Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post–Cold War Order

An F/A-18E Super Hornet participates in an air power demonstration over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. Flickr/U.S. Navy

An excerpt from Hal Brands's new book.

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post–Cold War Order by Hal Brands, published by Cornell University Press. © 2016. All rights reserved.

Ronald Reagan became president at a critical juncture in U.S. foreign policy. As we have seen, America had absorbed blow after blow to its global position during the 1970s, fostering a widespread sense that the country was in inexorable decline. Amid the tumult and pessimism, however, several key trends were converging to create new sources of U.S. advantage and new openings for perceptive statecraft. The question of the 1980s, then, was whether American officials could turn structural opportunity into successful strategy—whether they could devise policies that would harness the positive trends, reverse recent setbacks, and mold the global environment in ways that accentuated U.S. influence and power.

The answer was hardly obvious when Reagan took office. Although he had deftly exploited Carter’s failings during the 1980 campaign, Reagan was not generally regarded as an incisive strategist when he arrived in Washington. Rather, Reagan’s apparent inattention to detail, his ideological and even Manichean rhetoric, and his attraction to simple solutions for complicated problems all caused many critics to view him as unsophisticated at best and downright dangerous at worst. Throw in his advanced age and his Hollywood background, and some of Reagan’s own advisers were initially skeptical. “When I first met Reagan,” said Paul Nitze, a top arms-control official during the 1980s, “I thought he was just a born loser.” One historian of this period has rendered an equally severe judgment, calling Reagan a “ceremonial monarch” with “limited knowledge of what was going on in the outside world.”

Appearances can deceive, however, and Reagan was actually well equipped for the challenges he faced. The president had good strategic instincts, in that he possessed an intuitive ability to get to the heart of difficult issues, and a keen sense of how individual policies related to broader designs. Reagan, one adviser recalled, had “this marvelous ability to work the whole while everybody else is working the parts.” He also had the confidence to think big—to challenge prevailing orthodoxies and chart potentially groundbreaking courses of action. Reagan’s “strongest qualities,” George Shultz later wrote, included “an ability to break through the entrenched thinking of the moment to support his vision of a better future, a spontaneous, natural ability to articulate the nation’s most deeply rooted values and aspirations, and a readiness to stand by his vision regardless of pressure, scorn, or setback.” Moreover, while Reagan was no master of detail, he had spent nearly two decades prior to 1980 speaking and thinking about the central problems of U.S. diplomacy. This sustained intellectual engagement allowed Reagan to develop many core principles of his foreign policy before becoming president; it also gave him a firmer grasp of key geopolitical issues than many of his contemporaries realized.

Most important of all, Reagan possessed an unshakable faith in America’s national potential. To be sure, Reagan had frequently deplored the state of the country during the 1970s, and he was alarmed by many of the threats at hand. “Our nation is in danger, and the danger grows greater with each passing day,” he declared in 1976. Yet at a deeper level, Reagan firmly believed that the United States possessed immense and enduring strengths, from the dynamism of its economy, to the resilience of its political system, to the force of its ideological example. “It is important every once in a while to remind ourselves of our accomplishments lest we let someone talk us into throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” he said. Throughout the 1970s, Reagan thus took issue with those “who think we are over the hill & headed for the dustbin of history,” arguing that the country’s best days and greatest glories were ahead of it. This essential optimism pervaded his later conduct as president, and it left him well suited to pursue the sort of ambitious—even transformational—endeavors that ongoing global changes were now making possible. “Let us begin an era of national renewal,” he declared in his inaugural address. “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”

Nowhere, in Reagan’s view, was the imperative of such renewal greater than in superpower relations. Reagan had long seen the Cold War as an all-encompassing conflict between freedom and darkness, and he was as worried as anyone about the course of that contest in the 1970s. “If present trends continue,” he said in 1978, “the United States will be assigned a role of permanent military inferiority vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.” Reagan feared that adverse trends in the nuclear balance would soon give Moscow the chance to coerce and intimidate the West; he was equally troubled by recent Marxist victories in the Third World and by America’s apparent inability to respond effectively. The Soviets were becoming bolder by the day, he believed, and U.S. passivity would invite disaster. “The Soviets have spoken as plainly as Hitler did in ‘Mein Kampf,’” he said shortly becoming president. “They have spoken world domination—at what point do we dig in our heels?”