The Rise of Terrorism

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What are the effects of terrorism on world politics?

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It's difficult to generalize about this question, but if we select several key events from the past forty years, we can extrapolate patterns that have recurred as a response to terrorist acts.

In 1979, the takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran by radical Islamic students was widely regarded as a terrorist action intended to intimidate the US into extraditing Shah Reza Pahlavi to his home country. This was the beginning of a new polarization, eventually supplanting that of the old Cold War, in which the West (chiefly the US) now took an antagonistic stance toward not only Iran but the Muslim countries overall. But the response by the US primarily took the form of economic sanctions and the freezing of Iranian assets. The military response was weak and ineffective and was aimed only at freeing the hostages rather than attacking and punishing the Iranian state.

In 1983, the terrorist attack on the US Marine Base in Beirut, Lebanon, similarly did not provoke a military response but had the opposite effect of persuading the Reagan administration to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. This was especially ironic given the generally hawkish stance of that administration with regard to the Soviet Union in the last years of the Cold War. Yet the ideological split between West and East was worsened by this event. More and more the US began to view Islamic fundamentalism as a danger to the stability of the "world order." In the war occurring at that time between Iran and Iraq, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, the US implicitly supported Iraq because it was seen as less of a danger than Iran. Despite the 1991 Gulf War and the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, terrorism did not cause any further major shakeup of world politics until the 9/11 attacks of 2001, which propelled the US into a series of wars in the Middle East, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and eventually Syria. Those wars have both weakened terrorism and, on the other hand, possibly caused more recruits to join the cause of jihad against the West.

More important, perhaps, was the fact that the aggressiveness of the US, especially in Iraq (which had had no involvement in the 9/11 attacks), the bogus claims about "weapons of mass destruction," and the incompetent manner in which the Iraq war was carried out, alienated the other Western countries and weakened the NATO alliance. In each of these situations, the effects of terrorism—whether or not leading to open warfare—were to create or to worsen an antagonistic stance between the US and the new "enemy" supplanting communism. But at the same time, the effects of that new orientation have been inconclusive. No one can say if the US, the Middle East, and the world as a whole are in a worse state now than before these actions occurred. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was expelled from power and executed, but the Middle East overall may be in worse shape now than before. And the status of the US as the dominant power of the world is ambiguous. Like anything else in history, one must wait decades or even centuries before one can evaluate the success or failure of individual actions, the responses to them, and the wars and treaties that were triggered by them.

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In general, terrorism makes world politics more complicated and difficult.  This is because terrorism can cause very important problems even though terrorist groups are not clearly linked to states.  The presence of non-state actors who can have a real impact on the world makes world politics more difficult.

We can see examples of this today.  The best example is Al-Qaeda.  Its 9/11 attacks damaged the United States without giving the US a clear enemy to attack.  When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, it was clear that the US was now at war with Japan.  After 9/11 it was much less clear.  The US ended up at war with Afghanistan and later with Iraq, but not with Saudi Arabia, the home country of the majority of the 9/11 attackers.  The governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia did not directly participate in the attacks, making it somewhat complicated and difficult to know how to respond to the attacks.

Terrorism also makes things difficult by making it possible to argue that the United States is at war against all Muslims.  If one country had attacked the US, the US could retaliate against that country.  Instead, the US is trying to retaliate against an entire phenomenon (militant Islam) that exists to some degree in many countries. 

Thus, terrorism makes world politics more complicated.  It allows non-state actors to affect the world, leaving states unsure as to how to respond to attacks. 

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