We are now in a period of confusion and disorientation, almost despair. I think it is worthwhile to look back historically to see how we got to where we are today.
In the mid to late 1980s, the idea of American decline was in vogue. Japan was rising, China was awakening, Europe was consolidating, America was said to have been in the midst of what historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch.” The conventional wisdom of the time was that the bipolar world of the United States and the Soviet Union would yield to a new world structure which would be multipolar, with power fairly equally divided between Japan, perhaps China, a diminished Soviet Union, a consolidating Europe, the United States, and perhaps other rising countries such as India or perhaps even Brazil. That’s how the world looked in the mid to late 1980s.
When I wrote the article “The Unipolar Moment” (Foreign Affairs, Winter 1990/91), it achieved some renown because, remarkably, I was the only one saying at the time, that in fact, with the end of the Cold War, the United States would end up as the unipolar power, the dominant, hegemonic power in the world. There would be none even close to us in ranking. The old bipolar world would yield not to a multipolar world but to one with only one great influence, and that would be us.
In fact, that has occurred. At the time, I was thinking about how long this might last and called the article “The Unipolar Moment.” I thought it might last a generation. Twenty to thirty years, I wrote. Here we are almost exactly 15 years later, the midpoint of the more optimistic estimate.
The first part of the unipolar era since the fall of the Soviet Union, which can the dated between 11/09 (November 9, 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall) and 9/11, would be the period of American ascent, in which our dominance in the world became absolutely undeniable, to the degree that in the 1990s, we couldn’t quite figure out what to do with all this preponderance of power. There were some neoconservatives and others who were proclaiming an era of American greatness where we ought to exert ourselves overseas, even in the absence of a threat, simply as a way of being true to our traditions and values. To some extent, one might say that our intervention in the Balkan wars, where we had almost no national interest, was an example of this assertion of unrivaled power in the interests of our values.
Others of us thought that in the absence of an enemy, we ought not be exerting ourselves for the sake of exerting ourselves. I advocated a policy that I called “dry powder,” where we would maintain our resources, conserve our strength, and wait for the inevitable, which would be the rise of an adversary. In the 1990s, of course, that adversary was not obvious. He was working in the shadows, preparing, and finally revealing himself on 9/11. That’s when the structure of the world became blindingly clear. We were confronted with a new ideological, existential enemy, meaning an enemy who threatens our existence and very way of life; who is driven by a messianic faith and is engaged in a struggle to the death. This was an heir to the ideological existential struggles of the twentieth century, first against fascism and then against communism, in which we had prevailed.
Sept. 11 ushered in the second era of this unipolar era, which I would call the era of assertion, where the power that had been latent in America shows itself. I would date this era from 9/11 to the March 14, 2005, a date probably unfamiliar to you and not particularly renowned in our history today, but a date that I think will be remembered by historians as the apogee of American power, the peak of the arc of the unipolar era.
On 9/11, the United States, with its ally Great Britain, decided that it would respond in two