" or "Denmark" are required to comply with the laws of those lands. But residents also consider themselves fully paid-up members of other groups and gatherings, at multiple, distant locations, communication with which shapes many aspects of their lives - they may buy goods, including everyday items like food and clothing, from outside their country of residence. They certainly spend periods of time elsewhere. They are likely to retain a facility in several languages, sustained by their internet correspondence with friends and relatives abroad.

Secular and sacred are conveniently separated - the former defined by a person's geographical location, the latter by the networks they belong to and with which they regularly communicate. The internet enables connections between individuals without regard for geography, ethnicity, creed or statehood. The territory formerly known as "Israel", for example, is now a jointly and peaceably administered land, most of whose inhabitants are of Arab extraction.

Global mingling means that when we look back to the early decades of the 21st century, we are bound to be puzzled by the conviction with which a group like al-Qa'ida identified "America" as the "imperialist enemy", and was prepared to commit atrocities against ordinary Americans of all races and creeds. The population of the United States has diversified beyond recognition. The last two American Presidents have been of Hispanic origin and Spanish-speaking. Census data predict that by 2050 the Hispanic population of the US will be 102.6 million, 24 per cent of the total population. So what identifies an "American", and what might their interest be in long-running territorial disputes in the Middle East?

Today, "America" is a large land-mass administered by an efficient bureaucracy that provides general administration, healthcare, social services and judicial oversight of commerce. Its President is elected for his ability to respond effectively to the external pressures of a fast-changing political world, much as leaders of major corporations do. The quality of information reaching him has improved hugely since the confused pictures reaching George Bush, and the tools of his trade have become more subtle as he now struggles to influence his sophisticated and globally linked electorates.

Did 9/11 itself impact on these changes? I think the answer is yes. The "war on terror" took Western nations into military conflicts of increasing irrelevance to their own inhabitants. The cost in lives lost became intolerably high, yet the justifications for conflict seemed more and more implausible. The elaborate arrangements for surveillance, border policing and control of possibly dissident elements inside individual countries took up increasing amounts of government time and energy. No wonder we eventually returned to Thomas Hobbes's 17th-century view that the state exists to protect the solitary individual from harm, and that war serves the interests only of those in power, and is never in our interests.

Professor Lisa Jardine is the director of the AHRC Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, University of London

Comments