September 11, 2001 changed everything. We hear sentiments such as this one often; what do they really mean? Other than the obvious -- stricter security at airports, increased demand for Middle East experts -- what really changed? Are Americans fundamentally different people than we were on September 10? Perhaps as a nation our priorities changed, but has our personality been altered? The 9/11 Commission Report emphasizes national unity: "remember how we all felt on September 11...not only the unspeakable horror but how we came together as a nation -- one nation. Unity of purpose and unity of effort are how we will defeat this enemy." (National Commission 2004, executive summary 34)
The raw freshness of the attacks on September 11 inspires amnesia regarding other national security crises: the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the Cuban Missile Crisis. America has never been without military involvement in the world, at least not since WWII dictated that our troops help stabilize areas like Germany, and since the Cold War necessitated our involvement in conflicts worldwide -- from South America to Southeast Asia. But September 11 was the first time many Americans had to confront the reality of an attack on U.S. territory -- most of the population is not even old enough to remember the Cuban missile crisis of the late 60s, much less the attack on Pearl Harbor decades before.
During a time of crisis or threat, as the post-September 11 period has demonstrated, Americans come together in the common goal of defeating an enemy. After Pearl Harbor, Americans united in their support of joining the Allied powers in WWII. The Cold War brought with it its own enemy, the Soviet Union, which enabled the American people to rally around the cause of defeating Communism. This conflict also inspired the national unity that came after the Cuban missile crisis; in short, anytime the United States is directly threatened, the American people unite behind their perception of the enemy and in their desire to protect our nation and its attributes. During WWII, this meant a collective unity against the Japanese and Germany, during the Cold War and Cuban missile crisis, it meant uniting against Communism and anti-capitalism, and in today's society it means unity against terror.
Uniting a nation around a defining event is a powerful incentive for people to become motivated by emotion instead of facts. Hook and Spanier explore this notion in their explanation of the abundance of televised images which inspire a definitive, gut reaction either for -- images of newly-liberated Iraqis celebrating their freedom, for example -- or against -- graphic pictures of war atrocities in the Sudan, to name one (Hook and Spanier, 2004). This emotional response, which is so similar to the one behind which the United States united after the images of September 11 were seen, can be an effective method to inspire a public sense of purpose and give meaning to otherwise confusing conflicts. The creation of a "national character," currently the dominant character trait being the export of democracy and the protection of our own, can aid the citizens of the U.S. (and any nation) to solidly support the decisions of its government.
This phenomenon of a certain type of "national character" is not new. It has been evidenced in recent U.S. history, during the Cold War. During these years, the idea of communism as inherently evil and of capitalism and democracy as being the only true means of freedom inspired the American people to unite behind the threat of the Soviet Union. The spread of communism was enough to justify American intervention in wars like Vietnam, and although this conflict eventually split the nation bitterly, our involvement in it was based on the need to unite behind a common enemy, that of communism, which was being fostered in Southeast Asia. This policy of intervention when communism appeared to be gaining strength anywhere was demonstrated and supported as a foreign policy in our Cold-War era involvement in Latin America as well; threats to the national character of America must be fought at any price (Hook and Spanier 2004).
The United States citizenry also united in our ideal of protecting the national character during the Cuban missile crisis. The direct threat to our homeland, demonstrated by photographs of Soviet missiles aimed at our border from the island of Cuba, inspired the American people to once again rally around a common cause -- that of protecting our nation from attack. The causes of the Cold War, the details of what could be done in terms of compromise with the Soviets, and nuanced political, economic, and social factors behind Cuba's accommodation of the Soviets all fell by the wayside once the American public had united behind the fear of an attack on American soil. Their desire for protection of the American way of life, of the national character, created an immediate demand for the removal of the weapons and of greater regulation of potential threats to the U.S. These demands were inspired, on the part of the public, completely by a fear that the national character -- of freedom as a way of life -- was under attack (Hook and Spanier 2004).
As a theory, national character arguments rely heavily on moralistic arguments -- that our way of life is better, morally superior, to other political systems. It "equate[s] the country's national values -- individual liberty, religious tolerance, human rights -- with universal values" (Hook and Spanier 2004, p.353). This concept of is evident in the language of the 9/11 Commission Report; it devotes an entire chapter (13) to "unity" and different types of unity among Americans and our allies -- "unity of effort across the foreign-domestic divide, unity of effort in the intelligence community, unity of effort in sharing information, unity of effort in the Congress." (National Commission, 399-428). This emphasis on "unity" recalls past instances of defending the national character and associates the struggle with terrorism with prior instances of national unity -- the Cold War, or Pearl Harbor, for example.
But is this foreign policy of inspiring national unity the most effective method to combat international terrorism today? Could it be that our own national unity, the above stated belief in our own values as the most defensible in the world, is actually creating bias against our nation in the international community? It is a fact that anti-Americanism exists and that it has undoubtedly contributed to terrorist actions -- individuals who disagree with the American character and are looking for a method to voice this frustration may eventually find themselves drawn to terrorism.
The alternative, say Hook and Spanier, is "realism." They define realism as a foreign policy "rooted in its need for self-preservation in a hostile system of nation-states" (Hook and Spanier 2004, p. 353). Realism, they say, might not always uphold the moral values with which the United States has traditionally equated itself. There may be times in foreign relations in which realists have to support a dictator whose methods are decidedly undemocratic or even repressive; there may be situations for a realist where support for a cruel and intolerant regime are necessary to preserve peace. Realism requires that moralistic values be made secondary to the primary value of survival; a nation might have to compromise its beliefs in exporting democracy or in religious toleration as a basic human right in order to pacify nations which do not practice these things but who can become a significant threat to the national security.
In these situation, the national character model is impossible to uphold -- there could be allies whose practices are antithetical to our national character of freedom, tolerance, and rights but who we cannot, as a foreign policy actor, force to change in order to fit our…