Stability in a Post-9/11 World

Commentary | September 12, 2016

Pentagon construction began on September 11, 1941 as America scrambled to respond to an increasingly powerful Nazi Germany and Empire of Japan. Engineers hastily erected the new war department headquarters, which was completed on January 15, 1943.[i] Exactly sixty years later, the Pentagon and its occupants, along with the iconic Twin Towers in Manhattan were attacked by terrorists.  

On this 15th anniversary of 9/11, it is worth reflecting on the tragic loss of life that day. America, and the world, will appropriately recognize this event and mourn its victims. Similarly, we will continue analyzing what we, as a nation, could have done better to prevent and respond to the attacks. The 9/11 Commission Report and many other assessments expertly answered the preponderance of these shortfalls.

Then President George W. Bush promised that America would “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” And true to America’s word, on May 2, 2011, the United States took decisive action against Usama bin Laden.

So, while we reflect on the loss of life this September 11th, it is also worth considering what has changed in our world since that fateful day.

This article attempts to take inventory of our changing world since the attacks on September 11, 2001, and answer the question of whether our nation and our world are better off fifteen years later. How has the world changed since 9/11? And what portion of these changes is the result of those specific attacks?

The first question paints an interesting picture of the world we live in today. The second, is much more difficult, and maybe overcome by the events of the last fifteen years. I have selected seven topics that may define stability in a post-9/11 world: migration, changes in great power relations, the nature of conflict itself, the Arab Spring (and by extension, the unique instability of the Islamic world), the global peace index, public health and the new world of omnipresent communications.

Day-to-Day Observations. Before 9/11, we could show up at the airport 30 minutes before our flight with our 16 oz. coffee that we were going to take on the plane. Our family would walk us to the gate and wave as we embarked on our next adventure or business trip. Often we could converse with the pilot and a lucky few could even visit the cockpit. All of this is no longer. And unfortunately, until our technology improves to the point of predicting nefarious intent (see the movie Minority Report), we will continue disrobing at check in, discarding our beverages and spending countless hours in TSA lines. Ultimately, this is a small sacrifice to pay and a minor inconvenience to ensure our collective safety. But, it represents the stark reminder of maintaining safety at all public forums, popular events and modes of communication.

2015 saw the most migrants in recorded history. According to the United Nations, the number of migrants across the globe has increased 41 percent since 2000. By 2015, 244 million persons were considered migrants. In 2000, 2.8 percent of the world’s population was migrants. Sadly, 2015 also reported the highest number of migrants perishing or missing—almost 5,500. By 2015, that number had exceeded 3.3 percent. Of the 244 million migrants, approximately 20 million are refugees. According to a report entitled “Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2015 Revision,” international migrants are now growing faster than the world’s population for the first time.[ii] The numbers of refugees and displaced persons in 2015 combined exceeded 60 million people. This is more than double the number of refugees and displaced persons reported in 2007.[iii] While there is a moral imperative to assist those in need, the unprecedented level of migration and flow of refugees is extraordinarily disruptive to unsuspecting families and communities, straining the resources of host countries and raising concerns over security. 

Great Powers Miscalculations and Lack of Clear Communications Could Lead to Conflict. In 2001, the United States was arguably the world’s only superpower. In the past 15 years, China has grown rapidly towards becoming a near-peer competitor. China’s consistent double digit economic growth, investment in technology and willingness to flex its new military and economic muscle in the South China Sea could lead to miscalculations with the United States or China’s neighbors. The Russian Federation offers a different set of challenges. Poor Russian economic policy decisions, international sanctions and low oil prices have neutered the Russian economy. Despite this fact, Russia maintains a significant military capability and has shown a demonstrated resolve to use it. And while some pundits equate the United Kingdom’s vote on BREXIT to a weakening of NATO, the reality is just the opposite. NATO is stronger now than it has been in decades, and will likely continue to strengthen on the basis of more aligned policies and expansion of real world capabilities, countering the agenda of certain nations and non-state actors. Within this context, the United States must ensure its policies are clear, its commitment is unwavering and its resolve is without question.  

