What If?

Article excerpt

Byline: Niall Ferguson

Imagining what the world would look like today if the attacks had never happened.

How different would the world be today if there had been no 9/11? What if the attacks had been foiled or bungled? One obvious answer is that Americans would probably care a lot less than they do about the rest of the world.

Back on the eve of destruction, in early September 2001, only 13 percent of Americans believed that the U.S. should be "the single world leader." And fewer than a third favored higher defense spending. Now those figures are naturally much higher. Right?

Wrong. According to the most recent surveys, just 12 percent of Americans today think the U.S. should be the sole superpower--almost exactly the same proportion as on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. The share of Americans who want to see higher spending on national security is actually down to 26 percent. Paradoxically, Americans today seem less interested in the wider world than they were before the Twin Towers were felled.

In the past 10 years, the U.S. has directly or indirectly overthrown at least three governments in the Muslim world. Yet Americans today feel less powerful than they did then. In 2001 just over a quarter felt that the U.S. had "a less important role as a world leader compared to 10 years ago." The latest figure is 41 percent.

Three explanations suggest themselves. First, wielding power abroad proved harder in practice than in neoconservative theory. Second, the financial crisis has dampened American spirits. A third possibility is that 9/11 simply didn't have that big an impact on American opinion.

Yet to conclude that 9/11 didn't change much is to misunderstand the historical process. The world is a seriously complex place, and a small change to the web of events can have huge consequences. Our difficulty is imagining what those consequences might have been.

So let's play a game like the one my friends at the Muzzy Lane software company are currently designing, which has the working title "New World Disorder." The game simulates the complex interaction of economics, politics, and international relations, allowing us to replay the past. …