Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

How 9/11 Will Be Remembered a Century Later

| Sep. 06, 2021

The attacks could be viewed as a historical turning point—or as entirely insignificant.

How will 9/11 be remembered on its hundredth anniversary? Will it be seen as a dramatic but ultimately minor tragedy or as a turning point that altered the United States and the trajectory of world politics in fundamental ways? Will future generations see that day as a telling reflection of underlying trends, the catalyst for a series of catastrophic foreign-policy blunders, or as an isolated one-off event whose long-term impact was relatively modest?

It is impossible to predict exactly how 9/11 is going to be interpreted, of course; perhaps all we can say with confidence is that the meaning attached to it will vary depending on who is doing the interpreting. Americans will view 9/11 differently than Afghans, Iraqis, Saudis, or Europeans, and for many people around the world it is likely to be little more than a historical footnote. What looms large in our consciousness today is often irrelevant to others and especially once memories fade and more recent events command our attention.

Yet despite these unavoidable uncertainties, asking how 9/11 might be seen in 2101 is still a useful exercise because it helps place the event within a broader geopolitical context. I can think of at least two broad and radically different possibilities (plus a third wild card). Ironically, which possibility comes closest to the truth has little to do with what occurred on that sunny Tuesday morning 20 years ago and much more to do with what has happened in response to it. Moreover, what happens in the next few decades is going to determine how 9/11 is remembered a century later.

Option 1: Xi Jinping gets his wish

Imagine, for a moment, that Chinese President Xi Jinping's fondest hopes are fully realized and that the next 80 years become known as the "Chinese Century." In this scenario, China's economic ascendance continues apace, and it eventually casts as large a shadow as the United States did during most of the Cold War and especially the unipolar moment. China will not become a global hegemon exerting authoritative sway over every nation or dictating all world events, but it could control the commanding heights of key technologies, exercise de facto hegemony in its immediate neighborhood, and have more influence on what other states do than any other power. It would have the loudest voice in most international institutions and the greatest ability to define the rules shaping most international interactions.

Were this scenario to occur, then 9/11 will be seen as a critical event that accelerated America's decline. Not because of the damage suffered in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon or even the short-term economic consequences (from which the United States recovered rapidly) but because of the calamitous ways that U.S. leaders chose to respond to it....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“How 9/11 Will Be Remembered a Century Later.” Foreign Policy, September 6, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt