Had 9/11 not occurred in the U.S., had al-Qaida opted for another strategy, had American security been capable of preventing the attacks, would collective security be as it is today?
The Kipling world of “ifs” is as fascinating as it is useless. I have just forged some variables to underline the degree of unpredictability of the international situation, which, however, does not grow out of nothing: Trends are deposited as sediments and prevail, regardless of the fact that they may be enhanced or limited by the conjuncture.
The world in which 9/11 happened was far from being safe. And, of course, it has not become safer after that. Especially in the Middle East.
The Western blindness in that region came from afar. The Cold War, the energy issue and the role of Israel in all the equation had led to commitment strategies from the Euro-Atlantic powers to the almost medieval world of the Gulf where, we should be reminded, al-Qaida would germinate. Bin Laden comes from there and he finds in the Taliban—which was funded by the West in an attempt to get it away from the Soviets in Afghanistan—his main base of support.
The Cold War had "frozen" a great part of the global tensions. These arose violently in areas of power intersections, in which the two rival poles disputed themselves through third parties.
The Middle East has gone through this East-West confrontation in a unique way, preserving for a long time some balances that seemed endless.
Being distracted with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Western world has taken for granted that it was enough to invest in an ingenious "scale of powers" in that region in order to ensure the essential, which at the time had only one name: oil. As long as they proceeded that way, they succeeded. When they took action so as to break those balances, the West released their demons. And for some time they did not see a new model of rebellion coming, hardly framed in the traditional standards. When they woke up, it was already too late.
We can say that there are two "novelties" brought by 9/11.
The first one is the unusual and cross-border strength of the non-state armed actors.
It was the so-wanted destruction of some states—from Iraq to Libya—that gave impetus to the radical Islamic proselytism in an "International Brigades" template, also driven by an ideology that projects a totalitarian world view. This was an element that’s inventory helps us to understand a lot of things, especially the nature and the origin of the weapons used. Without the destruction of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Islamic State would not have the military power they have today. Without the irresponsible Anglo-French-American voluntarism in Libya, Aqim would not have the means to destabilize Sahel.
Apart from the cynical regional accounts of interests, one of the expressed fears of Moscow in Syria is that an implosion from that country might strengthen the Islamic State and cause the spread of new metastases of instability, which might contaminate the Caucasus and Southern Russia. (Just look at the succession of Karimov in Uzbekistan, where the recurrent tension in the Fergana valley must not be forgotten.) Russia has also realized they can feel the bite of the Afghanistan mess, where the severe instability of the nuclear Pakistan came from. We should recognize that Russia may be right.
The second "novelty" relies on the field of the principles.
9/11 accelerated the fight against terrorism as a global issue, trapping those who were shielded in the blurriness of the concept so as to limit their joining in the collective effort to fight it.
After that, the identification of some of the Islamic world with the disruption (violent or not) of the lives of many people, especially in Europe, served as an alibi for the discrimination that remained within a shy latency, and made of the "dialogue of civilizations" a fiction film for naive people.
It is also there that the easy rejection of multiculturalism and the resurgence of xenophobia fits, with an increasing partisan expression in political societies that seemed immune to it.
Finally, the failure of the "Arab Spring" seems to have turned Western democracies into the cynicism of the realpolitik, as well as led them to the acceptance of the "lesser evil" of the stabilizing dictatorships.
Did our life change after 9/11? If we rewind the "film" we will find that all major factors of instability and disruption were already on the agenda by that time; 9/11 enhanced it, but it was also itself a consequence of that agenda.