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Three Lessons from a Two-Decade Failure

Summary:
The debacle in Afghanistan this summer confirmed what many have long suspected: that much of the West’s foreign policy since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been a failure. The task now is to reflect on past mistakes and forge a new strategy for wielding power and influence in a multipolar world. MADRID – Twenty years ago, the September 11 terrorist attacks shocked the world. “We are all American” became a global slogan of solidarity. Suddenly, the West’s post-Cold War invulnerability had been exposed as an illusion. Globalization, which had become the reigning paradigm and established Western economic dominance in the 1990s, turned out to have a dark side. Learning the Right

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The debacle in Afghanistan this summer confirmed what many have long suspected: that much of the West’s foreign policy since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks has been a failure. The task now is to reflect on past mistakes and forge a new strategy for wielding power and influence in a multipolar world.

MADRID – Twenty years ago, the September 11 terrorist attacks shocked the world. “We are all American” became a global slogan of solidarity. Suddenly, the West’s post-Cold War invulnerability had been exposed as an illusion. Globalization, which had become the reigning paradigm and established Western economic dominance in the 1990s, turned out to have a dark side.

Two decades after the attacks, it is difficult to overstate their consequences for the West and the wider world. A violent non-state actor determined the international agenda to an extraordinary degree. While the hegemony of the West, led by the United States, remained unquestioned, the unipolar moment of the 1990s seemed to be coming to a close, and US foreign policy would be fundamentally reshaped by the “global war on terror.”

In the context of the time, it was no surprise that the US-led invasion of Afghanistan met with overwhelming international support. The 9/11 attacks could not go unanswered, and it was the Taliban who had provided a haven for al-Qaeda to plan, organize, and launch the operation.

But the war in Afghanistan will be remembered as a major failure. Its high costs and low returns raise an obvious question: What was it all for? More than 48,000 Afghan civilians, at least 66,000 Afghan troops, and 3,500 NATO soldiers were killed during the 20-year conflict. The US spent more than $2 trillion trying to build Afghan state institutions, only to watch them vanish within the space of weeks as the Taliban advanced to retake the country.

The...

Javier Solana
President of @ESADEgeo - Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics. Distinguished Fellow at @BrookingsInst.

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