Twenty years ago, I was in sitting on a trading floor in midtown Manhattan when the world collapsed before my eyes.

My memories of the rest of that day — indeed, of the rest of the week — are somewhat scattered. I remember dry-heaving when the first tower collapsed, thinking that it must still have been substantially occupied, and that thousands of innocent people had just perished in an instant. I remember sitting in my boss’s living room uptown, where I’d walked, since I couldn’t get home to Brooklyn yet, watching the television and listening to the idle chatter of his other guests and wanting to scream: how can you keep on talking like that? Don’t you all understand? Everything is different now. 

It was the second time I’d had that experience. The first time was much happier: When joyful crowds breached the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War came to a sudden and surprising end. I was in college back then, just finishing a course on comparative politics of communist bloc countries, and I remember thinking: Well, everything I just studied is now obsolete (since these countries would shortly no longer be communist), and yet everything I just studied has suddenly become far more relevant (since these countries would shortly no longer be Soviet satellites). I was eager to go and see for myself what freedom felt like when it was new, and I did, as soon as the school year was over. But the immediate and enduring feeling was of relief. A fear that had lived in the background of my mind for my entire life had suddenly and miraculously evaporated.

And then, in an instant, it was back.

That, I think, was the immediate lesson that many Americans took from the events of Sept. 11, 2001, very much egged on by the Bush administration. The end of the Cold War had fooled us. We had thought the world was safe, that history was over; but it wasn’t, and it wasn’t. Now we needed to gird up our loins and take command, impose a structure on events that would enable us to master them, as we had mastered the challenges of fascism and communism before.

Which is just what we did. Now, 20 years on, the structure we imposed is in tatters.

We have learned, painfully, that we are terrible at democracy-promotion, nation-building, and counter-insurgency. The yearning for freedom may indeed be universal, but it is far from the only universal yearning, and freedom itself turns out to mean different things to different people. Often enough, the freedom people wanted most was freedom from our own capricious interference.

It was easy to depose the Taliban, easy to topple Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gaddafi. It wasn’t even that hard to cripple al Qaeda, the organization that actually attacked us, notwithstanding that it took us a decade to finally assassinate Osama bin Laden. But none of these wars demonstrated our mastery of events. On the contrary: The Taliban outlasted us in Afghanistan, as they were always likely to do. The decapitating wars in Iraq and Libya yielded chaos and the rise of a new terrorist Islamic State that in turn had to be defeated. And the Arab Spring ended in revived dictatorship in Egypt and brutal civil war in Syria.

Nor did our less-militarized efforts to transform the world that predominated before 2001 prove much more successful. The liberal moment in Russian history that America aimed to foster was largely snuffed out within a decade; its Putinist successor has already proved twice as durable. The integration of China into the world trade system led not to the progressive liberalization of that regime, but rather to the burgeoning power of the Chinese Communist Party and a far more formidable challenge to America’s own position.

The lesson of Sept. 11 was that we were much less secure than we thought — that in an interconnected world, chaos “over there” could come home. Therefore, we would only really be secure when we had tamed chaos, and made the whole world sufficiently like us that our values and interests would be in harmony. The lesson of the 20 years since is that we not only cannot master chaos, we often sowed it in our wake; that we not only cannot mold other societies in our image, but instead often provoke a reaction that pushes them in precisely the opposite direction.

But the first lesson, of interconnectedness and insecurity, is still true. We still do live in an interconnected world in which things that happen “over there” — from the emergence of a novel virus, to the development of cheap drones, to carbon emissions and plastic pollution — really do affect us over here. Our future, perhaps more than ever before, is not solely in our hands. We just don’t know what to do about it. How do Americans live in a world characterized by lack of independence when our country was founded on independence as an ideal?

That, I believe, is the real question before America today. We remain an enormously powerful, wealthy, capable country, and when we look back on the last 20 years, we can with reason pat ourselves on the back. After all, there were no mass-casualty terrorist attacks on America after 9/11, nor did even our worst mistakes overseas lead to a catastrophic collapse in our power and position. Looking forward, we could well rise to the biggest challenges before us: make a transition to a decarbonized economy, sustain a military and economic edge over China, clamber out of the demographic doldrums, and revitalize our democracy and the egalitarian promise of our founding documents. But even if we succeed in all of that, we’re still going to face a massive adaptation challenge from climate change. We will still need to share power with a growing array of countries that do not see their interests as aligned with ours. We will still produce a declining share of world output, and represent a declining share of world population. There will still be pandemics, and terrorists, and disruptive technologies, and demographic change. We will have to adapt to the world far more than we adapt the world to us.

The question is whether we can accept that fact, and what else we will unleash until we do. Sept. 11 wasn’t enough to jolt us out of our national solipsism. Perhaps reflecting on the 20 years since will finally do the trick.


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