Taking a long backward look from the early twenty-first century, the United States, much more clearly than in 1945, was the world’s greatest power. For all the heavy weather of the 1970s and 1980s, and a cavalier piling up of public debt through budgetary deficit, its gigantic economy continued to show over the long run a huge dynamism and seemingly endless power to recover from setbacks. Its slowing of the economy as the 1990s drew to a close did not check this. For all the political conservatism which so often struck foreigners, the United States remained one of the most adaptive and rapidly changing societies in the world.

Yet as the last decade of the twentieth century began, so, still, were many old problems unresolved. Prosperity had made it easier for those Americans who did not have to face those problems in person to tolerate them but it had also actually provided fuel for the aspirations, fears and resentments of black Americans. This reflected the social and economic progress they had made since the Johnson presidency, the last that had seen a determined effort to legislate black America out of its troubles. Although the first black state governor in the nation’s history took up office in 1990, only a couple of years later the inhabitants of Watts, notorious for their riots a quarter-century before, again showed that they saw the Los Angeles police force as little more than members of an occupying army. Over the country as a whole, a young black male was seven times more likely than his white contemporary to be murdered, probably by a fellow black, and was more likely to go to prison than to a university. If nearly a quarter of American babies were then being born to unmarried mothers, then two-thirds of black babies were, an index of the breakdown of family life in the black American communities. Crime, major deteriorations in health in some areas, and virtually unpoliceable inner-city areas still left many responsible Americans believing that many American problems were racing away from solution.

In fact, some of the statistics were beginning to look better. If Bill Clinton (who took up the presidency in 1992) disappointed many of his supporters by the legislation he actually could deliver, the Republicans in Congress got much of the blame for that. Although, too, the burgeoning phenomenon of rapidly growing numbers of ‘Hispanic’ Americans, swollen by legal and illegal influx from Mexico and the Caribbean countries, worried many people, President Clinton set aside recommendations to restrict immigration further. The population of Hispanic ancestry had doubled in thirty years, and now stands at 11 per cent of the total. In California, the richest state, it provided a quarter of the population and a low-wage labour pool; even in Texas, Hispanics were beginning to use politics to make sure their interests were not overlooked. Meanwhile, in a modish figure of speech, Clinton could surf the economic wave. Disappointments in his domestic policy tended to be attributed by supporters to his opponents rather than to his own failures of leadership and excessive care for electoral considerations. Although the Democrats lost control of the legislature in 1994, his re-election in 1996 was triumphant, and success for his party in the midterm elections was to follow.

Nevertheless, Clinton’s second presidency was a disappointment. In his defence it can be said that he had at the outset inherited an office diminished in prestige and power since the Johnson days and the early Nixon years. The authority the presidency had accumulated under Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and during the early Cold War had swiftly and dramatically ebbed away after Nixon. But Clinton did nothing to stem the rot. Indeed, for many Americans he made it worse. His personal indiscretions laid him open to much-publicized and prolonged investigation of financial and sexual allegations, which led in 1999 to an unprecedented event: the hearing of charges by the Senate against an elected president with the aim of bringing about his impeachment (coincidentally, in that year an attempted impeachment of Boris Yeltsin also failed). Yet Clinton’s public opinion poll ratings stood higher as the hearings began than they had done a year earlier, and the impeachment attempt failed. Those who had voted for him were content, it seemed, with what he was believed to have tried to do, even if they were not oblivious to his defects of character.

As the Clinton presidencies unrolled, the United States had also come to appear to squander the possibilities of world leadership which had come with the end of the Cold War. Whatever the average reporting of American newspapers and television bulletins, there had seemed then to be for a moment some hope that traditional parochialism and isolationism might be permanently in eclipse. Concerns which required continuous and strenuous efforts by the United States in every part of the globe could hardly be ignored. They were indeed to loom larger still in the next ten years, but this was soon obscured by the ambiguities of American policy. This emerged, for instance, in the differences between its covert and overt operation in Bosnia, where Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims, and Bosnian Serbs with the support of the Serbian army, had been fighting for control since 1992; in the early 1990s, while there was official support from Washington for a UN arms embargo there, the CIA was supplying clandestine arms to Bosnian Muslims (at about the same time, it seems, as the Israeli government was giving help to the Bosnian Serbs).

