If the United States continues to respond to terrorism with a balance of hard power and soft, then 9/11 may not be the historical turning point on its 20th anniversary that it appears to be now.
Was 9/11 a turning point in world history? It is too soon to tell. After all, the lessons of World War I looked very different in 1939 than they did a mere decade after 1918.
As I argue in my book, “The Future of Power,” one of the great powers shifts of this century is the increased empowerment of nonstate actors, and 9/11 was a dramatic illustration of this long-term trend.
In 2001, an attack by nonstate actors killed more Americans than a government attack did at Pearl Harbor in 1941. But this “privatization of war” was occurring before 9/11, and some American government reports in the 1990s even warned it was coming.
The long-term effect of 9/11 depends on how the United States reacts and the lessons it has learned. In the short term of the past decade, the US has learned to take the new threat seriously and has improved its security procedures and been able to prevent a recurrence of 9/11. All that is to the good.
But there is a larger question about terrorism. Analysts often assume that victory goes to the side with more force or hard power, but in an information age success also depends on who has the better story.
Competing narratives matter. Terrorism is about narrative and political drama. The smaller actor cannot compete with the larger in terms of military might, but can use violent acts to set the world agenda and construct narratives that affect the soft power of its target.