Making the Unipolar Moment

On October 11, 2016, the FPI Center for Military and Diplomatic History hosted a book event for Dr. Hal Brands on Capitol Hill. Dr. Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), spoke about his newest book “Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order.” FPI Intern Oliver Thomas summarizes key points presented by Dr. Brands during the event.

During the late 1970s, the United States seemed a superpower in decay. Apprehension over a shifting world order, a string of foreign policy setbacks, and a sluggish economy left many Americans pessimistic about U.S. superpower standing in the world. In hindsight, these worries were unfounded. During the ensuing period, American strategists judged international tides effectively and harnessed the power of liberalism to prevail over the Soviet Union. Tracing American foreign policy from the 1970s to the early 1990s offers reassurance in our own age of uncertainty.

The end of World War II saw America assume a position of global supremacy. European and Asian economies remained in shambles, their infrastructure in ruins, while the U.S. economy emerged largely unscathed, enabling the United States to construct a vast sphere of global influence. With the world’s largest economy and military force, America sought to marshal its strength and that of its allies against the USSR. Facing an emerging communist threat, the U.S. expanded and bolstered economic development in Third World states, seeking to blunt Soviet encroachment. But by the late 60s and early 70s, international trends had shifted against the U.S. OPEC nations challenged U.S. influence, sparking an American oil crisis. Communist insurgencies bedeviled American allies in the third world. American preeminence appeared to slipping away.

Though America perceived itself as a declining superpower in the late 1970s, the Soviet Union faced far more serious problems. Soviet economic stagnation and popular protests in Poland undermined the Kremlin’s ability to maintain influence in the periphery. Under the Reagan administration, the United States adapted to the international structural changes and exploited the vulnerabilities of the Soviet Union. Reagan provided support to anti-communist movements, engaged in diplomacy with Gorbachev, and, in concert with Congress, promoted human rights. Reagan’s hard line, soft touch foreign policy gave the U.S. leverage over a Soviet state in systemic crisis. Though his foreign political success came with a mounting fiscal deficit and varying degrees of resentment from some of the world’s least developed countries, the fundamental systemic shifts largely benefited U.S. and international growth. The late 1980s thus set the stage for a Post-Cold War order under American preeminence. 

Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, inherited a number of unintended, residual problems as part of global reform. Bush led the U.S. campaign for democracy promotion abroad in the renewed, unipolar era. Operations in Latin America, East Asia and South Africa came with mixed results, spurring from morally ambiguous intervention. Still, U.S. statecraft ultimately propelled numerous countries toward democratic liberalization and stability. Thus, both Reagan and Bush set a precedent by enumerating the central goals of American foreign policy going forward into the twenty-first century.

The growing neoliberal order also contributed to American supremacy. Reagan’s economic policy reinvigorated the U.S. economy, cutting inflation and reducing government intervention. Infusing free market values into American foreign policy, the Reagan administration hoped to refute the ideological premises behind communist protectionism. During the late 80s and early 90s, the Soviet Union felt the corroding effects of its stagnant market and civil unrest as the Cold War came to an end. The fall of the USSR established American ideological, economic, military, and diplomatic unipolarity.

Underpinning the American rise to primacy was the ability of the Reagan and Bush administrations to anticipate the world’s structural shifts while implementing sound strategic policy in support of American geopolitical interests. Today’s policy makers can better analyze deep trends within the international order by applying historical thinking to long term change over time. Assessment of U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy with a historical lens reveals a longstanding underestimation of America’s resilience and ability to read the international climate. The United States’ rise to power cannot be encapsulated in one event. America faced and overcame numerous challenges, many of which were comparatively worse than today’s. Moreover, American preponderance of power is fundamentally multidimensional, complex and a product of historical transformation. Contemporary threats born of Reagan’s and Bush’s policies are reflective of the double edge sword forged in American primacy. Therefore, homing in on the nexus between structural opportunity and strategy provides the key to understanding American foreign policy success, ascendancy and adaptation.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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