Soon, the peace-keeping activities of the United Nations were troubling American policy. While the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of the UN in 1955 prompted Clinton to tell his countrymen that to turn their backs on the organization would be to ignore the lessons of history, his remarks were provoked by the action earlier that year of the lower house of the American Congress in proposing to cut the American contribution to the costs of UN peace-keeping - against a background, moreover, of American default on its subscriptions to the normal budget of the UN amounting to over 270 million dollars (nine-tenths of the total arrears from all nations which were owed to the organization).

Uncertainty about the international role of the USA was, therefore, only too apparent by the middle of the decade. The secretary-general of the UN had even in 1994 felt obliged to point out that it should not be thought of primarily as a peace-keeping organization, but by then divisions between member countries were only too clearly a source of weakness and embarrassment. United States policy seemed to reach a turning point with the collapse of a UN intervention in Somalia in 1993 which had led to casualties among UN forces taking part, and to spectacular television footage of the maltreatment of the bodies of American servicemen by enraged and exultant Somalis. Soon, the refusal of American participation or support to UN intervention in the African states of Burundi and Rwanda showed what disastrous consequences could flow from American refusal to participate, or to permit forceful intervention with ground forces, in peacekeeping, let alone peace-making. In these two small countries, each ethnically bitterly divided for generations into a ruling minority and a subject majority, the outcome in 1995-6 was genocidal massacre. Over 600,000 were killed and millions (out of a total population of only about thirteen million for both countries together) were driven into exile as refugees. It seemed the UN could do nothing if Washington would not move.

Nor did it seem that anyone else’s peace-keeping was very effective. NATO land intervention (without American participation) was soon to reveal in Bosnia that ‘safe’ areas for civilian populations could not be successfully protected against atrocity and massacre. The French, Dutch and British land forces sent there by the UN to keep the peace were ineffectual, their powerlessness vividly shown in July 1995 when Serbian forces took away 7000 Muslim males from the supposedly safe enclave of Srebrenica to be slaughtered in cold blood. This, though, at last persuaded the American government to authorize and provide NATO air strikes on Serbia, a release from inhibition which opened the way to the withdrawal of Serbia’s forces and to an agreement to partition Bosnia. By then, though, 200,000 had died there (the Red Cross later named 14,000 Muslim men who had disappeared without trace) and the UN peace-keeping budget was in ruins.

There was by then much debate among scholars, journalists and politicians about what the world role of the United States should be, about what the state of the Union was, about the proper use of American power and the ends to which it should be applied, and even about potential wars of civilizations. Meanwhile, American diplomacy appeared to cling to old moralistic ideas that war-making was not justifiable except in the alleged defence of democratic values, and to be confused both by the seeming divergence from time to time of the goals of some of its executive agencies and by a wish to avoid above all any loss of American servicemen’s lives.

Among new international problems to be faced was the appearance of new potential sources of nuclear danger. North Korea’s modest nuclear programme in 1993-4 showed (and the Indian and Pakistani tests of 1998 reaffirmed) that the United States was now one of several of a slowly growing group of nuclear-armed states (seven openly acknowledged and two others not), whatever its huge superiority in delivery systems and potential weight of attack. America had no reason any longer to believe (as had sometimes been possible in the past) that all of these states would make rational calculations about where their interests lay. But this was only one new consideration in policy-making after the end of the Cold War.

In the Middle East, early in the 1990s American financial pressure over the spread of Jewish settlement on the West Bank looked for a time as if it might persuade the Israeli government, harassed by the intifada and its accompanying terrorism, that a merely military solution to the Palestine problem was not going to work. Then, after great efforts, helped by the benevolent offices of the Norwegian government, secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian representatives at Oslo in 1993 at last led to an encouraging new departure. The two sides then declared that it was time ‘to put an end to decades of confrontation and conflict, recognize ... mutual legitimate and political rights, and strive to live in peaceful coexistence’. It was agreed that an autonomous Palestinian Authority (firmly defined as ‘interim’) should be set up to administer the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that a definitive peace settlement should be concluded within five years. This appeared to promise greater stability for the Middle East as a whole; it gave the Palestinians their first significant diplomatic gains. But, the continuing implanting of new Israeli settlements in areas occupied by Israeli forces soon poisoned the atmosphere again. Optimism began to wilt when there was no cessation of terrorist attacks or of reprisals for them. Arab bombs in the streets of Israeli cities killed and maimed scores of shoppers and passers-by, while a Jewish gunman who killed thirty Palestinians in their mosque at Hebron won posthumous applause from many of his countrymen for doing so. Even so, hope lingered on; Syria, Jordan and the Lebanon all resumed peace negotiations with Israel, and a beginning was in fact made in the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the designated autonomous Palestinian areas. Then, in November 1995, came the assassination of the Israeli prime minister by a fanatical fellow countryman. The following year, a conservative prime minister, dependent on the parliamentary support of Jewish extremist parties, took office. His popular majority was tiny, but it was clear that, for the immediate future at least, it was unlikely that anything but an aggressive policy of further territorial settlement by Israel would be forthcoming and that the Oslo agreements must now be regarded as in question. The new Israeli elections were disastrous for those who hoped for more. Soon, as so often in the past, the United States was supporting Israel virtually alone in the UN against resolutions of the Security Council and the General Assembly. The discontent of Palestinians had meanwhile erupted in new violence (this, in fact, powerfully contributed to the electoral success of Israel’s hard-liners). Americans were evidently doing no better than other outsiders to the region in grappling with the consequences of the creation of the Zionist programme a century earlier, and the Balfour declaration of 1917.

