How Did US Foreign Policy Change After 9/11?

The New York City skyline without the Twin Towers, an American flag and twisted metal in the foreground.

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The United States foreign policy changed in some very noticeable ways after the terrorist attacks on American soil on September 11, 2001. This included increasing the amount of intervention in foreign wars, the amount of defense spending, and the redefinition of terrorism as a new enemy. Yet, in other ways, foreign policy after 9/11 is a continuation of American policy since its beginnings.

When George W. Bush assumed the presidency in January 2001, his major foreign policy initiative was the creation of a "missile shield" over parts of Europe. In theory, the shield would give added protection if North Korea or Iran launched a missile strike. In fact, Condoleezza Rice, then the head of Bush's National Security Council, was slated to give a policy speech about the missile shield on September 11, 2001.

Focus on Terror

Nine days later, on September 20, 2001, in a speech before a joint session of Congress, Bush changed the direction of American foreign policy. He made terrorism its focus.

We will direct every resource at our command — every means of diplomacy, every tool of intelligence, every instrument of law enforcement, every financial influence, and every necessary weapon of war — to the destruction and to the defeat of the global terror network.

The speech is perhaps best remembered for this remark. "[W]e will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism," said Bush. "Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists."

Preventive Warfare, Not Preemptive

The most noticeable immediate change in the U.S. foreign policy was its focus on preventive action, not just preemptive action. This is also known as the Bush Doctrine.

Nations often use preemptive strikes in warfare when they know that enemy action is imminent. During Truman's administration, for example, North Korea's attack on South Korea in 1950 stunned then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson and others at the state department. They urged Truman to retaliate, leading the U.S. into the Korean War and creating a major expansion of U.S. global policy.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, however, it broadened its policy to include preventive warfare. The Bush Administration told the public (erroneously) that Saddam Hussein's regime had nuclear material and would soon be able to produce atomic weapons. Bush vaguely tied Hussein to Al Qaeda (again erroneously), and he said the invasion was, in part, to prevent Iraq from supplying terrorists with nuclear weapons. Thus, the Iraqi invasion was to prevent some perceived — but not clearly evident — event.

Humanitarian Assistance

Since 9/11, U.S. humanitarian assistance has become more subject to foreign policy demands and in some cases, it has become militarized. Independent Non-Government Organization (NGOs) working through USAID (a branch of the U.S. State Department) have typically delivered worldwide humanitarian aid independently of American foreign policy. However, as Elizabeth Ferris reported in a Brookings Institution article, U.S. military commands have begun their own humanitarian assistance programs in areas where they are conducting military operations. Therefore, army commanders can leverage humanitarian assistance to gain military advantages.

NGOs have also increasingly fallen under closer federal scrutiny to ensure that they comply with U.S. anti-terrorism policies. This requirement, says Ferris, "made it difficult, indeed impossible, for U.S. humanitarian NGOs to claim that they were independent of their government's policy." That, in turn, makes it more difficult for humanitarian missions to reach sensitive and dangerous locations.

Questionable Allies

Some things, however, have not changed. Even after 9/11, the U.S. continues its tendency to forge questionable alliances.

The U.S. had to secure Pakistan's support before invading neighboring Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, which intelligence said was an Al Qaeda supporter. The resulting alliance with Pakistan and its president, Pervez Musharraf, was awkward. Musharraf's ties with the Taliban and Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were questionable, and his commitment to the War on Terror seemed halfhearted.

Indeed, in early 2011, intelligence revealed that bin Laden was hiding in a compound in Pakistan, and apparently had been for more than five years. American special operations troops killed bin Laden in May, but his mere presence in Pakistan cast more doubt on that country's commitment to the war. Some members of Congress soon began calling for an end to Pakistani foreign aid.

Those situations are reminiscent of American alliances during the Cold War. The United States supported such unpopular leaders as the Shah of Iran and Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam simply because they were anti-Communist.

War Weariness

George W. Bush warned Americans in 2001 that the War on Terror would be long and its results might be hard to recognize. Regardless, Bush failed to remember the lessons of the Vietnam War and to understand that Americans are results-driven.

Americans were encouraged to see the Taliban virtually driven from power by 2002, and could understand a brief period of occupation and state-building in Afghanistan. But when the invasion of Iraq pulled resources away from Afghanistan, allowing the Taliban to become resurgent, and the Iraqi War itself became one of seemingly unending occupation, Americans became war-weary. When voters briefly gave control of Congress to Democrats in 2006, they were in fact rejecting Bush's foreign policy.

That public war-weariness infected the Obama administration as the president wrestled with withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as allocating funds for other military ventures, such as America's limited involvement in the Libyan civil war. The Iraq war was concluded on December 18, 2011, when Obama withdrew the last of the American troops.

After the Bush Administration

The echoes of 9/11 continue into subsequent administrations, as each president grapples with finding a balance between foreign invention and domestic issues. During the Clinton administration, for example, the United States started spending more money on defense than virtually all other nations combined. Defense spending has continued to rise. Conflicts in the Syrian Civil War have led to U.S. intervention several times since 2014.

Some have argued that the lasting change has been the instinct for American presidents to act unilaterally, as when the Trump Administration conducted unilateral airstrikes against Syrian forces in 2017 in response to chemical attacks at Khan Shaykhun. But historian Melvyn Leffler points out that that has been part of U.S. diplomacy since George Washington, and certainly throughout the Cold War.

It is perhaps ironic that despite the unity in the country that arose immediately after 9/11, bitterness about the failure of the costly initiatives started by the Bush and later administrations has poisoned public discourse and helped to create a sharply polarized country.

Perhaps the greatest change since the Bush Administration has been the expansion of the boundaries for a "war on terror" to include everything from trucks to malicious computer code. Domestic and foreign terrorism, it seems, is everywhere.


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Jones, Steve. "How Did US Foreign Policy Change After 9/11?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Jones, Steve. (2020, August 28). How Did US Foreign Policy Change After 9/11? Retrieved from Jones, Steve. "How Did US Foreign Policy Change After 9/11?" ThoughtCo. (accessed January 28, 2021).