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From 9/11 to 9/11: The Widening of the Atlantic

Timothy Garton Ash— 

As our small group of European experts stood with President George W. Bush on the Truman balcony of the White House one fine May day in 2001, before our meeting to discuss his forthcoming trip to Europe, I casually noticed how planes from the nearby Reagan National Airport took off and climbed directly overhead. It never occurred to me that these planes could be used as terrorist weapons of mass destruction. In our subsequent discussion, the Iranian nuclear programme was briefly mentioned but Islamist terrorism did not feature. Instead, Bush identified China as the greatest challenge to the West: ‘We’ll all be fighting the darned Chinese one day.’

Less than four months later, Osama bin Laden’s terrorists plunged hijacked civilian airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the high-security walls of the Pentagon in Washington. Either the White House or the Capitol was the intended target for flight United 93, but they were spared thanks to the heroism of passengers. Several of them rushed forward along the narrow aircraft aisle to tackle the hijackers who then, with a last cry of ‘Allahu akbar!’ (‘Allah is the greatest’), crashed the plane into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Bush was told that if a plane had been hijacked at Reagan National Airport it could have reached the White House in about forty seconds.

The moment a second plane crashed into the World Trade Center, at 9.03 a.m. on Tuesday 11 September 2001, immediately entered the collective memory log of humankind, alongside the moon landing and the fall of the Wall. The date, 9/11, written US-style, month before day, was the next great turning point in world history after 9/11, written European-style—that is 9 November 1989, the day the Berlin Wall came down. Europe’s 9/11 of hope was followed by America’s 9/11 of fear.

The trauma of a direct assault on the heart of the American homeland, for the first time since the British torched the White House in 1814, transformed the United States, both at home and abroad. For Bush, China and Russia suddenly became partners in a ‘war on terror’ that took priority over everything else. Through the next decade, while China quietly continued its ‘peaceful rise’, the United States expended trillions of dollars, billions of political, bureaucratic and military hours, and much diplomatic and moral capital, on trying to defeat the Islamist enemy.

In December 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, I had a background conversation with Vice President Dick Cheney in his heavily guarded residence in the grounds of the National Observatory in Washington.

‘How does this war end?’ I asked him.

‘With the elimination of the terrorists.’

I was shocked not by the ruthlessness of Cheney’s answer but by its stupidity. Get to number 267 on your list of terrorists and that would be the end of the war? Really?

He went on to explain that the administration had changed its mind about ‘nation-building’ since our meeting with the President in the White House a few months before, at which Cheney himself had been a brooding presence. Now, he said, they did intend to do nation-building and hoped that Iraq ‘might become a beacon’.

In Cheney’s every breath I sensed the hubris of a superpower that felt itself globally predominant and yet impudently defied, like the British Empire when it entered the Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century. Washington was ‘drunk with sight of power’, to recall the warning phrase that the English poet Rudyard Kipling addressed to his compatriots in his poem ‘Recessional’, just before the Empire was challenged by the Boers. America’s imperial hubris was revealed in vainglorious phrases such as ‘the new Rome’, ‘unipolar world’ and ‘Prometheus unbound’.

The ‘war on terror’ also changed US views of Europe and European views of the United States. I was now travelling to and fro every summer between Europe and a part-time post at Stanford University, so I clocked these changes, year on year, as in time-lapse photography. Europe largely disappeared from the front pages and even from the foreign pages of newspapers. It was all the Middle East and Afghanistan, plus some China and Russia. Europe led only in the Style pages. For some Americans, the Europeans were now a bunch of lily-livered appeasers. A partial exception was made for Tony Blair’s Britain, but the French were ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’. Jonah Goldberg, the journalist-provocateur who borrowed that phrase from an episode of The Simpsons, told me: ‘Yes, I am anti-European.’ Vice President Cheney insisted in our conversation that ‘the Europeans’ were ‘a pain in the butt’.

Europeans repaid these compliments with interest. Immediately after 9/11, there had been an outburst of transatlantic solidarity. Le Monde carried a front-page editorial proclaiming ‘We are all Americans’. The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin was draped with a banner saying ‘Wir trauern (we mourn)—our deepest sympathy’. In St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Queen joined in singing the Battle Hymn of the Republic with what the British press declared to be moist eyes. For the first time in its history, the NATO alliance invoked its Article 5: this attack on one was an attack on all. Although Washington did not take up the offer of making this formally a NATO response, European members of the Atlantic alliance supported the punitive invasion of Afghanistan, to root out Al Qaeda. But as the Bush administration turned from Afghanistan to Iraq, unity dissolved into bitter disarray.

Saturday 15 February 2003 saw millions of Europeans turn out on the streets of London, Madrid, Rome and other European capitals to oppose the invasion of Iraq. As the subsequent occupation turned into a disaster and photos were released of American soldiers torturing Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison, the United States’ military, political and moral credibility suffered self-inflicted body blows. Yet Americans reelected George W. Bush for a second term in November 2004. In Washington at the time, I noted how his defeated opponent John Kerry’s voice broke with emotion as, in a gracious concession speech, he reaffirmed ‘the truth that America is not only great but it is good’. That belief was shared only by a dwindling minority of Europeans.

This widening of the Atlantic was not simply a result of the American 9/11. It also followed from the European 9/11. The Cold War West in which I grew up was formed in the geopolitical struggle against a common enemy, the Soviet Union, which had soldiers and nuclear missiles in the heart of Europe. Once that common enemy had disappeared, it was always likely that the interests and priorities of the United States and Europe would diverge.

The continental drift was obscured during the 1990s by the Europeanism of President Bill Clinton and his colleagues, who spent a lot of time on the post-Wall issues of Russia, Germany, NATO enlargement and former Yugoslavia. They were also personally shaped by European experiences. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, actually was a European, born in Prague. The concluding section of the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s account of his forceful peacemaking in Bosnia is headed ‘America, still a European Power’. Clinton himself studied at Oxford, sharing a house with Strobe Talbott, who would become his administration’s leading Russia expert, and travelled the continent on his vacations, soaking up impressions and ideas. As president, Clinton went so far as to say that ‘since Europe is an idea as much as a place, America also is a part of Europe’.

That was bound to change sooner or later, but it did so with a bang under George W. Bush. The ‘unvarnished Texan’, as he introduced himself to us with charming self-deprecation, had been to Europe for only a few days in his life prior to the official visit in summer 2001 for which we were to prepare him. At one point he asked us: ‘Do we want the European Union to succeed?’ When Lionel Barber of the Financial Times and I replied most emphatically that we did and he should too, he rowed back: ‘that was a provocation’. From the late 1940s until the 1960s, Washington had been instrumental in promoting west European integration, starting with the Marshall Plan which made American economic aid conditional on co-operation among the participating European states. Subsequent US presidents, including Bush’s father, had often been ambivalent about this emerging ‘Brussels’, especially when it came with what they saw as a Gaullist, anti-American agenda. But throughout the Cold War, faced with that common enemy, the strategic conclusion had always been that European unity was in the American interest. Now it was a question.

From Homelands: A Personal History of Europe by Timothy Garton Ash. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European studies at the University of Oxford and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His books include The Magic Lantern, his eyewitness account of the revolutions of 1989; The File: A Personal History, based on reading his own Stasi file; and History of the Present. He lives in Oxford, England.

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