War and Conflict.[iv] Until 2008, the number of war fatalities had generally declined significantly since 1949, a year in which nearly 600,000 individuals died in combat. While the 1950s and 1960s saw some level of variance, by 1971, worldwide deaths due to war once again exceeded 400,000 individuals, and spiked again in 1981 to almost 260,000. Between 1989 and 1998, worldwide deaths in war ranged from 85,000 to 120,000 people. In 2001, this number dropped to approximately 15,000 deaths annually and remained relatively constant through 2007. Unfortunately, war fatalities once again increased to over 101,400 by 2015. The number of fatalities was directly related to worldwide combat operations. However, the advancement in precision weapons and battlefield medicine has generally reduced battlefield fatalities. Additionally, between 2014 and 2015, terrorist related deaths increased by 286 percent (8,466 to 32,715) in the same year.[v]

The Arab Spring.[vi] The Arab Spring began on December 18, 2010 in Tunisia. Mass protests and demonstrations occurred across the Middle East and North Africa following Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, setting himself ablaze in response to poor treatment of fellow citizens by police. Both violent and nonviolent protests followed in Algeria, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen. By February of 2012, ruling parties or heads of state were removed from Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt. Major violent and nonviolent uprisings occurred in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Sudan, Morocco, Western Sahara, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Mali, Djibouti and Palestine. While the full impact of the Arab Spring will likely be debated for decades, it undoubtedly changed the relationships between ruling elites and the population. Additionally, it called into question the long-term stability of many of the nations discussed above.   

Global Peace Index. The Global Peace Index, which assesses 162 countries and territories and 99.7 percent of the world population annually, reported that “the two indicators with the largest yearly deterioration [from 2014-2015] were the impact of terrorism and political instability. Deaths from terrorism increased by 80 percent from last year’s report with only 69 countries not recording a terrorist incident.”[vii] The United States has suffered over 7,000 casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. While these numbers are rightly unacceptable to every American, the reality is that the number of worldwide deaths in combat has dropped significantly since World War II and precipitously in the past decades.

Life Expectancy and Health. Overall, humans are living much longer and healthier lives than they did in 2001. By 2015, the global life expectancy at birth was 71.4 years. Females were expected to live to an average age of 73.8 years and males an average of 69.1 years. This was an increase of five years between 2000 and 2015. Africa saw the greatest increase in life expectancy (9.4 years) due mostly to improved child survival and HIV antiretrovirals.[viii] The United States average life expectancy in 2015 was 79.68 years, up from an average of 76.74 in 2001.[ix] Unfortunately, while the world’s populations are living longer, almost 800 million people do not have access to clean water and over 800,000 children under the age of five still die from the results of dysentery.[x] 

Omnipresent mass communications may make the world appear to be a worse place than the data would suggest. The Arab Spring demonstrated that stable nations can be suddenly thrown into upheaval through the ability to communicate to wide audiences quickly at nearly no cost. Governments that have been relatively stable for decades are suddenly overthrown or threatened. The continuously present access to social media ensures that negative news are reported in real time. However, it is becoming more difficult for nations, political parties or even individuals to protect what was once considered private information. WikiLeaks, hacking and a multitude of other cyber threats have significantly affected what information large portions of the population can access. And not all of that information is accurate or even real.

Based on the data provided above, is the world better or worse off since 9/11? The world is generally healthier than it was before 9/11. People are living longer than fifteen years ago. And less large scale wars continue to result in fewer casualties than decades ago. But, the stability of the world since 9/11 is more questionable than before the 2001 attacks. Specifically, with the creation of social media applications, it is easier to encourage large populations to take quicker action than in the past, or recruit individuals for nefarious activities. Hence, information management and communication channels can be as powerful as weapons.

Has the world changed as a result of the attacks? The trends listed above demonstrate that significant changes have occurred since the attacks on 9/11. The potential for rapid overthrowing of governments is more of a reality today than in past decades. It is also possible that as a result of seeing the world’s only superpower successfully attacked by a relatively small and unsophisticated foe in 2001, others were emboldened to act. Perhaps non-state actors saw the impact of the attacks and realized, for relatively little investment, they could have a significant financial and strategic impact on nations that would otherwise be well beyond the attackers’ reach. But, many of these changes since 9/11 are positive; many of the challenges we face are not the unmanageable mess that some make them out to be. Those that exaggerate our situation through the politics of cultural despair can elicit extreme reactions. The European populist movement and the United States presidential campaign are two such examples of over responding to the many complex issues we face as a world today.

We must take these challenges and threats to stability seriously. But, they must be approached in a timely fashion that is calm, mature and focuses on sound intellectual rigor.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the EastWest Institute.


[i] Cantrell, Mark. Built to Last, Military Officer Association Magazine.  September, 2016. Pg 58.



[iv] This section is based on numerous sources including,

[v] page 25