The ten years since 9/11 have led to a massive global focus on terrorism and national security. In other words, “global commerce”, the post-Berlin Wall theme of the 1990s, was slotted being a “global security” word on diplomats’ lips. Instead of making it easier for people, products, and shipments to enter the country, we tried to make it harder.
The resulting change in our political culture made this all possible. Citizens in many of our countries became afraid of people with funny names and funny habits. Pressure was created to limit the privileges of groups such as Muslims (such as where they were welcome to immigrate or where they could build a mosque). Some of our citizens became afraid that sharia law or a global caliphate would take over; some of our leaders responded by declaring war against, inter alia, “islamicism” [sic].
This new political landscape meant that foreign ministries became preoccupied with anti-terrorism initiatives, asymmetric conflicts, and thickening borders. Sadly, for many people, the Zeitgeist no longer hunger to access parts of the world long denied to us by iron curtains. The Zeitgeist built more walls, cordons, and security barriers. And we lost, in part, what we had gained.
As a result, we changed the friends that we chose to focus on. Instead of concentrating on the new, opportunity-rich tiger-economies, it was despotic rogue regimes who took a prized place in the West’s date book, as rendition and enhanced interrogation became the goal. Vast sums of our treasures and time-resources were committed to this project.
Our diplomats who could have been negotiating the completion of the Doha trade talks or concluding new free trade agreements could have been looking at Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria as economic partners, not as places of concern. For sure, countries like China and India spent the decade sowing up new bonds and new alliances, even in places where we used descriptors such as “festering with extremism”.
I am not begrudging our leaders. They faced very tough, painstaking choices following an almost unimaginable catastrophe. Safety is of paramount concern and I am grateful, everyday, for those who sacrifice their lives in order to protect our liberties. I deeply appreciate the efforts that have been made to keep our cities safe.
My contempt is for the 9/11 hijackers who robbed our global openness. The hijackers who gave momentum to the erection of barriers (or who deterred their removal). For those of us who dream of rapid and efficient ports, seamless border crossings, a pro-growth business agenda and more multi-lateral trade agreements, 9/11 was a profound hindrance. After all, fear does not lie easily with opportunity, not in the same way that optimism does.
My hope is that in the next 10 years, we will see us try to regain our openness, reduce our barriers (where it’s safe), and enhance our global bonds and understanding. I hope that our focus can be sufficiently restored to Beijing, Delhi, and Seoul, instead of dark and dank mountain caves and walled complexes.
It’s true that we should never return to our pre-9/11 slumber where we over-indulged in a sense of invincibility, but we must never give into the sense that foreign lands contain nothing but terrorists and fundamentalists. We must not return to the days, long ago days, when distant parts of the map where marked with the inscription “here be dragons”.
If I have wish for the NEXT ten years, it’s this: let us look now at those patches on the map and say “here be opportunities”.