NEW YORK -- The United States is days away from marking the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York City and collapsed part of the Pentagon, outside Washington. Nikkei interviewed Thomas Friedman, The New York Times' foreign affairs columnist, and asked him to look back on how the attacks affected the world in terms of history and thought. The following are edited excerpts from the interview.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was in Israel. When I got in a taxi after finishing my interview with the president of Tel Aviv University, its driver told me that two passenger planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York. So, I went back to the president's office at Tel Aviv University in a hurry and we watched the buildings crumble on television with dismay. I was shocked by and felt angry about the fact that someone carried out such attacks against my country.
In my 1999 book titled "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," I pointed out the danger of a "super empowered angry man" rising in the new era of globalization. My model for such a man was Osama bin Laden, leader of Al-Qaeda, a terror organization. In the summer of 1998, Al-Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, and the U.S. administration of President Bill Clinton fired more than 70 cruise missiles at Afghanistan in retaliation. It was the first firing of a missile by the U.S., a superpower, targeting an individual in history.
I warned that unless we resolve the socioeconomic background and religious environment that create a super empowered angry man like Bin Laden, they will pose a threat to the U.S. Such a concern became a reality three years later in the form of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. With the end of the Cold War, there were arguments predicting the subsequent international order. For example, Francis Fukuyama predicted "the end of history," with free markets triumphing and peace coming. But conflicts did not disappear.
Samuel Huntington also argued about the "clash of civilizations." But in reality, clashes broke out frequently within civilizations, like the confrontation between the Sunni and Shia Muslims. I predicted a world where something very old and something very new, namely ethnic identity and globalization, interact and coexist. Tribal impulses and the global order maintain equilibrium there while occasionally engaging in a tug-of-war or wrestling. I think this prediction was fairly on the mark.
Although Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, he did not send Russian troops to invade Kyiv, Ukraine's capital. Although China is tightening the screws on Hong Kong, it has not invaded Taiwan, yet. That's because the global order has successfully contained tribal impulses.
I would simply say that America is a giant island basically surrounded by two oceans. Its mainland had never been invaded by foreign forces until the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The attacks have made Americans more suspicious. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of Bin Laden in 2001 and then Iraq in 2003, wrongly claiming that country possessed weapons of mass destruction. The U.S. wasted a lot of time and money.
The world has largely maintained peace for the past 40 years. I think the centerpiece of this peace was the global system characterized by coexistence between the U.S. and China. But that equilibrium is now about to crumble because China has become a much more aggressive power. If the U.S. had invested more on education and infrastructure without wasting money on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it would have been able to compete with China a lot more effectively today.
Challenges facing the globalized world are also global. Issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic cannot be resolved unless countries cooperate across borders. Humans have two contradictory instincts -- a desire to cooperate with others and the tribal aspect of preferring confrontation. Unfortunately, the tribal instinct is stronger.
But I am hopeful about the future. That is because another instinct to cooperate and be empathetic with others has so far fostered wonderful civilizations and cooperation among countries.
Thomas Friedman joined the New York Times in 1981 and has served as its foreign affairs columnist since 1995. He has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. He authored books, including one titled "The World Is Flat."