Nor did United States policy in the Persian Gulf provide lasting solutions there. Sanctions authorized by the UN did no good in Iran or Iraq, and patient and assiduous effort by the latter had by the mid-1990s to all intents and purposes broken any chance of maintaining the broad-based coalition of 1991 against it. Saddam’s government seemed untroubled by the sanctions; they bore heavily on his subjects, but could be tempered by the smuggling of commodities the regime desired. Iraq was still a large oil exporter and revenues from this source made possible some restoration of its military potential, while no effective inspection of the country’s production of weapons of mass destruction, as ordered by the United Nations, was taking place. American policy was as far as ever from achieving its own revolutionary and evident goal of overthrowing the regime, even when (supported only by the British) it fell back again for four nights in December 1998 on open aerial warfare, to no avail. Nor did it help American prestige when suspicion arose that the timing of the bombing offensive might have some connection with a wish to distract attention from the impeachment proceedings about to begin in Washington.

The year 1998 had begun with President Clinton stressing in his State of the Union message that domestic conditions indicated that these were ‘good times’ for Americans, but this was not proving true in foreign affairs. In August, American embassies were attacked by Muslim terrorists in both Kenya and Tanzania, with major loss of life. Within a couple of weeks there was an American reply in the form of missile attacks on alleged terrorist bases in Afghanistan and the Sudan (where the factory attacked was said to have been preparing weapons for germ warfare, a charge whose credibility rapidly faded). The embassy bombings were both linked by Bill Clinton to the mysterious figure of Osama bin Laden, a Saudi extremist, in a speech which also alleged that there was ‘compelling’ evidence that further attacks against United States citizens were planned. The effect of these assertions was weakened both by the evident failure of the missile strikes and the suspicion aroused in some quarters that the president was pleased to be able to find an issue which diverted attention from the investigations to which his own conduct was at that moment subjected in Washington. When, in November, a Manhattan federal Grand Jury indicted Osama bin Laden and an associate on over 200 charges relating to the embassy attacks, as well as to other attacks on American service personnel and an abortive bombing in 1993 of the World Trade Center in New York, it caused no surprise when he failed to appear in court to answer them. It was believed bin Laden was hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the fiercely Islamic and radical Taliban regime, which had dominated that country since the expulsion of Soviet forces.

Meanwhile, in the same year in the Far East, American diplomats cherished hopes that another presidential visit to China in the summer might bring about a change for the better. Yet in the middle of the Gulf crisis of the following December China attacked American policy strongly in the Security Council and the Chinese press spoke of the USA’s ‘hegemonic menace’. Clearly, something was going wrong. In the background, no doubt, was Beijing’s irritation over nagging about human rights, and over Clinton’s 1996 despatch of aircraft carriers to the China Sea when tension over Taiwan erased the effect of mollifying words the previous year. By 1999, too, the Chinese were confronted by what they believed to be his efforts to stop them joining the World Trade Organisation, which had been set up in 1996. Then, suddenly, matters got far worse.

As 1999 began, Kosovo was at the centre of the troubles of former Yugoslavia. When spring passed into summer, a strategic commitment at last undertaken in March to a purely air campaign by NATO forces (but carried out mainly by Americans and British) against Serbia appeared to be achieving little except a stiffening of its people’s will to resist and an increase in the flow of refugees from Kosovo. The Russians were alarmed by NATO action, unsupported as it was by UN authorization, and felt it ignored their traditional interest in the area. The casualties inflicted on civilians - both Serbian and Kosovan - were soon causing misgivings in domestic opinion within the nineteen NATO nations, while the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, had apparently had his confidence increased by Bill Clinton’s assurance that there would be no NATO land invasion. What was going forward was indeed unusual: the armed coercion of a sovereign European state because of its behaviour to its own citizens.

