Ashes from ashes

How America wasted its unipolar moment

The war on terror improved neither the nation’s standing nor the nation itself


When, in 1998, President Bill Clinton fired cruise missiles at terrorist bases in Afghanistan and Sudan, a reporter asked the secretary of defence if there wasn’t a “striking resemblance” to the plot of “Wag the Dog”, a film in which a White House consultant confects a faraway war to distract from a presidential sex scandal. 

Popular culture and sex scandals loomed large in American society during the 1990s; foreign affairs did not. 

Abroad was where the impediments to Ross and Rachel’s predestined coupledom came from in “Friends”.

Those who still paid attention to America’s role in the world lacked a definition for it. 

Having become the world’s only superpower, America had very little idea how to use that power—if, indeed, it should use it that much at all.

September 11th 2001 brought this era of distraction and aimlessness to an end. 

The horror of that day unified the country, all but erasing memories of President George W. Bush’s divisive victory over Al Gore the year before. 

It also created, for Americans, the prospect of global solidarity. 

“The world has changed in a way that we are all vulnerable,” said Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee, the following day.

America’s mission, he went on, was obvious: to take the lead in “a struggle between civilisation and barbarity”. 

A few weeks later, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Mr Biden imagined how that new purpose—and specifically a new common cause with Russia which the struggle would make not just possible but necessary—“could shape this half-century as the cold war shaped the last”.

A big claim. 

The strategy of containing the Soviet Union, first articulated by George Kennan, a diplomat, in 1947, governed America’s conduct in the world from then until the Soviet Union’s dissolution. 

It provided nine successive presidential administrations with a compass and a rallying point, producing not just a series of capital-d doctrines (preceded by names like Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter), but also a national highway system, a science boom and a common cause—as well as witch-hunts for communists and the folly of Vietnam. 

It led to a green revolution in developing-country agriculture and put a man on the Moon.

It also justified hard trade-offs in foreign policy. 

It gave presidents a rationale, however thin, for alliances with despots. 

It argued for patience in building democratic institutions in South Korea and Taiwan like those established in West Germany and Japan. 

In 1972 it prompted the boldest stroke in late-20th-century American diplomacy: the opening to China.

When the Berlin Wall fell, America’s accumulated economic, technological, cultural and military power lost its counterweight. 

After Iraqi troops swept into Kuwait the following year the world soon got a glimpse of what this “unipolar” era might look like. 

The spectacularly one-sided Gulf war of 1991 provided the first large-scale demonstration of America’s might in decades. 

Stealth, precision-guided munitions and long-range cruise missiles developed during the cold war found new application beyond it.

The institutions, mindset and, in the form of the first George Bush, leadership demonstrated in that war were also products of the world gone by—and less adaptable to new forms of conflict. 

Cold-war concerns about coalition-building and the sanctity of state borders worked reasonably well when it came to liberating Kuwait. 

The lessons of the previous 40 years were far less helpful when it came to shoring up weak states, such as Somalia, or quelling intra-state conflict, as in Rwanda or Bosnia, or fighting transnational threats such as terrorism. 

And by leaving Saddam Hussein in power the war also implied, unsatisfyingly to some, that while borders mattered to America, tyranny did not.

The lack of a settled idea about what, if anything, the lone hyperpower should do about such problems made foreign policy in the 1990s “like being set loose on the ocean and there wasn’t really any charted course”, as Madeleine Albright, Mr Clinton’s secretary of state, later put it. 

The task of coming up with a guiding principle for America’s role as overarching as containment became known in the White House as the “Kennan sweepstakes”; aides consulted Mr Kennan himself. 

But to no real avail. 

As Joe Biden said in 1998—the same year the Clinton administration had launched its first, derided missile strikes against al-Qaeda—there was “no consensus on the us role in the world”.


When Mr Biden delivered his talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in October 2001 American forces had just invaded Afghanistan in order to accomplish what those missile strikes had not. 

A new consensus had crystallised, and Mr Biden imagined it being backed by the rest of the world. 

Vladimir Putin, he said, was a strategic thinker who was taking on reactionaries because he saw “he must cast his lot with the West”. 

America and China now shared interests in fighting terrorism and maintaining peace in Central Asia. 

Even Iran might warm to the Americans. 

It was, after all, helping in Afghanistan.


Twenty years on, the world is not the one Mr Biden hoped for. 

The framework George W. Bush’s administration adopted for its post-9/11 mission in the world, the global war on terror, certainly put an end to the foreign-policy establishment’s worries about the role of their hyperpower and how fully to use its force. 

