America entered the 21st century riding high. The 1990s had been the best decade in American history, by various measures. The decade began with a resounding American victory in the Cold War, upon the collapse of America’s longtime rival, the Soviet Union. After nearly a half-century confronting Soviet communism in a bipolar world of two nuclear superpowers, the United States dominated a unipolar world as no country ever had before.
The American economy performed in a comparably world-beating fashion. After a brief recession in the early 1990s, the economy delivered its longest period of sustained growth until then, creating jobs at a record pace and balancing the federal budget for the first time in a generation. Consumers benefited from rapid globalization, having their pick of items produced all over the world and transported to the United States with unprecedented efficiency.
There were occasional intimations of trouble. In 1993, terrorists detonated a bomb beneath the World Trade Center in New York, killing one person and injuring a thousand. In 2000, the U.S. destroyer Cole was attacked by terrorists in Aden, with 17 sailors killed and dozens injured. But the Trade Center still stood, the Cole bombing was far away, and America’s self-confidence scarcely registered a tremor.
Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which brought down the World Trade Center, killing thousands, and blasted a gaping hole in the Pentagon, claiming another hundred lives. This time the terrorists had struck at the centers of American financial and military power and succeeded as few had imagined they ever could. Americans, accustomed to feeling nearly omnipotent, suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable.
Events of the following decade didn’t make them feel better. Security measures enacted at airports and in public buildings set the country constantly on edge. Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, outwitted and eluded American troops sent to Afghanistan to capture or kill him, and the Afghanistan operation became a drawn-out, dispiriting affair. A second war, against Iraq, proved to have begun under mistaken or falsified pretenses and became even more dispiriting than the one in Afghanistan. A financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 had little direct connection to foreign policy, but the recession it triggered contributed to a broad feeling that events had spun out of America’s control.
Meanwhile China, which in the 1990s had been treated as a curiosity — a communist country adopting capitalist ways — became a serious competitor to the United States during the first two decades of the 21st century. China’s emergence was economic initially, but it acquired diplomatic and military overtones. China’s rise put American leadership to a test America hadn’t experienced since the 1940s. At that time American leaders rose to the challenge, creating alliances, distributing aid and consistently promoting such American values as democracy and free trade.
This time, American leaders — one in particular — did the opposite. Former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE undermined American alliances, cut aid, launched trade wars and often treated foreign dictators better than democrats. To complete the dismal performance, Trump did his best to undermine democracy within the United States, thereby reinforcing the rhetorical arsenal of the world’s anti-democrats.
COVID-19, which struck the U.S. during Trump’s last year in office, raised the anxiety in America to an entirely new level. As the death toll mounted — beyond the Revolutionary War, beyond the Korean War, beyond the Vietnam War, beyond World War I, beyond World War II — Americans increasingly wondered if there was anything they could control or count on. America’s wars had often produced a sense of unity, a feeling of pulling together; many Americans hoped for something similar against COVID-19. What they got was the hyper-partisanship that had elected Trump and which he continued to inflame, and new fronts of political conflict over masking and vaccines.
Anniversaries afford opportunities for stock-taking, for asking what we’ve learned from the events we remember and the consequences they produced. Twenty years after 9/11, it’s fair to say America has learned how to deter other such attacks. Nothing like 9/11 has befallen America since then, at least partly because of security measures taken here and abroad. And we’ve learned, first in Iraq and finally in Afghanistan, that we’re not good at nation-building by arms.
Are we wiser than we were 20 years ago? More resilient? Less susceptible to surprise attack?
COVID-19 wasn’t an attack, as attacks are usually considered. But it certainly blindsided us, despite the warnings of public-health officials and despite previous outbreaks of disease that might have become pandemics if not for good luck. The positive contribution of the Trump administration to the fight against COVID-19 was its marshalling of America’s medical-industrial complex to the creation and production of vaccines, which partly offset the president’s failures of leadership in other regards.
But only partly. The abiding lesson of COVID-19 for America might be that nowadays not even a national emergency can overcome the divisive forces of politics. After 9/11, Americans rallied around President George W. Bush — perhaps too blindly, as the misbegotten war in Iraq revealed. COVID-19 produced nothing similar, and it suggests that not even another attack like 9/11 would pull the nation together; partisanship has pervaded everything.
Ironically, America’s present discombobulation might afford a degree of protection against another 9/11. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda targeted the United States not least because of America’s unprecedented dominance of the world order. In the 20 years since then, America has receded to a position of first among equals, if that. No longer would someone wanting to shake the foundations of global power automatically strike at America. It’s a sobering thought, but perhaps somewhat reassuring.
H.W. Brands, Ph.D., is a presidential historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes A User’s Guide to History and is the author of “Woodrow Wilson” and other works of American history and foreign policy. Follow him on Twitter @hwbrands