American Power in the Rearview Mirror and on the Road Ahead

August 18, 2016

Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Cornell University Press, 2016).


In life as well as policy, knowing how you got to where you are helps you figure out where you where you want to go. This is especially true at critical junctures when big decisions need to be made about which direction to head. We are at one of those juncture’s today.

Just before reading Hall Brands’ Making the Unipolar Moment: US Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order, I read Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune and Survival in the Age of Networks. Ramo cites longtime Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Ha on the difference between Western and Chinese approaches as, respectively, either starting with the objectives (“What do they aim to achieve?”) or the context (“What is the nature of the age?”).

That rang true with much of my own experience in the D.C. policy world. The former gets asked much more than the latter. Lay those objectives out, clean and bullet-pointed, and make sure the memo or the task force report makes the case for why they are important objectives.

To the extent that strategic context is raised, the prevalent view continues to be America-centric.  Conservative internationalists stress the independence of American power. Liberal internationalists tilt more to collective action and rules-based order but here too with American power as the principal factor shaping the world.  “Leadership” may be the most over-used and under-defined word in the American foreign policy lexicon. Even Trump’s America First-ism is, in its own way, America-centric: The United States has the power to do what it wants to do, he tells us, impose costs on others, and still be secure largely through its own ways and means.

But what is the nature of our age? Is the world structurally still unipolar? Are we entering a new age of ideology? How much is shaped by states, by non-state actors, and by networks? Is economic dynamism still going to come from the West, or is it shifting eastward and southward? Does the post-World War II international institutional structure fit the 21st century distribution of power and interests?

Then in that context what are U.S. interests? And then in that context what is the optimal “grand strategy”? How should the United States combine deterrence and reassurance in relations with Russia and China? How should Washington calibrate the host of factors that go into Middle East policy? What is the optimal cyber strategy? What really is required to help build capable states?  How should we move from the “ought” to the “is” of multilateral cooperation? How can America break out of the old free trade-protectionism dichotomy for international economic policy? What about the “witch’s brew” of societal forces that manifest as Trumpism, Brexit, and other shouts of crisis in Western democracies?

These are not just questions for academics to explore. They are as relevant to foreign policy as strategic global market analysis is to major corporations. Setting objectives without examining the fundamentals of context and structure makes success all the harder. There always will be the proverbial black swans and other unpredictable and uncontrollable factors, but without a working framework there is that much more that is left contingent, uncoordinated, and ad hoc.

This effective linking of objectives and context was how and why, as Hal Brands shows, U.S. foreign policy went from disarray in the 1970s to successes by the late 1980s and 1990s. In his previous book, What Good is Grand Strategy, Brands established his approach as bringing together structure and strategy, the nature of the international system and the policy choices made – terms akin to our objectives-context. Among the kudos that book received were for bridging the tendency of international relations scholars to stay heavily at the system level and historians to stick too much to the individual level of analysis.

Before I go on, you should know that Hal Brands and I were colleagues at Duke for a number of years. He recently left us to accept a position at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I don’t go easy on Hal because of the former, nor lash out because of the latter.

His new book, as the “Making” in the title stresses, posits the rise of unipolarity as “not a discrete event, but rather a historical process, one that drew on long-term structural change as well as calculated U.S. strategy” [emphasis original]. The 1970s were marked by American foreign policy setbacks, true, but Brands also finds “the roots of resurgence” in that troubled decade. The Vietnam War was a major defeat, Marxism was spreading to Africa, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and yet it was the Soviets who were about to enter into decline. Iran had its Islamic Revolution, Nicaragua its Sandinista insurgency, and yet various forces were taking shape that would fuel a vast expansion of democracy. The trade balance dipped into deficit for the first time since 1893, the OPEC-induced oil crisis paralyzed the American economy, stagflation set in, and yet globalization was taking shape in ways highly conducive to revitalized American economic predominance.

Somewhat consciously and somewhat by feel, the Reagan administration and to an extent the Bush 41 administration had a sense for these underlying forces shaping the strategic context and devised good-fit strategies. Thus the successes and the making of that unipolar moment. As the exceptional diplomatic historian that he is, Brands shows how this was done in great and well-researched detail. Thanks to his fluid writing and keen analysis, it holds together as a cohesive account, while offering insights new even to those already familiar with the period.

