The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States did more than just motivate her leaders to begin a global war on terror. As Foreign Affairseditor Gideon Rose explains in part of a video series produced by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), 9/11 brought foreign policy issues home for Americans in at least two important ways that had not been true for half a century.
First, it brought the issue of terrorism in general and radical Islamist terrorism in particular to the forefront of the American mind and to the top of the foreign policy agenda. Previously, most had little interest in what was happening beyond their borders. But they were shocked to realize that what happens overseas can have a dramatic impact at home.
Secondly, it unleashed U.S. power in the world. While the United States was powerful before 9/11, the tragic shock of losing nearly 3,000 civilians in one day on American soil awakened the sleeping giant to more actively and assertively use its power (“9/11 Perspectives: How America Changed Its Projection of Power,” July 14, 2011).
But now, a decade into the war on terror, America is beginning to retrench from its engagement with a fiercely more competitive world. And many leading indicators point to a continuing erosion of her power and influence.
World’s sole superpower
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world’s only superpower continued to grow in power and influence compared to the rest of the world. By the end of 2,000 it was even stronger. Yet because of domestic political constraints, that power was not used in any major, dramatic way (ibid.).
Rose summarizes it this way: “The Clinton administration wasn’t focused obsessively on projecting American power and wanted to keep it in public limits. And so the American public didn’t authorize a lot of things. What 9/11 did was basically have Congress and the American public give the executive branch a blank check. . . that essentially unleashed all of American power that had been building up and turned it into power-projection capabilities” (ibid.).
This resulted, Rose goes on to state, in not just the war in Afghanistan (starting in 2001), but also in the Iraq War (starting 2003), the global war on terror and a massive deployment of American resources in power projection, and an activist world role that would have been inconceivable in the previous decade before the trigger of 9/11.
But things are reverting. “The irony is that after a decade dealing with 9/11 and its aftermath the United States is now coming back to its pre-9/11 concerns with a more chastened, less hubristic attitude, a declining power base, a domestic situation that’s less fortunate than it was then. . . So it’s been a sober decade that in the long run will be considered a detour from the path we were on before” (ibid).
The Economistcites a Pew Research poll taken in June 2011 that shows none of the U.S. wars remain popular. Americans have increasingly grown weary of the vast expenditure of blood and treasure.
The recent Libyan military engagement was never favored by most Americans. While most still think that the mission to stop Afghanistan from serving as a base for terrorists like the 9/11 attackers was a good one, most feel that mission has been accomplished. “And most Americans are delighted that the present plan is to quit Iraq by the end of this year” (“Mars in the Descendant,” June 23, 2011).
This growing war-weariness is also reflected in the approval ratings of President Barack Obama’s plans to withdraw 100,000 troops from Afghanistan─10,000 by the end of the year, 20,000 by the end of summer 2012 and complete withdrawal by the end of 2014. According to a New York Timesand CBS poll, just 17 percent disapproved (“Poll: Four in 5 Approve of Obama’s Plan for Afghanistan Drawdown,” CBSNews.com, June 29, 2011).
The poll also indicated that 65 percent think the threat from terrorists will remain the same after the withdrawal. And only 26 percent said they thought it will increase.
Americans have a reason to feel weary of war, considering some 6,000 service personnel have died. And some estimate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually cost well over $3 trillion dollars.
War on terror fading?
Most Americans, and even some more hawkish political leaders, now feel America should pay less attention to problems overseas and more to the growing problems at home.
And U.S. counterterrorism officials are increasingly convinced that the toll of seven years of CIA drone strikes has pushed al--Qaeda to the brink of collapse in Pakistan. Of course, even if al--Qaeda is eliminated there, it would not end terrorist threats elsewhere. Potential attacks are increasingly driven by radicalized individuals and aggressive affiliates like al--Qaeda’s offshoots in Yemen and Somalia.
The killing of Osama bin Laden, the public’s spreading war fatigue and the transfer of General David Petraeus from Afghanistan to the CIA all reflect a changing of President Obama’s war focus.
Trouble at home
No matter how you measure it, the United States remains the single most influential country—economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily. For most of the past 70 years, the U.S. economy has grown at a steady clip, generating perpetually higher incomes and wealth for American households.
But since 2000 there has been a sharp reversal of that trend. The past decade was the worst for the U.S. economy in modern times. High unemployment, stagnant wages, the protracted debate over raising the government debt ceiling and the downgrade of U.S. sovereign debt by Standard & Poor’s all left many consumers and investors concerned about what lies ahead. Consumer confidence dropped to its lowest level since 1980 in the latest poll from early July. And these events also added fuel to those who say America is in terminal decline.
A Marist poll conducted in early August reveals that almost 7 out of 10 Americans feel an already bad economy is going to get even worse before it gets better ( “Marist Poll: 68% Say Worst Yet to Come,” MoneyNews.com, August 12, 2011).
And even more worrisome, a stunning 60 percent of Americans think the next generation will be economically worse off. Only 10 percent said it would be better off (“Poll: Voters Rank Jobs as Nation’s Top Priority,”AFL-CIO.org, July 28, 2011).
Less focus abroad
Writing in Foreign Affairs,Michael Mandelbaum says that America’s focus at home will mean less involvement abroad—and that the acrimonious negotiation to raise the nation’s debt ceiling was only an early first skirmish.
“That battle is bound to be protracted, difficult, and contentious,” he states, “and one of its casualties will be spending on foreign and security policy, which will decline in the years ahead. That will impose new limits on the projection of American power around the world” (“America’s Coming Retrenchment,” August 9, 2011).
