Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 – so far the most devastating event in international relations of the 21st century which is still in its teens. After two major wars since that attack on the American soil and a myriad of conflicts and skirmishes across the globe, is everything normal now?

One is afraid it is not. The tragedy actually flaggedfresh turmoil in international relations after a relatively quieter decade which followed the fall of the erstwhile Soviet Union and the establishment of American supremacy. The September 11 attacks were a direct challenge to this supremacy and they proved that Washington has a much more complicated problem to handle now, compared to what it was during the Cold War era.

The challenge of unimultipolarity had just replaced that of bipolarity.

9/11 marked the beginning of a new reality in international relations

This new reality of international relations doesn’t have an easy solution and the US, despite boosting new forms of warfare like electronic surveillance, stronger laws and alliance-building, has not been able to check terror attacks. True, it succeeded in eliminating Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda which carried out the 9/11 attacks, in 2011 but that act has remained more of an academic interest now.

Threats from within

The tentacles of terrorism have only gone on multiplying and its manifestations have taken place in ways that are vastly different from traditional military conflicts.

Fatal attacks by individuals (the attacks at San Bernardino and Orlando as examples) who are deeply influenced by radical philosophies have emerged as the new reality and such threats emanating from within have made even the superpower look helpless. The end impact has been the most severe for the common Americans who now have a reduced level of confidence in their government to protect them.

For a country which is already struggling to rein in its domestic gun violence, terror attacks by individuals who are radicalized by foreign extremist ideologies constitute a unique challenge that seeks a response combining both external and internal intelligence. The task is certainly not easy.

The problem is equally cumbersome abroad.

In 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the administrative machinery of the then US president George W Bush still had an idea about the enemies who had perpetrated the attack and Afghanistan was targeted soon after to uproot al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime which backed it. Pressure was also put on neighboring Pakistan to corner the Taliban. It was still a state-to-state affair.

Taking a stand in international politics is tough today

Fifteen years since then, incumbent President Barack Obama has a much more difficult job in hand because the new challenges are no more confined to sovereign states. Even as the US has to deal with traditional rivals like Russia and China, there are also threats from non-state actors like the terror groups abroad.

Taking a stand in international politics today is a much tougher ask because the stakes are too high and interests often cross swords. It was not without a reason that Obama refused to get involved in the Syrian war for he knew the cost could be devastating, just as the Iraq war of 2003 had seen.

Obama’s confession in August 2014 that the US lacked a strategy to tackle the Islamic State in Syria makes evident the new challenges that the US foreign policy faces in the post-9/11 era.

How to go about it?

Fifteen years since 9/11, the American establishment is clueless about what needs to be done.

Should it opt for a more aggressive policy again once Obama’s tenure is over, or go back to an isolationist stand? The confusion is certainly going to test the next occupant of the White House about how to go about it. Today is just a symbolic date that marks the beginning of an era of difficulty in the life of the United States.

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