By Michael Cox
When the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, its position in the world seemed completely unassailable. It is well worth recalling this mood today if we are to fully appreciate how far things have changed since 9/11. America looks to have changed almost beyond recognition.
Having seen off the Soviet Union, and having then experienced what can only be viewed as one of the more
successful economic decades in its over two hundred year history, America at the start of the new millennium looked to be riding
high in an international system where it clearly faced challenges and problems but no serious threat worthy of the name.
So powerful did it in fact seem that few could even remember that rather anxious little moment just before the end of the Cold War when writers
like Paul Kennedy had been talking earnestly about the republic's inevitable decline over the longer term.
A nation with deficits as large as the US, and carrying the imperial burden that it did, simply could not go on running the world's affairs. There was only one way for it to go - and that, he concluded, was downwards.
How odd such a line of analysis appeared when the ever optimistic Bill Clinton handed the presidency over to George W. Bush in 2000; and how far removed from reality did such views seem as the US started to mobilise its massive resources in response to what had happened in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania on that bright Tuesday morning in 2001. Even critics were at first deeply impressed - even that old 'declinist' Paul Kennedy who waxed perhaps rather too lyrically in one article written in early 2002 about that proverbial American bird of prey compelling respect from its friends and forcing even its enemies to submit to its will. This was clearly no ordinary superpower. As he went on to note, this very special eagle was now flying higher than ever. Nor was this his view alone. Across the political spectrum, from critical Europeans on the left to American neo-conservatives on the right, few seemed prepared to dispute the idea that the United States bore more than a family resemblance to Empires of the past - with one fairly obvious difference: this new Rome on the Potomac was not about to decline any time soon. Another century awaited it.
It is well worth recalling this mood today if we are to fully appreciate how far things have changed since 9/11. At the turn of the century Americans felt self-confident and the US acted as if there was little that it could not do - even invade Iraq with little concern for the deeply disturbing impact this might have on both the Middle East and its own position in the world. A decade on and America looks to have changed almost beyond recognition.
Firstly, it has changed politically.
There are many reasons why Barack Obama was elected in late 2008. But amongst the most important was the simple fact that Americans no longer felt confident about the direction in which the country was going after two terms of a republican administration that had first brought them the Iraq war and then the financial crisis of 2007. Whether or not Obama has delivered on all of his promises remains a moot question. What is not in question however is the extent to which his remarkable rise was made possible by a widespread sense that America was in crisis and that something new - and possibly radical - was needed to restore US standing in the world and possibly prevent it experiencing another great depression.
This in turn raises a much wider question about Americans themselves.
For a very short while 9/11, and indeed the war in Iraq itself, united them like only a war can do. But unlike the Cold War, this particular 'clash' against Islamic militancy has effectively divided the country, making the ideological gap between liberals on the one hand and conservatives on the other almost unbridgeable. It has also had a corrosive impact upon American self-confidence. Troop losses in Afghanistan and Iraq, the huge economic costs involved in waging these wars, and the fear that the means involved in fighting a particular kind of enemy might be undermining US core values, has not only done much to dent American amour propre but made Americans increasingly uncertain about the country's purpose in the world.
This would be bad enough.
But what has further contributed to Americans' sense that the world is no longer moving in their direction is firstly the impact that the economic crisis has had on that intangible thing called the American way of life - only a quarter of Americans in 2011 believed that their children would have better chances than themselves - plus an even stronger sense that changes taking place globally are fast undermining its ability to shape what is taking place around them. There has certainly been too much talk of late about the next century being Asian and the axis of power moving rapidly away from the west to the east. Still, as economists like Jim O'Neill of Goldman Sachs noted, some time ago, while the US waged war in the Middle East and against the Taliban in Afghanistan, others - some of those so-called BRIC's - seemed to be getting on with the business of making money, building new partnerships, and pulling themselves out of the economic crisis a good deal more rapidly than the US and its transatlantic allies.
Which leads lastly to the question of the balance of power.
When Bush assumed office few questioned the idea that the world was unipolar or that the US would remain dominant for many decades to come. To coin a phrase, there was little chance of the sun setting on this unique form of liberal empire for many decades to come. Its future looked assured. Now it all looks very different. With China rising and even buying up a good deal of America's debt; with new powers like India pushing their way upwards; and with its own capacities diminishing in an age of austerity - few today talk as they once confidently did of an ever-lasting American primacy. Some may continue to point to the enormous structural advantages enjoyed by the United States; of how many great universities it still possesses; of its rare combination of hard and soft power; of the fact that it remains the only serious power that there is with true global reach; that its corporations constitute well over half of the world's largest; and that the dollar still accounts for over sixty percent of the world's international transactions. But in the current climate such facts appear to be cutting little ice with those who now insist that as result of George Bush's ill-conceived war on terror, followed by the financial crisis of 2007, American decline is now a foregone conclusion. Whether or not such dire predictions turn out to be true - in ways that they have never been true before - is a question to which there is still no easy answer. Nothing is predetermined. But a decade on from 9/11 the United States is an altogether different, altogether less confident, place than the one G.W. Bush inherited in late 2000. Perhaps the Kennedy moment has finally arrived - at last?
Professor Michael Cox is an Associate Fellow, Americas, Chatham House, and Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics.
Copyright, Chatham House; Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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