As much as the last decade of the twentieth century had witnessed America’s dominion over the world, the first decade of the twenty first century witnessed America’s confusion in the world.

The attacks of 11 September 2001 on New York and Washington DC were a shock to the vast majority of Americans, not just because of the surprise factor of attacks on mainland America, and that they had come on some of America’s most iconic symbols of power; but at least equally because the attacks came after that decade of extreme American confidence that its ideas, ways of living, and notion of what human progress is and means, had won. To be attacked at home after a long moment of such assuredness was in itself an emotional bombshell.

America’s invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq were responses to that emotional blow, much more than calculated strategic moves. The ideas of the neo-conservatives who had dominated the strategic thinking of the George Bush II first administration were anchored on America’s dominion in the world, but they were no genuine innovations of the thought upon which that moment came about (discussed in the previous article in this series). The neo-conservatives wanted to push the envelope of America’s dominion, from capturing the imagination of the world and yielding immense soft power in the 1990s, to actually reshaping the politics of regions they deemed of strategic value to America to their liking. Their plans were a melange of idealism, hubris, ivory tower thinking, and lack of rigour.

The price was colossal – not just in terms of money. Hundreds of thousands of Americans came to engage in combat in distant lands for reasons that, with the passing of years and the erosion of the causes that were touted as the rationale of the invasions, were becoming increasingly vague. Inside America, this incurred a steep cost on the credibility of political machination.

The international price ranged from rejection to resistance. As the shock of the attacks on New York and Washington receded, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq descended into unending wars with no clear rationale or objectives, many of America’s allies, let alone its opponents, came out of the adulation of America of the previous decade.

“Old Europe” (a term that became popular those days) was the most paramount example. France and Germany saw in America’s insistence on its invasion of Iraq, in the face of acute reservations from their side, the blatant face of America’s dominion. At that moment in the first decade of the twenty first century, the seductive subtlety of America’s soft power was being ripped to pieces by the iron fist of an America that seemed directed by anger, naïveté, and often ignorance.

There is an argument that it was inevitable. Some observers invoked Lord Acton’s proverbial that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ about that moment in America’s history. In this view, America’s dominion over the world in the 1990s was necessarily going to attract rash characters to the circles of decision-making, and was necessarily going to yield excesses in the use of power. This is almost a law in history, to which all empires succumbed.

Indeed America’s resources in the first decade of the twenty first century seemed able to sustain any adventurism, to fund any conflict, and to impose by America’s dominion whatever America’s circles of power had decided to do. A period of economic growth, including because of the tremendous growth in China and rising oil prices, created a flurry of demand for American assets. Sovereign and institutional investors from many parts of the world were scrambling to buy American treasuries, acquire American real estate assets, and invest in America’s capital markets. This economic prominence resulted in the weakening of any checks on Washington DC’s machinations.

But the continuation of economic dominance in the first decade of the twenty first century was miles away from the infatuation that the world had had with the idea of America in the 1990s.

To a large extent, America squandered one of the most valuable prizes of its winning the Cold War: the acceptance of large sections in the world of America as the preeminent power, not only in international politics and economics, but also in setting the global agenda and creating the trends that grasp attention and shape thinking. By the late first decade of the twenty first century, gone was the fascination with America, the nation, the ideas, and the socioeconomic model. In the eyes of many, the city upon the hill has lost its glamour, and its light was no longer the guide to the future.

Alarmingly for America, the two decades in which America was mired in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - incurring colossal costs in manpower, dollars, political credibility, credence with allies, and equally important, in the diversion of attention – proved to be build up periods for the leading opponents to the America-led system that had emerged after the end of the Cold War, particularly China and Russia.

There are views in America that the US naively expected China and Russia to evolve their worldviews and with time embrace the liberal political and economic models of the US. A more sophisticated version of that argument says that America, in the historical moment following the end of the Cold War, engaged in inverse mirrored thinking. That is, America expected that its values would find their ways to the thinking of its ideological opponents.

These views are wrong. Inherent in the American strategy under the neo-conservatives was the assumption that the American model was vastly powerful, and innately superior, that its opponents would either fail or be compelled to adopt it. Paradoxically, this assumption was by far stronger in the 1990s when America relied on its soft power, than in the first decade of the twenty first century when the neo-conservatives’ America deployed hundreds of thousands of its troops in different countries in highly ambitious, effectively state-reshaping occupations.

The view about America’s opponents embracing its values was also wrong because it misjudged the challenge America was facing. The September 11 attacks, and subsequent militant Islamist terror acts in Europe, occupied America’s strategic thinking, at least in the circles that come under the limelight. A significant part of the justifications of the invasions, and later of the state-reshaping endeavours in Afghanistan and Iraq, were based on the idea of a global war on terror. For many observers, it seemed strange that the mightiest empire human history has ever known – commanding unparalleled military and technological capabilities - would be engaged for two decades in an all-consuming war on rag-tag groups of disparate men with hardly any access to real resources, and who were hiding in desolate mountains. It was one thing for America to be obsessed with that war for two decades; it was another to expect its strategic competitors – such as China – to have the same mindset, and to commit to the same war.

Perhaps there was also wishful thinking. America spent four decades engaged in a neck-breaking race with the Soviet Union, in which most of its state institutions, along with various parts of its economy, mobilised in that grand strategic confrontation. America wanted its moment of dominion, that in which it was convinced its ideas and model won, to last, largely to avoid entering into the mindset of a new strategic confrontation with new, serious competitors and opponents.

It took two decades for America to internalise the gravity of these strategic mistakes. Interestingly, the moment of reckoning came at the hands of a man with hardly any qualifications in foreign policy, as the next article in this series will discuss.