In the first round the defense budget was already cut by $350 billion over a 10-year span as part of the $1 trillion in cuts already approved. And more cuts likely lie ahead because legislation mandates an additional $1.5 trillion reduction in expenditures in the next decade.
When the sense of external threats fades, so does American support for defense. And domestic economy wrangling will siphon away the time and energies President Obama has to deal with foreign policy issues.
Multipolar world order
This retrenchment and change in focus on domestic issues is occurring in a world quite different from a decade ago, explains a Timemagazine article by CFR president Richard Haass: “Twenty-first century international relations will be dominated by dozens of states exercising military, economic, diplomatic and cul-tural power. . . Power will be found in many hands in many places—diffuse, diverse, not concentrated, power” (“Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home,” August 8, 2011).
The problem of America’s decline is exacerbated by the rise of other powers. Some experts point to other countries they believe have the potential of achieving superpower status within the 21st century: China, Brazil, the European Union, India and Russia.
And world opinion is also swinging in that direction. The Pew Research Center reports that, in 15 of 22 nations, the majority feel that China either will replace or already has replaced the United States as the world’s leading superpower. “This view is especially widespread in Western Europe, where at least six-in-ten in France (72%), Spain (67%), Britain (65%) and Germany (61%) see China overtaking the U.S.” (“China Seen Overtaking U.S. as Global Superpower,” PewGlobal.org, July 13, 2011).
U.S. in terminal decline?
As other countries expand their power and influence, a growing number of experts worry that America might be on a terminal trajectory. They see a declining, less dominant world power politically, diplomatically and militarily, with serious internal economic and social issues. The process, they say, has already begun and is not likely to be reversed—without substantial changes.
Many institutions also see a growing number of leading indicators pointing in the wrong direction, says The Economist. The World Economic Forum’s annual global competitiveness rankings downgraded America from second place in 2009 to fourth place in 2010. For the quality of its institutions America is ranked a lowly 40th, for trust in its politicians 54th, for government waste 68th, and a dismal 87th for its macroeconomic environment.
“The World Bank sees a relentless decline in various indicators of American governance. Daniel Kaufmann of the Brookings Institution notes that last year 33% of American business leaders told pollsters that a big constraint was the ‘instability of the policy framework.’ The figure for France was 14%; for Chile, 5%. . .
The direst consequences of all this lie in the future” (“American Idiocracy,” August 13, 2011).
In an article titled “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire,” posted at TomDispatch (Dec. 5, 2010) and reposted at CBSNews.com (Dec. 6, 2010), Alfred McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contends that the end of the American Century could happen as early as 2025.
More recently, another article appeared with the nearly identical title “Decline and Fall of the American Empire,” this one in Britain’s The Guardian,by its economics editor, Larry Elliott (June 6, 2011).
Elliott delivers this assessment: “America in 2011 is Rome in 200AD or Britain on the eve of the first world war: an empire at the zenith of its power but with cracks beginning to show. The experience of both Rome and Britain suggests that it is hard to stop the rot once it has set in, so here are a few of the warning signs of trouble ahead: military overstretch, a widening gulf between rich and poor, a hollowed-out economy, citizens using debt to live beyond their means, and once-effective policies no longer working. The high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addiction to pornography and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence.”
At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and for over a century was the foremost global power. By 1922 Britain held sway over about 458 million people, one quarter of the world’s population, and covered more than 13 million square miles, nearly a quarter of the earth’s total land area. It was often said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire.”
But in spite of its greatness, it fell quickly. Elliott states: “Britain’s decline was extremely rapid after 1914. By 1945, the UK was a bit player in the bipolar world dominated by the US and the Soviet Union, and sterling—the heart of the 19th-century gold standard—was rapidly losing its lustre as a reserve currency.”
McCoy in his article writes: “Despite the aura of omnipotence most empires project, a look at their history should remind us that they are fragile organisms. So delicate is their ecology of power that, when things start to go truly bad, empires regularly unravel with unholy speed: just a year for Portugal, two years for the Soviet Union, eight years for France, 11 years for the Ottomans, 17 years for Great Britain, and, in all likelihood, 22 years for the United States, counting from the crucial year 2003. . .
“Viewed historically, the question is not whether the United States will lose its unchallenged global power, but just how precipitous and wrenching the decline will be. . . whether with a bang or a whimper.”
National life cycles
Again, a decade into the war on terror America’s retrenchment from an increasingly competitive world and the many negative leading indicators project a continuing erosion of the nation’s power and influence.
Wise King Solomon pointed out that everything has a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1-9). There is a time to grow and time to die (see verse 2). This can apply to individual people or to groups of people like nations and empires.
Many historians believe the English-speaking peoples have passed their prime and are declining into the waning years of their national life cycle, as countries in Europe and Asia are cycling upward with growing influence and financial resolve.
Together, Britain and the United States have dominated the world scene for two centuries. The amazing story of this rise to greatness can be traced back 4,000 years to when God promised the biblical patriarch Abraham that He would bring about an astounding future for this faithful man’s descendants (Genesis 17:4-7).
As his modern descendants through his great-grandson Joseph, the United States, Britain and the Commonwealth countries of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are beneficiaries of God’s blessing passed down through Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh, the forefathers of Britain and America respectively (see Genesis 48 and our free booklet The United States and Britain in Bible Prophecyto learn more).
As surely as the English-speaking peoples remarkably soared to great geopolitical and economic heights as God promised, other prophecies forewarn of calamitous decline and fall—unless they turn back to God. Jeremiah referred to the worst of what’s coming as “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jeremiah 30:7). May the sleeping giant awaken spiritually before it is too late!