A decade after September 11, 2001, it seemed the world was entering a period of consensus in what is termed "Western" in the annals of global history. America's first Black president, Barack Obama, had rhetorically broken with the foreign policy approach of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The Euro-American relationship appeared to be strengthening. While the great financial crisis that started in the US in 2007, swiftly affecting the Eurozone, hadn't been fully overcome, it had passed its peak without dismantling global financial structures or the Euro.
The West's surge of military forces to 100,000 in Afghanistan succeeded in pushing back the Taliban, only momentarily repelled after 9/11, back to the defensive. The Americans managed to provisionally re-establish security in Iraq, a nation they had destabilized with an invasion led by the U.S. in 2003. A path seemed visible for nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions with Iran. Osama bin Laden, the figure behind the 9/11 attacks, had finally been located. In early May 2011, he was found and killed by American special forces in his residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan – despite the possibility of capturing him alive.
Furthermore, around the turn of 2010/11, starting in Tunisia, there were uprisings against regimes that had been in power for decades throughout the Arab world. The Bush era's aggressive American Middle East policy had enforced a violent revolution for liberalization and democratization from the outside in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2001. Now, Arabs were demanding democracy and the rule of law on their own terms, thereby - seemingly - meeting Western expectations. 2011 was a year of great beginnings and hope. After the end of the Cold War, many Western decision-makers believed in a continuous global move towards freedom and democracy. History was proceeding in the Euro-Atlantic region as once predicted: One day, everyone would be "like us", just like "the West". This was the thesis put forward in American political scientist Francis Fukuyama's book "The End of History". Fukuyama was articulating what many Europeans and Americans already believed: The West had won the historical final battle between liberal capitalism and dictatorial communism. Now, the whole world was open to its benevolent influence and would adapt to it, as it had in Eastern Europe.
In the early hours of the Arab revolution, the revolutionaries were young, tech-savvy, creative, Euro-American educated, setting for themselves a set of ideals: human dignity, political participation, freedom from dictatorship and repression, self-rule, and democracy. Significant media developments that contributed to this beginning were witnessed a decade ago. The TV channel Al-Jazeera, originating from Qatar, gained its fame through broadcasting - it had aired Bin Laden's video messages - and in December 2010, brought the Tunisian revolution triggered by the self-immolation of vegetable seller Mohammed Bouazizi, right into the living rooms of all Arab nations.
Just a few weeks later, the first despots were toppled: in Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Others, like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Ali Abdallah Saleh in Yemen, were shaken, and it wasn't long before it was understood that Baschar al-Assad in Syria faced a public uprising supported by major cities in Central Syria, Homs, and Hama. This situation had either removed or severely damaged the oldest and longest-serving rulers or ruling families. Twelve years on, in the summer of 2023, Assad is the only one still alive and in office - executing his duties while precariously balanced on the thin rope of Russian and Iranian support.
The changes in leadership – starting from 2019 including in Sudan and Algeria – saw the revolutionaries succeed almost everywhere. At first glance, this doesn't seem like a bad outcome. However, they failed to dismantle the old structures sustainably. When they seemed to be gaining ground, it led to civil wars, especially in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Brief spurts of movement were replaced by newer and larger crises. The instability and wars that began with 9/11 persisted and terrorism now manifested in the form of fighters from an entity called the Islamic State (IS) making their way into Europe. The hope that the "Westernization Story" of Eastern Europe post-1989 would repeat itself in the Arab world and extend to the next global segment died with the counter-revolution in Egypt in 2013 and the ongoing internationalization of the conflict in Syria.
In the Arab revolutions, the anger at the political stagnation that had manifested since 2001 led to a significant reorientation for many Arab nations and regimes, if not since the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe and the USA long maintained a tactic of keeping the political situation in the Arab world and jihadist terrorism under control through security cooperation with regimes. Still, this approach failed with the revolutions of 2011. In places where democratic elections took place - in Tunisia and Egypt - Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, triumphed. When the revolt slid into an open civil war, Islamist forces, often much more radical than the Muslim Brotherhood, prevailed. Also, those who benefited from the power vacuum created by the US, first in Iraq and then Obama's non-intervention policy in Syria, were old, entrenched foes of the US or the "West": Russia and Iran notably sided with Assad.