Meanwhile, over three-quarters of a million Kosovan refugees crossed the frontier in search of safety in Macedonia and Albania, bringing horrifying stories of atrocities and intimidation by Serbs. It appeared that it was the deliberate intention of the Belgrade government to empty the province of the non-Serb majority. Then came a disastrous mishap. Acting on out-of-date information - and therefore in avoidable error - American aircraft scored direct hits on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing members of its staff. Beijing refused even to listen to the apology Clinton attempted to give. An orchestrated television campaign had already presented the Chinese people with an interpretation of the whole NATO intervention as a simple act of American aggression. Well-organized student mobs now attacked the American and British embassies in Beijing (though without going quite so far as the extremes experienced during the Cultural Revolution). Conveniently (the ten-year anniversary of Tiananmen Square was coming up), student steam was thus let off in anti-foreigner riots.

The depth of Chinese concern about America’s world role can hardly be doubted, nor that China’s involvement, like Russia’s, in the Kosovo crisis was likely to make it harder for NATO to achieve its aims. The Chinese were strong believers in the veto system of the Security Council, seeing it as protection for the sovereignty of individual nations. They were also disinclined to view with sympathy would-be Kosovan separatists, sensitive as they had always been to any danger of fragmentation in their own huge country. In the deep background, too, must have lain thoughts of reassertion of their own historic world role, as well as the specific irritations of recent years. For a century after the Opium Wars, after all, China had never been without the humiliation of European and United States troops assuring ‘order’ in several of her cities. Perhaps it had crossed the minds of some Chinese that it would be a sweet reversal of fortunes if Chinese soldiers should in the end form part of a peace-keeping force in Europe.

Thanks to the American president’s wish to avoid at all costs the exposure of ground troops to danger, just as Bosnia had destroyed the credibility of the United Nations as a device for assuring international order, it now appeared that Kosovo might destroy that of NATO. Early in June, however, it appeared that the damage done by bombing, together with timely Russian efforts to mediate, and British pressure for a land invasion by NATO forces, was at last weakening the will of the Serbian government. In June, after mediation in which the Russian government took part, it was agreed that a NATO land force should enter Kosovo in a ‘peace-keeping’ role. Serbian forces then withdrew from Kosovo and the province was occupied by NAT O. It was not the end of the troubles of the former Yugoslav federation. Two years later, NATO soldiers were still there, as they were also in Macedonia, where a breakaway Albanian rebellion was in full swing. But by then there had been a notable change of mood and of government in Belgrade and the former Serbian president had been arrested and handed over to a new international court at the Hague, which had begun to try offenders against international law on war crimes and other charges.

As Clinton’s presidency moved towards its close, he at different times asserted the need to reverse the decline in defence spending, indicated that the proposals for imposing limits on the emission of industrial gases damaging to the climate were unacceptable, and strove to reassure China by efforts to secure normal trading relations with her; China was to secure admission to the World Trade Organisation, in fact, in 2001. The Republican candidate in the presidential election of 2000, George W. Bush, emphasized in his successful campaign his anxiety to avoid the use of American troops on peace-keeping duties abroad and that he would authorize the building of a Nuclear Missile Defence system to protect the United States against ‘rogue’ powers armed with such missiles. There was just a hint in the air that promotion of a pax Americana might be giving way to the construction of Fortress America. Perhaps it was too soon to speak of a resurgence of historic isolationism, but earlier editions of this book have ended with the observation that we shall always find what happens somewhat surprising, because things tend to change on the one hand more slowly and on the other more rapidly than we tend to think. That seemed to be as true as ever - when tragic events on 11 September 2001 changed things anew.

On the morning of that day, four airliners travelling on scheduled flights within the United States were hijacked in flight by persons of Islamic or Middle Eastern background and origin. Without attempting, as had frequently been the case in similar acts of air piracy, to ask for ransoms or to make public statements about their goals, the terrorists diverted the aircraft and, in a combination of suicide and murder, flew two of them into the huge towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, and another into the Pentagon building in Washington, the heart of American military planning and administration. The fourth crashed in open country, apparently forced down by the heroic efforts of some of its passengers to overcome the terrorists who had seized it. No one in any of the aircraft survived, the damage was immense in both the cities (above all New York) and 3000 people perished, many of them not Americans.

