- - Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The 1990s began with the collapse of the Soviet Union and expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s armies from Kuwait. As the world’s only superpower, the U.S. would intervene militarily – on humanitarian grounds – in countries most Americans knew (or cared) little about: Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo (but not Rwanda).

President Clinton worked with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on establishing a stable U.S.-Russia relationship. China was welcomed into the World Trade Organization, the world’s rules-based trading system. Democracy and capitalism appeared to be on the march. The decade ended with Russia’s economy in ruins and Vladimir Putin in charge of the Kremlin prosecuting a brutal war in Chechnya.

In this episode of History As It Happens, historian Michael Kimmage discusses the faulty assumptions that underpinned U.S. foreign policy during the pivotal decade between the Cold War and onset of the global war on terrorism. If the past 20 years of failed war-making and nation-building in the Greater Middle East are cause for reflection, the origins of this strategic drift may be found in the decade in which U.S. leaders hoped to shape a “new world order,” he said.

Viewing the 1990s as a tidy, 10-year-long strip of time nestled between two great crusades obscures the continuities in the ideology of U.S. foreign policy, even as decision-makers sought a new purpose for U.S. power, he said. It also ignores continuities in parts of the world order that did not change as a result of the disappearance of the USSR.

“In terms of continuities, the one that gets swept under the carpet when people speak of 1991 being so transformative, is that China does not cease being Communist China. Communist China is built on a very adversarial set of principles and precepts when it comes to the West,” said Mr. Kimmage, an expert on 20th century diplomatic and intellectual history at Catholic University.

“The U.S. was way too optimistic in the 1990s. It was too optimistic about Russia, that Russia wouldn’t return to some of the concerns and ambitions that it historically held. It was too optimistic about China, which has an alternate vision of the international order to the U.S. It was too optimistic about the Middle East, and on the basis of this optimism the U.S. overextended itself,” Mr. Kimmage said.

Enjoy the full interview by listening to this episode of History As It Happens.

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