Containing the Soviet Union had kept a lid on America, too, forcing it to acknowledge complex geopolitical interests, accept lesser evils to fend off greater ones and cautiously avoid pushing its nuclear adversary too far. 

Now America could be uncontained.

But for all the deaths that followed, Afghanistan sits today in the hands from which it was being taken when Mr Biden was giving his speech. 

The calamitous invasion of Iraq has left behind a country divided and under the sway of an Iran that has not warmed to America one little bit. 

And the effort expended in the war on terror has undermined America’s ability to face the challenge from China on which Mr Biden needs, and would prefer, to focus. 

It is a challenge which comes, as the cold war’s did, from a rival great power offering a fundamentally different political settlement and seeking global influence.

With the time long past for imagining China and Russia standing shoulder-to-shoulder with America, Mr Biden now wants to constrain them by reaffirming what his administration, in an incantatory manner, calls the rules-based international order. 

But having bent and broken those rules for 20 years, America has strained their credibility, as well as its own.

Fighting a furtive, transnational enemy made respect for sovereignty a luxury America no longer chose to afford. 

To deny terrorists any haven, it could not permit weak states to suppurate. 

Norms were abnegated, allegiance all: either you were with America, Mr Bush said, or you were with the terrorists. 

Helpful tyrants were tolerated. America’s neglect of (under Mr Bush and his successor, Barack Obama) and contempt for (under Donald Trump) international institutions like the un has left them ill equipped to help.

Fools rush in

As the Bush administration began rallying support for war in Iraq, Mr Kennan, then aged 98, warned against the new strategy. 

Even a sole superpower could not “confront all the painful and dangerous situations that exist in this world”. 

It was, he said, “beyond our capabilities”. 

He accused Democrats of going along with Mr Bush out of timidity.

Mr Biden could have been one of those he had in mind. 

In a speech given in 2002, during the Senate’s debate over the Iraq-war authorisation, he emphasised the importance of un support for an invasion; he spoke of the danger of any country arrogating to itself the right to wage war to prevent a possible, eventual threat; and he warned of the “sin of Vietnam”, of “the failure of two presidents to level with the American people of what the costs would be”. 

And then he voted for the war.

So did all other leading Democrats with aspirations to be president. 

Voicing doubt was left to those whose aspirations were yet to come—such as Mr Obama—and to those whose aspirations had already passed by. 

Mr Gore, the only nationally elected politician to have served in Vietnam, had supported the first Gulf war in 1991, unlike Mr Biden and most other Democratic senators. 

In 2002 he strongly criticised the rush to return.

In 2005 Mr Bush’s second inaugural address gave perhaps the loftiest description of what had become known as the Bush Doctrine, calling for the kind of unilateral, preventive action Mr Biden said he opposed but had, in practice, voted for. 

“We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands,” Mr Bush declared. 

“The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world…America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.”

This was not true, and the way the war was prosecuted made that painfully clear. 

Various strategically placed and well-disposed tyrants were untroubled by the war against terror. 

Mr Bush, unlike his father, felt no need to secure the blessing of the global assembly which the United States had helped found in order to maintain peace and security. 

America had been imprisoning people at Guantánamo Bay, beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts, since January 2002. 

There and elsewhere, America and its fellow travellers tortured people it had captured. 

In Washington they sought to justify that practice.

The next two presidents tried and failed to escape the dynamic of the war on terror. 

Mr Obama spoke a language of liberal internationalism as grand as Mr Bush’s. 

“The people of the world want change,” he said in his first speech to the un General Assembly, in 2009. 

“They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history.” 

But he did not share Mr Bush’s appetite for unilateral intervention. 

He tried to summon other countries to achieve priorities he insisted were not just America’s, arguing—as his vice-president, Mr Biden, had in 2001—that more than at any time in history, national interests aligned. 

But most other countries persisted in not viewing their interests as identical with America’s. Mr Obama’s commitment to multilateralism and international rules remained at best ambivalent. 

The 540 drone strikes with which he prosecuted the war on terror over his eight years in office killed thousands, hundreds of whom were in no way targets.

Mr Trump also failed to end the wars that began after 9/11. But he stripped off the idealistic wrapper and tossed it aside. 

With his zest for puncturing pieties, Mr Trump confirmed many people’s suspicions that America’s professed ideals were camouflage for the exercise of power in the pursuit of self-interest, painting a dark picture of America’s history. 

“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” he asked in 2017 while defending Mr Putin in an interview on Fox News.

