The aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks marked the height of a particular American moment on the world stage. The United States was no longer the victor in the Cold War but an “unipolar” superpower that is ready to bring justice to all peoples. It was not an enemy hegemonic force, but a morphous idea (“terror”) which American leadership connected to both an adversarial and Islamist extremist web. The results were the costly invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the massive expansion of the U.S. security state, and a new global awareness of the limits — rather than the potency — of American power.
Two decades after 9/11, that legacy of hubris hangs over Washington, a bad odor that successive administrations have tried and failed to dispel. No matter the messiness of the U.S. withdrawal last month, polling shows the overwhelming majority of the American public still supports pulling troops out of Afghanistan. Few politicians from either the major political parties in America support new military intervention overseas. A growing body of lawmakers also wants to curb the White House’s powers to wage war in the first place.
Former president Donald Trump argued that the United States should generally stay out of foreign conflicts, especially if it has to foot the bill for the effort. President Biden, like Trump, has sought to leave the 9/11 era behind, reframing America’s foreign policy ambitions around the challenge of China. It is back in fashion to talk about “great-power rivalry.” Officials in foreign capitals, from Europe and Asia to Asia recognize the fact that traditional understandings of the Pax Americana have begun to fade. Some Americans are losing faith in America. Others sense geopolitical opportunity.
The Iraq War, in particular, undermined America’s standing in the world. In September 2002, half a year before the invasion, former South African president Nelson Mandela decried the “arrogant” unilateralism of the Bush administration. “We are really appalled by any country, whether it be a superpower or a small country, that goes outside the United Nations and attacks independent countries,” he said.
According to Pew polling, U.S. favorability around the world plummeted thereafter, only to recover with the election of Barack Obama, who campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from the country but was still in charge when the Islamic State emerged and new wave of violence and upheaval erupted. It was the American’s failed project in Iraq that became a warning sign. The empire’s attempts to make a new reality as a lie, according to a Bush official, proved dangerous.
“The invasion and its chaotic, violent and destabilizing aftermath shattered the notion that the United States is indispensable and a force for democracy,” Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Today’s WorldView. “Had there been no invasion of Iraq, the mythology of American exceptionalism at home and abroad would have persisted among elites for a lot longer.”
Rather than being in history’s driving seat, America’s policy elites are more aware that they, too, are passengers. An epochal financial crisis shook the world economy, as well as bloody and costly entanglements with Iraqi forces. The United States recovered better than many other developed countries, but a necessary inwardness set in, with many politicians more preoccupied by the need for renewal and rebuilding at home than calls for intervention abroad. “9/11 has shattered the U.S. pretension to global indispensability,” wrote Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Two decades more and the United States might yet become a nation among nations, no longer lording its power over others to get what it needs.”
But the United States does still appear to be girding itself for another confrontation. The Biden administration is trying to achieve the strategic pivot towards Asia, where China lurks. This goal has been attempted by previous administrations but was not achieved. Myriad analysts cast the counterterrorism expenditure and focus of the past two decades as a wasteful distraction from the real challenges of the 21st century.
“We invested trillions of dollars in upgrading land forces and counterterror and counterinsurgency forces that have no applicability to the naval and air theater that is the Pacific,” Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Stars and Stripes. “Who knows what our naval modernization could look like right now had we not spent trillions of dollars for 20 years on the Army? The budget fights and fights over what the services will look like are just now getting started, when they should have started 20 years ago, given China’s naval modernization.”
American debacles in the Middle East reinforced a narrative popular in Beijing about the United States’ supposedly inevitable decline on the world stage. “China has been able to capitalize on the opportunity to bide its time and build its strength,” wrote Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center. “The power balance between the United States and China most likely would have evolved in the same direction without 9/11. However, the resources, focus, and time the United States poured into the War on Terror certainly expedited the shift.”
That shift sits heavily on a generation of American policymakers. “In terms of geopolitical influence,” wrote former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, “the [Chinese Communist Party] has been the biggest beneficiary of the war on terror.”