- - Monday, October 10, 2016



By Hal Brands

Cornell University Press, $29.95, 469 pages

The classic symptom of bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, is chronic mood swings. A bipolar personality bounces helplessly back and forth between what economist Alan Greenspan once called “irrational exuberance” and mindless, hopeless despair. Something like that occurred during the Cold War. Through most of the era, the world’s geopolitical compass was subject to the conflicting magnetic pulls of two poles represented by two rival superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Successful Soviet power surges led to deepening pessimism and disarray in the democratic West while evidence of Soviet weakness and decay, especially on the economic front, triggered outbursts of overconfidence and smug gloating in the Free World.

Detente, as conceived by President Richard Nixon and his chief foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, attempted to stabilize the mood swings through a series of international agreements (e.g., nuclear arms limitation) and strategic initiatives (e.g., the opening to Communist China) that eased tensions while simultaneously adding new deterrents to Soviet power. Viewed in retrospect, detente was not so much a long-term strategy as a short-term tactic to buy time — to keep the lid on international tensions during a period of western disarray in the aftermath of Vietnam, while America reformed and regenerated its strategic strength.

Detente made sense and worked to our ultimate advantage. But it did so only because time was on our side. While American prestige had suffered abroad from the mid-1960s through the 1970s, the Soviet empire was dying of internal bleeding. Based on a dysfunctional socioeconomic philosophy and maintaining power over its subject states only by brute force, it was a system that, even at its supposed height, had to build walls to keep its own people locked in, not to keep unwanted foreigners locked out. In the fullness of time — and accelerated by the roaring comeback of American military and diplomatic power under President Ronald Reagan — the walls came tumbling down.

The era of global bipolarity was over with only one superpower left standing. It is important to remember, however, that what so many critics of the Reagan administration criticized as overkill was not so much a military build-up as the remedy to a prolonged military build-down driven largely by liberal majorities in both houses of the Congress. As Duke University professor Hal Brands points out in his meticulously researched work:

“As the Soviet Union built up in the 1970s, the United States built down. Constant-dollar defense outlays shrank by nearly 41 percent from 1968 to 1976, and military manpower fell from 3.547 million to 2.086 million. The number of U.S. aviation squadrons and ships decreased by 46 and 47 percent, respectively, between 1964 and 1974, and the number of divisions fell by 16 percent. What forces remained — particularly in the Army — were plagued by low morale, indiscipline, and poor readiness resulting from Vietnam.”

“Making the Unipolar Moment” shows how the resurgence of American optimism and a confident, vigorous approach to diplomacy and military strength not only precipitated the collapse of the “Evil Empire” but led to the “Unipolar Moment” when — at least for a while — America stood alone as the world’s sole, undisputed superpower.

A key lesson inherent in all of this is that one of the secrets to being a successful, unipolar superpower is to know how and when to use your super powers … and how and when not to. Ronald Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — and “Bush ‘41” and Secretary of State James Baker after them — understood limits as well as opportunities, and they knew how to build alliances and coalitions that achieved clearly defined objectives with overwhelming success. The First Gulf War, which devastated Saddam Hussein’s conventional military force and humiliated him in the eyes of the world without destabilizing the region or bogging us down in a costly, decades-long occupation of Iraq, is a case in point.

Unfortunately, the “Unipolar Moment” may have been just that: a moment. The Clinton years, when American dominance was virtually unchallenged — but also virtually unexercised — were succeeded by an overcompensating burst of interventionism under “W” triggered by the understandably emotional response to Sept. 11. The Obama years have been mostly comatose as far as foreign policy is concerned, directed by a commander in chief who preaches a lot but practices very little.

Much depends on the skills and attitudes our next commander in chief brings to the job.

Aram Bakshian Jr., an aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, writes widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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