Listen to the War on the Rocks podcast with Hal Brands.

Still, I have two main concerns, one about how structure is defined and the other about assessment of the strategy.

On the first, where is the system-shaping role of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union? Gorbachev is relegated (to go very political science-y for a second) to dependent variable status. Brands characterizes him as “innovative.” It is acknowledged that as a leader interested in domestic reform and Cold War thaw, “Gorbachev’s ascension was absolutely indispensable to the process.” But Brands’ main view remains that “if Gorbachev wanted détente . . . Reagan’s policies were a key reason why.”

There is no question that things were bad in the Soviet Union, but they weren’t so bad that some other leader could not have kept trying to just get by. Oxford’s Archie Brown is quite definitive: No “politically conceivable alternative candidate for the General Secretary-ship in the mid-1980s would have acted in the same way.” The intra-Kremlin mood was to just ride out Reagan’s second term. But Gorbachev took the initiative and made the choices, to turn around Margaret Thatcher’s phrase, in order to see if Ronald Reagan was someone he could do business with.

Consider some of the key policy issues: Even if the Soviets couldn’t match the Strategic Defense Initiative technology on which the United States was seeking to rapidly push ahead, they could develop asymmetric countermeasures with decoys and chaff that would significantly reduce American confidence in the reliability of its defensive shield.  For Gorbachev, there was a larger vision of how nuclear disarmament would make both sides more secure and the world more peaceful.

On Afghanistan, where Soviet troops were mired in a failed intervention, it is true that U.S. aid made the Afghan mujahedeen deadlier and the conflict worse. But the oft-celebrated decision to supply the rebels with Stingers was not made until 1985 and they weren’t operational until spring 1987. By that time, the Soviet withdrawal decision chain was well on its way. Nor were these weapons as effective as the popular narrative suggests. Citing countermeasures such as decoys and evasive flight maneuvers as well as diversion by Pakistan to their own favored groups who were not always the most effective fighters, the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly assessed their impact as “a mixed bag at best.”

On the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which Brands assesses as largely a U.S. victory, Gorbachev’s purposes also were served in three key ways. First, the weapons he gave up were targeted at U.S. allies, while the weapons the United States gave up were targeted at the Soviet Union itself, which helped with his hawks at home. Second, it reinforced his overall European strategy of gaining support, acceptance, and cooperation. Third, the very willingness to make concessions substantiated how serious he was about broader nuclear arms control.

To be sure, one could make similar criticisms of books that focus only or predominantly on the Soviet side. We all take our particular lens. It is hard to be fully comprehensive. But focusing too much on the American side can take away from lessons to be drawn for the current U.S. foreign policy debate, reinforcing that tendency to hone in on objectives without first considering context.

My second concern is the book’s overall assessment for the Reagan strategy. While stopping well short of Reagan hagiography and Cold War triumphalism, the book offers useful corrective of those who, whether for reasons intellectual or political, are indisposed to giving Reagan’s foreign policy the credit it is due. But  some credit is mis-allocated, some risks undervalued, and some costs discounted. The over-crediting includes policies Congress largely forced on the Reagan administration on El Salvador, the Philippines, and South Africa. The undervaluing of risks includes those run by the super-hawkishness of the early 1980s, including the nuclear war scare precipitated by the November 1983 Able Archer exercise. Terming an unstable Afghanistan left behind and other factors that led to 9/11 “problematic residues” too heavily discounts the costs that later came due.

As to where we are now, Brands demurs. In the closing paragraph he both says the world is still a unipolar one and questions whether we are. This is fine for the purposes of this book, which ends its account with the dawn of the unipolar moment. One can be sure, given Brands’ productivity, another will follow, whether on this topic or another, surely adding to our understanding of crucial aspects and periods of diplomatic history.

But after setting this book aside, we can’t demur. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, 15 years since 9/11, with globalization posing new challenges and with history proving again that it’s not over or dead, American foreign policy needs to be better grounded in an understanding of where we are if we are to have a sound strategy guiding where we next need to go.


Bruce W. Jentleson, the 2015-16 Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Kluge Center in the Library of Congress, is Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University. His next book, Transformational Statesmanship: Difficult, Possible, Necessary, will be published by W.W. Norton in 2017.

Image: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library