Jihadist Islam, responsible for 9/11 terrorism, in the form of IS emerging from Bin Laden's al-Qaeda in Iraq, seized vast territories in Northern Iraq and the Syrian border region. For the first time since 9/11 and the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan, avowed anti-Western jihadists controlled a significant region. If you were to believe their propaganda, they even established their states. As a result - and due to Assad's war against his people - the resulting refugee movements and the new wave of terrorism from IS, especially on a scale larger than anticipated for France, revealed the extensive loss of control by Western powers over developments in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region post-9/11.
In 2017, with the assistance of Kurdish ground forces and the combat aircraft of the Anti-IS Coalition, it became possible to defeat IS after an intense and committed bombing of the Iraqi metropolis of Mosul that IS had occupied. However, the progress in the region continues to remain outside the control of the West, just as in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the West's quiet end - the ideal of spreading as a foreign policy concept to other societies - is symbolically marked by the withdrawal of all forces until September 2021. Despite the intense engagement and military presence in the efforts to establish an Afghan state hoped for after 9/11, it was not successful. Kabul faces weekly terror attacks, mainly targeted at civilians, and there is almost no coverage of these attacks in Western media. The Taliban, enemies of the US in Afghanistan, will and are decisively influencing the future of the country following the West's withdrawal.
With the Egyptian campaign in 1798, Napoleon had paved the way for Europe to secure its supremacy in the Near and Middle East. During this period, Europe and the US, or "the West," have been more ineffective in influencing developments in this region than ever before. Now, other powers shaping the development of the region exist: Russia, Turkey, the Arab Gulf emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran - countries that were either seen as irrelevant in the early 1990s, assumed to be continuously approaching the West, or believed to be controllable.
The end of Western foreign policy is observed when the demands formulated after the end of the Cold War could not decisively influence political developments, especially in the MENA region. The geographical area where the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, began is where the "transatlantic community of values" failed in terms of power politics, rendering the West's political and ideological theories, and thus its general self-perception, invalid. However, the reason for this situation is not limited to political developments alone but also lies in the narrow and problematic definitions of the West formed after 1989.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe necessitated the reshaping, even redefining, of the "West" concept. Until this period, the West mainly defined itself as a libertarian alternative to the communist states, primarily members of the Warsaw Pact. During the Cold War, there was uncertainty about what the possible end of the communist threat would mean for the Western self-image understanding and its future political priorities.
Would this West prioritize social issues, equality, and democracy in terms of solidarity without the opposition and political pressure of socialism? Would Western foreign policy act according to the logic of blocs, i.e., the logic of imperial hegemony without respect for human rights or global justice? Or would an era of solidarity, equality, and freedom begin? While these values and ideals had been achieved during the Enlightenment and the Age of Revolutions in Europe and the USA, it was never forgotten that there was adherence to these values before 1989.
In a sense, the division of the highly industrialized global North into East and West during the Cold War can also be seen as the splitting of the "Western political ideas" into two competitive blocs: The West emphasized the value of freedom, especially (political, economic, and media) freedom, from the famous slogan of the French Revolution, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." The East emphasized (social and ethno-nationalist) equality. On the other hand, fraternity was the realm of tainted nationalism found in varying degrees in both blocs. However, the collapse of communism did not lead to a reunion of "Western" values that had been divided between the East and West; instead, it led to an unprecedented radicalization in the understanding of freedom on both a national and global scale, at the expense of equality, justice, and solidarity. The 1990s were the decade of neoliberalism, even adopted by (social) democratic governments.
This development was reflected and theorized by two frequently debated political science theories: Fukuyama's previously mentioned "End of History" and Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" theories. Huntington refuted Fukuyama's thesis, arguing that the future course of the world would be determined not by ideologies but by the competition of cultures. However, although they might seem opposing at first glance, these two theories weren't truly antagonistic; rather, they complemented each other. Together, they provided a dual conservative framework for American-Western policy. This framework offered a means to interpret any external intervention as a policy route aiming for Western superiority.
The neglectful approach to environmental policies in the 1990s and 2000s was evident in the ideological outcomes and political reactions shaped by this dual-coordinate system. The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio indicated that environmental issues were on the global agenda, yet these topics weren't significant for Fukuyama and Huntington.
