Weekend Reader: ‘A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking Of American Foreign Relations In The 1970s’
Since the passage of the Marshall Plan, the United States has played a unique and unprecedented role on the global stage. Over the course of the last several decades, the nation’s status as a superpower has evolved several valences: America as cultural imperialist, America as the “world’s policeman,” and America as the beacon of freedom and democracy.
Historian Daniel J. Sargent identifies the 1970s as the crucial period when the tectonics of global power shifted and Pax Americana entered a new and consequential phase. How the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter negotiated the new forces of globalization, and the full impact of their actions, with which we as a nation are still reckoning, is the subject of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s: an exhaustive and illuminating study of geopolitics in action and the balance of power in transition.
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A superpower is different. Unlike most other international actors, it operates on the world scale and even presumes responsibility for the international system as a whole. For William Fox, the political scientist who in 1944 distinguished the “super powers” from the rest, what made a superpower were military and geopolitical resources: armed forces and the far-flung bases from which they operate. Yet power, as Fox acknowledged, is relational; it involves the capacity to shape outcomes, to compel others to do what they would not do otherwise. Arms furnish power; but affluence coerces, ideas persuade, and culture entices. The resources on which power depends are myriad, and they are specific to context. As resources ebb and flow and the diverse contexts in which power is wielded evolve, superpowers rise and fall.
Fox identified three superpowers in his times: Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Yet, British superpower was a facade; it could not overcome material debilities and historical processes, especially decolonization, which dried the wellsprings of Britain’s power. This left two. The Soviet Union was at the Second World War’s end the world’s vastest state, and its geographic expanse gave the Red Army proximity to the industrial heartlands of Europe and Northeast Asia. The war’s end nonetheless found the Soviet Union in ruins and its leaders anxious to consolidate a defensive security. America’s predicament stood in stark contrast. The United States bestrode the world in 1945, supreme in military capabilities, serene in geopolitical security, and unrivaled in economic productivity. Confident in their power, American leaders intended to remake the international order, expecting to assume “the responsibility which God Almighty intended,” as President Truman put it, “for the welfare of the world.”
Estrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union transformed the postwar order into a bipolar settlement in which Washington assumed hegemonic responsibilities—not for the whole world, as Truman envisaged, but for the parts of it in which American influence and American arms predominated. The Cold War (or postwar) order that emerged from the 1940s endured for less than a quarter of a century. The postwar order collapsed in the 1970s, and a historical transformation in the superpower role of the United States ensued. This transformation proceeded across distinct arenas of international engagement; it redefined the sources of American power; and it wrought durable consequences, opening a new phase in America’s career as a global superpower.
Until the 1970s, the United States superintended a rules-based international economic order in which tariffs and financial controls kept globalization at bay. With the implosion of the Cold War order, international trade and financial globalization resurged, reaching levels not seen since the late nineteenth century. The relationship of US economic power to the world economy also shifted. The United States in the era of the Cold War was a dynamo of production, an industrial hub, from which resources flowed outward to allies and clients. By the 1970s, this role could not be sustained. “Americans are moving into an era when we are going to be dependent on the outside world,” explained one former official in 1973. “American self-sufficiency is over.” In the 1970s, the US economy became dependent on external inputs, which made the United States a beneficiary of globalization, as it had been in the late nineteenth century. The United States in 1971 ran its first trade deficit since 1893. It became in the mid-1980s dependent on foreigners’ savings to sustain domestic consumption and to finance what Fox defined as the superpower’s hallmark—its worldwide military reach. The US government, meanwhile, began to cede the responsibility for managing the world economic order that it had exercised since the 1940s—not to foreign nation-states but to integrating markets.
American military power did not retreat from the world in the 1970s, but the locus of its exercise shifted from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, which became a primary zone of US engagement, alongside Europe and Northeast Asia. Having delegated responsibility for regional security to allies and clients, the United States came in the late 1970s to accept a permanent military role in the Persian Gulf. This reorientation hinged on economic changes, which the oil crises of the 1970s made manifest. The world’s dominant oil producer until the late 1960s, the United States became in the 1970s an oil importer. In 1977, Americans imported more than half the oil they consumed. In energy, as in other sectors, the advantages that once made the United States the powerhouse of the world economy were narrowing; as the margins of superiority closed, Americans imported more oil, more goods, and more capital, and the superpower became dependent upon the resources that an integrating world economy furnished.
If the United States was no longer the freestanding colossus it had been in the 1940s, new developments afforded its leaders opportunities to reinvent Washington’s hegemonic role. A remaking of Cold War geopolitics centered on China. Until the late 1960s, Washington engaged the Communist world as a bloc and China as a foe. China and the United States nonetheless became tacit allies by the end of the seventies, and their realignment carried great significance. Developments beyond the realm of geopolitics opened up different kinds of opportunities. A mobilization for human rights flourished, not in the arena of interstate relations, but in a transnational realm of activism, engagement, and mobilization. The United States, like other governments, at first viewed human rights as an intrusion on the prerogatives of nation-states, but Washington came during the 1970s to align itself, at least rhetorically, with the new idiom of justice. Doing so marked the resurgence of a crusading style in US foreign policy and the end of a pragmatic Cold War phase, during which American leaders accepted ideological diversity as a reality of international life and a prerequisite for stability, even survival.
The transformation of the American superpower in the 1970s was neither foreordained nor planned. Rather, it followed a series of adaptations to unexpected and confounding circumstances. This is not to say that American decision-makers in the 1970s did not pursue grand designs; they did, but these decision-makers mostly failed to achieve their intended purposes. Instead, they improvised in response to events that their strategies neither anticipated nor accommodated. Leaders thus participated in the remaking of America’s super- power role, but they did not fabricate history on their own terms, as they them- selves acknowledged. “History,” Henry Kissinger reflected, “is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different from what one expected.” Explaining how the seventies transformed America’s world role and remade its superpower vocation, not according to a coherent design but in a chaotic pattern, is the central task of this book.
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Reprinted from A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s by Daniel J. Sargent with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press. The book was published on January 2, 2015.