From Lincoln’s Gettysburg address to FDR’s “righteous might” response to Pearl Harbour, wartime speeches by presidents of the United States have been enduring snapshots of history. The most obvious candidates from the 9/11 decade would be George W. Bush’s address to Congress on 20 September 2001 saying “our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there” and Barack Obama’s televised announcement on 2 May 2011 that “justice has been done” with the killing of Osama bin Laden. 

These two speeches describe an arc from the most despicable foreign acts on American soil to the death of their architect at the barrel of US guns. But this war on terrorism frame is too narrow for a decade in which the US went from the highest ever point of American power, confidence and optimism to the country’s lowest ebb since the disastrous 1970s, now as then mired in economic doldrums, hamstrung by division, anxiety and uncertainty, and diminished by declining authority and respect.

Two different wartime speeches stand out using this wider lens on the 9/11 decade. The first is Bush’s proud proclamation on 1 May 2003 that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended”, with the then-president marvelling at how far the US-led world had come from the horrors of World War II and celebrating the magnetic universalism of America’s defining credo:

In defeating Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan ... military power was used to end a regime by breaking a nation. Today, we have the greater power to free a nation by breaking a dangerous and aggressive regime ... We have also seen the ageless appeal of human freedom ... Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices; and everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.

The second speech was delivered a little more than eight years later by the man who replaced Bush in the Oval Office. When Obama told the world of his decision to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan on 22 June 2011, trumpeting America’s global might and attraction was the last thing on his mind. Instead, he expressed hope, almost pleading, that closing the book on Afghanistan would hasten nation building at home—so long as it was affordable and so long as the country’s warring factions would bury their hatchets:

Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America’s greatest resource—our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industry, while living within our means ... And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war.

Obama was speaking as the storm clouds of a second global financial crisis and a double dip recession began ominously to gather. News about renewed violence and political gridlock in Iraq was no longer headline worthy. Profoundly unpopular dictatorial regimes were attacking protesters against them in Libya and Syria, but the US and the West were unwilling to go beyond air raids and strong words to stop them. They were also resigned to, if not supportive of, the involvement of the Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan.

From the vantage point of this new world of 2011, the 9/11 decade will not be remembered either as the fight for and defence of freedom GWB began, or for Obama’s subsequent unwinding of this imperial hubris.

Rather, the 9/11 decade seems destined to be remembered above all as a costly diversion from America’s and the world’s biggest challenges: the external military threats posed by extremist regimes like Iran, North Korea and Pakistan with, or aspiring to get, nuclear weapons; a rising China deeply connected into the global economy but potentially destabilising the geopolitical order; and a Western capitalist system hoisted on its own petard of leverage and risk.

There have been tangible wins in the war on terrorism. David Petraeus’s successful counter-insurgency surge has given democratic stability a fighting chance in Iraq at the fulcrum of the Arab world. There has been no major Islamist terrorist attack on the West since the London bombings more than six years ago. Bin Laden has been killed and al Qaeda is no longer a globally coordinated terrorist organisation. 

But the financial and human costs of these wins remain hard to justify. And there is a long list of unfinished business in the war on terrorism. It is hard to be optimistic that the Afghanistan the coalition will leave behind in 2015 will be that much better than the country they invaded 14 years earlier and have been fighting for ever since. The challenge of Islamic extremism in the West has gone from the threat of foreign terrorists to clashes between home-grown Muslims and violent far-right populists in Western Europe—straining to breaking point the continent’s multicultural bargain.

Though the neocons are disingenuous when they try to claim paternity over the Arab Spring, everyone joins them in hoping people power revolutions grow into peaceable democratic governments. But while there is ample will for the journey, the path remains long, bumpy and poorly lit with few clues as to what may lurk in the shadows.

Moreover, before 9/11, China, not al Qaeda, was seen as the principal threat to American national security. Condoleezza Rice, writing in Foreign Affairs early in 2000, said, “China resents the role of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region ... That alone makes it a strategic competitor.” Today, most American security strategists, including those on Obama’s team, would concur. They would also agree that this Sino-American strategic competition is more intense than in 2000, and that the balance of power has moved in China’s direction.

Taking the focus off the China challenge, not only militarily but also economically, is the main international reason the war on terrorism today looks like a diversion. But taking America’s and the West’s eyes off what was happening at home was probably even costlier. The American and European economies are staggering. Fiscal distress is high and rising on both sides of the Atlantic. Finding the middle ground in American politics seems impossible, while moving towards a European budgetary union to match the monetary union of the euro seems well beyond the continent’s leaders.

The war on terrorism did not cause any of these problems, but American policy surely did not help. Alan Greenspan probably lowered US interest rates too much in the wake of 9/11. The second wave of Bush tax cuts were linked to the launch of the Iraq war in 2003. The massive costs of America’s two wars and protecting the homeland weakened the country’s fiscal position.

At the same time, the big challenges facing the world today predated the world on terrorism, dating back at least to the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s and the birth of globalisation in the 1980s. But it is hard not to believe that, absent the war on terror, the alarm bells would have been rung earlier and the response would have been more effective. 

And what’s worst for those who believe that the world remains a better place with the US playing an active global role across the board—the “indispensible nation”, in Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s phrasing—the scale and ambition of American foreign policy will almost inevitably be smaller in the next 10 years than in the past 10.

No matter who rules the West Wing over the next decade, the US will lower its foreign policy sights by taking a much harder nosed view of what the national interest really is, and will try to achieve its goals at a lower cost by asking more of its friends and allies. Think more Asia-Pacific geopolitics, talking up alliances and international institutions; much less global policeman let alone global messiah.

It would be foolhardy to write off the US. As it has done so many times before, the US will probably come back. After all, the successes of Reagan-Bush-Clinton America followed the dark days of Jimmy Carter. But look for this bounce back in the medium term not the short term; driven by America’s underlying strengths of innovation and immigration rather than by its ability to conquer today’s demons in the next couple of years. 

The US is a weaker country today than it was when those airplanes flew into the World Trade Centre on the bright, clear morning of 11 September 2011. For that reason above all others, the epitaph of the 9/11 decade will be closer to “how are the mighty fallen” requiem Barack Obama must try to manage than the “shining city on a hill” rejoicing George W. Bush hoped to celebrate.