It was immediately apparent that it would take time to discover the full truth about these tragedies, but the immediate reaction of the American government was to attribute responsibility in a general sense to extremist Islamic terrorists, and President Bush announced an implicitly worldwide war against the abstraction ‘terrorism’. More particularly, Osama bin Laden was to be hunted down and brought to justice. In a sense, though, individual responsibility for 11 September was not the most important immediate consideration. Much more important was the excitement which erupted worldwide on the general relationship of Muslim radicalism - and perhaps of Islam itself - to such an atrocity. Because of this, the effects of what had happened were potentially even more important than the misery and terror they had brought to thousands and the physical and economic damage caused. A few such effects were immediately apparent in isolated anti-Muslim acts in several countries.

It rapidly became a cliche that everything had been changed by the events of 11 September. This, of course, was an exaggeration. For all the eventual repercussions of what followed, many historical processes went on unaltered in many parts of the world. But the effect of the attacks was, undoubtedly, galvanic, and it made much evident that had only been implicit. Immediately and obviously, a huge shock had been given to the American consciousness. It was not to be measured only by the remarkable rallying of public opinion behind the president’s categorization of what had happened as the beginning of a ‘war’ - though one with no precisely identified enemy - nor, even, by the transformation of the political position of the new President, George Bush, which, at the beginning of the year, after a disputed election, had been questioned by many. It was clear now that his countrymen felt again something of the national rage and unity that had followed the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly sixty years before. The United States had endured terrorist attacks at home and abroad for twenty years. The tragedy of 11 September, though, was wholly unprecedented in scale and, unhappily, suggested that other atrocities might be on the way. It was not surprising that Bush felt he could respond to a democracy’s outrage in strong language and that the country overwhelmingly fell into line behind him.

It soon seemed likely that to the apprehension and bringing to trial of the shadowy figure of bin Laden would be added the aim of removing by force the threat of the ‘rogue states’ whose assistance to terrorism was presumed to have been available and essential. The practical implications of this went far beyond the preparation of conventional military efforts, and began immediately with a vigorous and worldwide diplomatic offensive to obtain moral support and practical assistance. This was remarkably successful. Not all governments responded with equal enthusiasm, but almost all responded positively, including those of some Islamic states and, more important still, Russia and China. The Security Council found no difficulty in expressing its unanimous sympathy; the NATO powers recognized their responsibilities to come to the assistance of an ally under attack.

Just as in the days of the Holy Alliance after the Napoleonic Wars Europe’s conservative powers had been haunted by the nightmare of conspiracy and revolution, in the weeks after the hijackings, there was an alarming hint of a similar exaggerated fear of Islamic terrorism. That what had happened had been carefully and cleverly planned, there could be no doubt. But little was actually known about what the organizing powers really were and what were their ramifications and extent. It did not, at first sight, seem plausible that merely the work of one man could explain these acts. But neither could it be plausibly argued that the world was entering upon a struggle of civilizations, although some said so.

That United States policy abroad - above all, in support of Israel - had given much encouragement to the growth of anti-American feeling in Arab countries could not be doubted, even if that was a new idea for many Americans. There was widespread resentment, too, of the offensive blatancy with which American communications had thrust manifestations of an insensitive capitalist culture on sometimes poverty-stricken countries. In some places what could be regarded as American armies of occupation, guests rarely welcomed in any country, could be depicted as the upholders of corrupt regimes. But none of this could plausibly add up to a crusade against Islamic peoples any more than could the immense variety of Islamic civilization be seen as a monolithic opponent of a monolithic West. What soon was achieved was the removal of the hostile Taliban regime in Kabul, Afghanistan, by a combination of the efforts of its local and indigenous enemies and American bombing, technology and special forces. By the end of 2001 there was a new Afghan state formally in being, resourceless and dangerously divided into the fiefs of warlords and tribal enclaves though it seemed, and the Americans could begin withdrawing, leaving a UN force as a temporary prop to it. Elsewhere, the consequences of the ill-defined war on terrorism complicated events in Palestine. Arab states showed no willingness to cease to support the Palestinians when Israel attacked them invoking the crusade against international terrorism. As 2002 began, there was no sign that the United States could or would try to restrain its unruly ally. There could be no doubt, though, for all the old quarrels still alive in many parts of the world, that another unique historical moment had occurred in September. The United States plainly exercised the first global hegemony in history. What she might do with it remained to be seen.

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