From the AICGS Bookshelf: Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order
At a time when there is a ferocious debate over the global role and responsibility of the United States, there is a benefit to looking back on the course of history and how American foreign policy has evolved over the past century. From a limited engagement in World War I through the next ten decades, the U.S. went through periods of engagement, disengagement, ferocious military responses to global threats, and a desire to reap the benefits of a peace dividend. The debate was driven by real and perceived dangers as well as events which no one could easily foresee. Yet embedded in that debate were competing versions of how America might best exercise leadership on the global stage.
Mixed in to that debate were predictions—from friend and foe—of America’s decline. That occurred in particular around the 1970s, as it does now.
Forty years ago, it appeared to many that the U.S. was losing the Cold War amid a major Soviet military buildup and a string of Kremlin advances — and American defeats — in the Third World.
U.S. economic hegemony was being challenged in Western Europe and Japan, and oil shortages seem to symbolize vulnerabilities. But two decades later, the United States could call itself the victor of the Cold War. It began an era of unipolarity in which America emerged as the world’s sole superpower with unlimited military, economic, and diplomatic power and influence.
With Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order, Hal Brands has written a book that tells the story of how that happened. His message is that it is not attributed solely to the genius of American diplomats or to the structural changes occurring around the world. Indeed, it required both—with a dose of good luck as well. Brand extracts the combination of structural changes in the Cold War framework, most especially the gradual implosion of the Soviet Union, running parallel to the forces of globalization which were advantageous to the U.S. economy as it thrived in that expanding arena. Then he adds some smart strategic thinkers—capable of both great insights as well as a good deal of mistakes—to this mix. But it all led to a unipolar moment in the 1990s.
Brands credits the Reagan administration with this accomplishment in getting the formula right on the whole. He takes the reader through the period of engagement in Latin and South America and the Middle East during a time when the international economy was evolving into a more open, market-oriented order and the forces behind the cracking of the Cold War structure increased.
The high watermark was to come at the end of the 1980s when the George H. W. Bush administration saw the end of the Cold War coming and was able to steer the forces in a direction that established the basis for U.S. primacy. Nothing demonstrated that better than the process through which German unification was achieved. That section of the book is particularly revealing as to how the combination of strategic long-term thinking and opportunity led to a Europe whole and free—without firing a shot.
Brands points out that success also brings with it vulnerabilities. The questions that confronted the United States at that time revolved around the decision to set a goal for the U.S. to remain the dominant power. But that question was to be answered over the next two decades. The unipolar moment would not last long, and its end would bring with it a new set of dangers.
The lessons Brands leaves us contemplating are those that confront all policymakers. How does one identify the best equation between choice and circumstance? What is the right fit between strategy and conditions and how quickly does one need to adapt? Brand cites James Baker, Secretary State in the first Bush administration, who offers up a diplomatic conclusion: “Almost every great achievement has the seeds of a future problem.”
Certainly the great achievement of German unification is an illustration of that dilemma. Brands writes “Life in a more open world carried liabilities as well as benefits, a fact that would become all the more salient as the post-Cold War era progressed.”
And yet it would be improbable to argue that German unification, even if it was not inevitable, was certainly a product of that moment when structural change along with strategic insights opened a door that many felt would be closed—if not locked—forever.
And it is for that reason that Brands rightfully includes the famous citation of Otto von Bismarck “the best a statesman can do is listen to the footsteps of God, get hold of the hem of His cloak, and walk with Him a few steps of the way.”