Although the political developments of the 1990s seemed to suggest Fukuyama was right in his view that the world was progressing towards the (neo-)liberal Western model, the 9/11 terrorist attack seemed to affirm Huntington's theory. These attacks in New York and Washington gruesomely showcased the "Clash of Civilizations."
However, beyond this dual neoliberal-conservative framework, the idea of the "West" remains a vision open to everyone's interpretation. Real-world issues, especially global inequality and the climate and environmental crisis, weren't seen on a narrowed political agenda. Captivated by the allure of the freedom slogan, this agenda aimed to maintain the West's political, economic, and cultural dominance. If these issues are coming to the forefront 20 years after 9/11, this indicates the end of that West, as understood by most Euro-American decision-makers and the media from the 1990s, and even from the beginning of the Cold War. There's no need to mention the mythological West based on Ancient Greece, Rome, or the Reformation here. The "West" thus remains an illusion, a retrospective projection, turning into an "invented tradition."
After 9/11, with the heightened military, foreign policy, and global economic pressure strategies, this "West" of the 1990s, founded through the World Trade Organization despite countless protests, could demand global power but could no longer claim universal, cosmopolitan values. Turning into its own value community, it became accessible only to those who succumbed to its main ideas or had the resources to play by Western rules - including the oil-rich Gulf countries where most of the 9/11 attackers came from.
This "West" needed alternative political or cultural realms of thought, especially as objects of its action or to define itself. Doubts were only expressed in marginalized and tightly media-protected academic, literary, or artistic spaces. Since 1989, there hasn't been a political counter-model, like socialism or fascism, that could shake the West's own identity within its controlled area. While politically radical Islam tried to position itself as a counterforce in the form of al-Qaeda and ISIS, its inhumane methods declared its moral bankruptcy and unreliability. Especially political Islam also failed as an alternative to the West.
However, it's also true that the West lost its credibility as a global guiding model during its fight against radical Islam, just as in the fight against Communism. A result of this failure is the rise of Trumpism in the USA and other forms of right-wing populism in Europe. They can also be integrated into and positioned against the ideologies considered a continuation of the West. The future of right-wing populist movements might be uncertain, but their rise in the heart of the Western world is a strong indicator of the end of the "West" as we know it.
The current widespread grievances about China's rise highlight its power and importance loss even for those who deny the West's end. The special irony of China's "threat" is that, after centuries of being subordinated and even colonized, it's now adeptly using Western economic practices and hegemonic efforts against the West. China's rising hegemony and other powers can only be mitigated and shaped when we abandon this "Western" paradigm that China is now using "against us": antagonism, gaining advantage, corruption, propaganda, and the cultural mission paradigm. Western powers have been practicing these approaches since the start of the colonial age and have propagated them worldwide as a successful model to be emulated.
One of the characteristics of the developments after 9/11 is not only the significant loss of control in Western foreign policy and increased instability in the Muslim world but also the political turbulence within the West itself. These turbulences come along with a self-perception that has changed since the 1990s and is now intensively contended, akin to looking at a shattered mirror: the "West" certainly does not present a consistent image.
Among those responsible for this are the constantly growing right-wing populism since 9/11, the unsettling connections to the "social center", the ongoing influence of unprocessed specific Western (Euro-American) "white" racism, and the emergence of a decidedly anti-Islamic globalized right-wing terrorism. These internal developments, which highlight the ugly side of the West's structure influenced by the colonial era, cannot be separated from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, as they made the West question its relationship to the world, itself, and immigrants. As a result, the West's self-image as a pioneer of freedom, justice, democracy, and other progressive values was questioned.
This questioning is a result of the decisions made by the government shortly after 9/11, as the Bush administration decided to disregard the Geneva Convention and created an extrajudicial prisoner category called "enemy combatant". These prisoners were held outside American territory, in Guantanamo, a rented area in Cuba, without a trial. Also, the ban on torture, which until then was a central success of human rights discourse advanced by the West, was suspended or overlooked in the USA. More extrajudicial areas were created in Iraq and countries known for high possibilities of torture, which did not meet Euro-American standards, and prisoners were sent to these countries for these "special interrogation methods".
