Stephen Walt on Terrorism

Professor of International Affairs, Harvard University
A broader world view suggests that the end of the Cold War left the United States in a position of unprecedented great power unseen since the Roman Empire.
  • Transcript


Question: Why did 9/11 happen?

Stephen Walt: That’s a great question. I would look at 9/11 in sort of a small lens and then a larger lens. The smaller lens would be the Al Qaeda, and the actual people who attacked us, and sort of where did they come from. And we now know a lot about it; that this was a group of religious fundamentalists who got animated by a number of things involving American policy in the Middle East and decided to strike the United States. They were upset about our military presence in Saudi Arabia. They were upset about what they saw as overwhelming American support for Israel against the Palestinians. They were upset for our backing the governments in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which they saw as dictatorial. So they had a set of grievances, and they got organized and eventually were able to strike the United States. So that’s sort of the micro view of it. But you can take a larger view which doesn’t all point to 9/11. And that’s at the end of the Cold War, the United States was left in this remarkable position – an unprecedented position. We hadn’t seen a great power with such a concentration of might since maybe the Roman Empire. And in that period, Americans drew the lesson that we deserved to be there; that we had pretty much the answer for other societies around the world; and it was now time for us to mold the rest of the world not necessarily exactly in our image, at least in a way that was completely compatible of our view of what was good for the world. And we began to do that. Now we didn’t do that by conquering the world; but we did it by shoving our weight around in a variety of ways. And I would look at the last 10 or 15 years as the period of American primacy where the United States was in this unusually unconstrained position, and we could do lots of things in lots of places. Well not surprisingly, the rest of the world began pushing back, right? And sometimes it was just allies who would resist us on going to war with Iraq. Sometimes it’s China that’s starting to push back in various ways. And sometimes it was terrorist groups that in their own smaller way would try to push back either by bombing the U.S.S. Cole or by flying planes into the World Trade Center. And I view these all as symptoms of a reaction to concern for American power and what it means in the world; what it’s doing in the world.

Recorded on: 10/8/07