The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

The year 2011 marked two very different anniversaries for the US. Ten years ago, the horrific terrorist assault on the twin towers and the Pentagon had occurred. Ten years earlier, the Soviet Union had imploded, ending the long conflict of the Cold War.

Each event profoundly shaped American behaviour in the decade that followed. In contemplating what the future holds for the US, it is worth recalling the character of these two very different decades.

In the 1990s, the US emerged the victor from the Cold War without a shot being fired. It achieved global hegemonic status, not by assertive or ambitious action on its own part, but by the self-induced collapse of its rival. It had no plan in place to exploit its unexpected dominance, nor did it adopt one during the decade.

The man who was to be its president for the next eight years, Bill Clinton, showed little interest in foreign affairs, had no grand doctrine and insisted that the economy should be the country's main preoccupation.

Certainly, the armed forces were maintained at a high level, but their commitments were kept limited in time and scope. The US military often seemed more concerned with having effective exit strategies in place than with implementing ambitious, open-ended, foreign policy projects.

By the end of the decade, the secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, was able to boast that the US was "the indispensable country". As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times summed it up: "Today's era is dominated by American power, American culture, the American dollar and the American navy."

But what was more striking was the extent to which the comparative restraint of the new hegemony allowed its dominance to be accepted with comparatively little complaint. The French foreign minister of the day, Hubert Vedrine, reflected the conventional wisdom when he said: "American globalism . . . dominates everything. Not in a harsh, repressive, military form, but in people's heads."

The character of American behaviour in the first decade of the 21st century was also determined by an unanticipated event, the terrorist attack of September 11, and the character of a new administration. The attack on September 11 created pressure for immediate and drastic action. But unlike his predecessor, the new President, George W. Bush, was not inclined towards the careful weighing of policy options. Nor were he and his advisers alert to the dangers of unintended consequences.

The Bush doctrine of preventive war, democracy promotion and aggressive unilateralism encouraged the belief that the US could impose its will and leadership across the globe. As one White House adviser told journalist Ron Suskind in 2005: "We are an empire now, and when we act we create our own reality."

Two US wars brought down Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban tyrants in Afghanistan, but in the process they have cost the US dearly in credibility and prestige as well as blood and treasure. Meanwhile, Washington's reckless spending policies and lax financial regulation, along with the Federal Reserve's loose monetary policies, helped set the scene for the subprime mortgage crisis, stubbornly high unemployment, gut-wrenching stock market volatility and skyrocketing national debt.

How do things look at the beginning of the third decade of the post-Cold War era? A mere decade ago US military power was universally considered awesome in its scope; today the world is much more aware of its limitations and costs - and less impressed. The US was widely hailed as the miracle economy, but there are no surviving illusions on that score. As last July's brush with default showed, serious doubts have been raised about whether Americans remain willing and able to pay for any grand, activist foreign policy.

True, Barack Obama was dealt a bad hand by Bush, whose radical, grand strategy to transform the Middle East with military force and massive social engineering dramatically increased the level of anti-Americanism around the globe. But it is not so much that the US is hated. What is more serious is the loss of credibility and consequently a reduced ability to lead and influence.

The US's famous capacity to rebound from adversity is going to be put to a severe test in the next decade. Whether it can rebound could be the key question of our time, bearing in mind recovery should mean a return to confidence and clarity along with those Clinton principles of prudence, discrimination and an understanding that the world does not conform to American expectations.

Tom Switzer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and editor of The Spectator Australia.