Angels fear to tread

Now Mr Biden has presided over a lurch for the exit in Afghanistan and is ending combat operations in Iraq. 

American defeat, dissension and bumbling have played into Chinese claims that it is time for someone else to shape the international system. 

For China, the withdrawal “is just one more bit of evidence for the proposition that the United States is a power in decline,” says Aaron Friedberg of Princeton University.

America—and Mr Biden—have been here before. 

On April 23rd 1975, when the fall of Saigon was just a week away, Mr Biden rose in the Senate chamber to address America’s history in Asia and its standing in the world. 

Just 32, brimming with ambition and self-assurance, Mr Biden instructed his colleagues about a pattern in American foreign policy that he saw reaching back to Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in Tokyo Bay in the mid-19th century. 

“It seems that, in respect to Asia, our foreign policy has been one of magnificent obsessions and lost causes,” he declared.

And yet, though Mr Biden had long opposed “the shambles that is Vietnam” (and felt, in a phrase that today has a shameful added resonance, that “the United States has no obligation to evacuate one, or 100,001, South Vietnamese”), he also rejected any suggestion that defeat heralded twilight for America. 

“In my judgment, there is occurring no ‘fading of America’, as some commentators are trying to call it—no time for pretentious talk of ‘watersheds’ and ‘tides of history’ running against us as a nation,” he said. 

“As I read the news dispatches, the need is not to reassure other nations that we are not withdrawing into a shell. 

The need is that we should have more confidence in ourselves.”


Mr. Biden’s confidence in his own judgment, and in America, turned out to be well placed. 

In the coming years other foreign-policy disasters awaited—in Iran (repeatedly), in Central America, in Lebanon. 

But so did victory in the cold war.

Whether such confidence would be so well placed today is less clear; certainly today’s Mr Biden has yet to voice that confidence so full-throatedly. 

Then America could count on allies in nato and beyond that were committed to the pursuit of shared objectives. 

Despite the disillusionment of the 1970s, relative to today America’s major public and private institutions generally retained the broad, bipartisan trust of the public, notes Henry Brady, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. 

That allowed thoroughgoing reforms in the executive branch, the intelligence agencies, the campaign-finance system and the armed forces, reforms that sustained the struggle through the cold war and strengthened democracy at home.

“It was a yeasty time, intellectually,” says Gary Hart, who joined the Senate as a leader of the reform-minded post-Watergate class of 1974. 

“There were a lot of corridor conversations, particularly among Democrats. 

Everything was up for debate and resolution.” 

Now, he adds, “I just don’t sense any systemic reform efforts going on anywhere.”

The sloppy punctuation with which Mr Biden has ended the wars of 9/11 may not signal the “fading of America” in which he disbelieved almost half a century ago. 

But it does mark the end, for now, of a faded idea, about the imperative of spreading America’s ideals throughout the world. 

America’s confidence in its own model is shaken. 

From the vantage of an America where citizens have assaulted their capitol, it can be hard to recall the upwelling of unity on September 11th 2001—a day when legislators of both parties gathered on the steps of the same building and, impromptu, sang “God Bless America”. 

Conflicted over whether its national story is a source of pride or shame, America is struggling to articulate its ideals, with conviction, to itself, let alone to others. 

A hardened president leads a tired nation.

It may be that a less righteous yet still influential America will prove a force for patient and durable, rather than destabilising, change. 

After what Mr Biden’s aides call a decades-long national “detour”, the contest with China may allow the assertion of strength and purpose abroad to redound to the nation’s advantage at home.

Competitors, after all, can help. 

Mr Kennan thought Americans were lucky to have the Soviet Union around. 

Their very survival, he wrote in 1947, depended on “pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear”. 

Whatever history may have intended, it proved him more right than wrong about the effects of the cold war. 

It did give America national purpose. 

As Mr Gore put it when accepting the Supreme Court decision which delivered the presidency to Mr Bush in 2000, “This is America and we put country before party.”

The war on terror has had no such ennobling or unifying results. 

Not only has America failed to strengthen an international order that conforms to its values. 

America’s own public institutions and many of its private ones—whether from confusion, exhaustion, fear or partisan political assault—are also emerging weaker from this 20-year experiment in power projection. 

One measure is the fact that an act of political grace, of deference to an American ideal, like that of Mr Gore now seems all but unthinkable. 

The message he saw his concession sending to “our fellow members of the world community”—that the strength of American democracy is shown most clearly through the difficulties it can overcome—may still be true. 

But the 21 years since have not provided much support for it. 

0 comentarios:

Publicar un comentario