Included in this same category of deprivation of rights – and this also refers to the extrajudicial nature of the West's use of force – is the expansion of so-called extrajudicial executions, especially performed with remotely controlled weapon systems. The killing of Bin Laden was also tantamount to the suspension of a rule of law procedure. The U.S.'s desire to quickly close the 9/11 chapter in this way, instead of bringing Bin Laden to court, was understandable emotionally and perhaps in terms of security policy. However, this went against the fundamental principles of "Western" legal understanding. Now, the accusations of arbitrary procedure and conviction often made against the West were rightfully directed at it.
In addition to the erosion of its values and credibility, since 9/11, we see a new political alignment in Europe and North America, which ultimately resulted in various splits within the West. An example of this is the transatlantic rift that emerged based on the distinction the Bush administration made before and during the Iraq War between the war-enthusiastic "new" and the war-rejecting "old" Europeans. This rift, which was only superficially repaired during the Obama period, turned into a deep chasm during the Trump period. Even if there's hope for repair with Joe Biden's return to office as the U.S. president, the West is plagued by countless other splits - only specific to Europe, we can mention the UK's exit from the European Union, the EU's disputes on migration issues, or the differing views on the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
In conclusion, such divisions show that Huntington's Clash of Civilizations theory is now taking place not between the West and other cultures, but rather within this (former) West. This is also confirmed with intense discussions on racism, colonialism, and identity politics. In light of these developments, speaking definitively about the "West" means trivializing the mentioned problems and crises and considering North Atlantic societies as secondary for the West. However, such a defensive attitude results in the complete disregard of these problems after belittling them. By being so blind not only to the fundamental issues but also to the concept of the "West", Europe and the US are at risk of closing their path to the future.
One way or another, this future will be beyond this West: either a closed, reactive future that clings to the greatness achieved in the past through colonialism and racism, neglecting the universal enlightening values; or a globalized, progressive, cosmopolitan future that learns to understand these values not specifically as "Western" anymore but as values for the world and humanity at large.
The end of the "West" after 9/11, which couldn't break free from the shadow of colonialism and imperialism, is positive news. It doesn't resemble the threatening scenario described as "The Decline of the West" by Oswald Spengler in 1918, which is still frequently mentioned today. Undoubtedly, the past 20 years have been years of missed opportunities. However, the war initiated by the culture warriors on the imaginary front between "West" and "Islam" ended with their defeat, with the loss of their magic. The world did not shape up the way neither side wanted, and it seems this won't change in the future.
The end of a reliable idea of the "West" after 9/11 means that all forces that wanted to westernize the world and make it the future of the world have failed 20 years after 9/11. But if every global hegemony is inherently dangerous and unjust – the elimination of legal principles widely defended in the "War on Terror" provides a foresight about what such a hegemony means – the failure and end of the West is a conciliatory turn in history. This brings along the task of blocking all other hegemonies as well.
What's deemed worth preserving of the "West" - as seen by itself and its allies - has, in the meantime, become a global public good. North Atlantic societies can be proud of this, but they can't claim patent rights to it. Included in these are values like human rights and human dignity, freedom, equality, emancipation, participation, justice, and solidarity. They seem modern and they are. However, in different forms and under different names, they have also emerged in other regions, other societies, and other political and cultural contexts. Today, these traditional values have merged with modern value perceptions in many societies, so those who refer to them are not referencing Western but rather general human values.
The globalization of usable and universalizable parts of modern, so-called Western values represents a purification, in a sense, as a result of the policies pursued since 9/11, if it wasn't already necessary. This purification lies in verbally and politically distinguishing specific aspects of Western policy that should no longer find a place in a global society: racism, imperialism, and colonialism, mechanisms of exclusion, the search for economic, political, military, and cultural hegemony, the arbitrary application of law, a concept of freedom that doesn't respect others or the environment, the logic of accumulation, expansion, and enhancement, and the overvaluation of material progress over spiritual-moral progress. We no longer need any of these. Unfortunately, something new and better is beginning along with the end of the West, which is identified and associated with these characteristics. We don't know what it will be called. We just know it certainly won't be "West".