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

  • Published

Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post–Cold War Order by Hal Brands. Cornell University Press, 2016, 469 pp.

Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post–Cold War Order concerns an immensely consequential period in US foreign policy, from the perceived nadir of American power during the Cold War’s détente up to its apotheosis immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the aftermath, the US found itself as “the sole superpower” according to Samuel Huntington. Charles Krauthammer would coin this as the “unipolar moment.” America’s enviable position at the apex of international power in the early 1990s was unparalleled in world history, and its foundations continue to generate scholarly discussion. Using recently declassified archival resources, Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, makes a compelling case informed by his earlier research on strategy and statecraft: the unipolar moment was neither premeditated nor an accident of history. Instead, a favorable set of structural factors and expedient strategic choices propelled the United States to victory in the Cold War.

One of the fundamental misconceptions of which Brands disabuses the reader pertains to the idea of American decline during the Cold War and its resurgence as resulting solely from the collapse of the Soviet Union. A combination of inauspicious developments, such as the resistance to US influence in the Third World exemplified by the Vietnam War, the subsequent oil crisis, the relative decline of American economic preponderance due to Western economic recovery, and the perceived resurgence of the Soviet Union, all raised concerns about US power. Pres. Richard Nixon responded to these challenges by attempting to retrench American power and by deescalating the Cold War. His successors would expand American commitments and oversee an unexpected revival in power abroad. Starting with Pres. Jimmy Carter, US foreign policy began to divest from expedients, such as propping up unfavorable regimes, and began favoring instead myriad policies advocating human rights and political liberalization in the Third World. The geopolitical costs were high, as demonstrated with Iran and Nicaragua, but elevating human rights and democracy promotion to the status of a “great power issue” (p. 41) led to a geopolitical revolution that in the end helped undermine the Soviet Union. In the meantime, the end of the Bretton Woods system, the oil shock, and the culmination of neoliberal economic policies in America under Reagan set off a period of increased global financial flows, robust economic growth, and economic liberalization among allies and Third World states, all of which strengthened American power. Finally, the Cold War began to “transform” under Reagan, who first escalated the Cold War competition and US military spending to roll back the Soviet Union, before de-escalating it once the US achieved a favorable position.

Not all geopolitical currents, however, favored the US. In the greater Middle East, both external and local forces challenged the regional security framework envisaged by American decision makers. The Iranian Revolution, the inconclusive Iran-Iraq War, and anti-American Islamic terrorism are striking examples of America’s difficulties in shaping regional security in the area. In fact, this region became the primary zone of conflict and challenge to American interests immediately after the demise of the Soviet Union. At the height of the unipolar moment, American preponderance helped the United States assemble allies and respond swiftly to deter Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. In the long run, however, US policies and alliance preferences led to state failure and transnational terrorism while also prompting expensive American commitments, as seen in the “War on Terror.”

There are several important findings in Making the Unipolar Moment, but three major ones stand out. First, strategic action is an unwieldy and paradoxical endeavor. In this case, the sinews of American power are not necessarily found in clearly defined and consistent policies or in exceptionally farsighted decisions. Instead, American strength is the product of leaders responding to their environments, often satisficing tradeoffs and learning from errors. By this interpretation, Carter’s unassuming foreign policy toward the Third World and attempts to foster the rising tide of democracy, as well as Reagan’s initial caustic rhetoric against the Soviet Union, may have been counterproductive in the short term. But these measures proved advantageous in the long run by fostering political and economic liberalism around the world, thereby favorably shaping the global conjuncture for the United States. The theoretical implications are important. As proponents of power politics often opine, human rights and democracy promotion may undermine sound and productive foreign policy.

Second, the rise and fall of great powers cannot be measured quantitatively only. Contemporary assessments rarely reflect an appreciation of the hidden “undercurrent” of geopolitics that encompasses intangible qualities, such as prestige and soft power. Brands makes the compelling argument that the attractiveness of American values and the robustness of its alliances helped it “punch above [sic] its geopolitical weight” (p. 339).

Given these first two themes, the reader is left with a sense of ambivalence about debates concerning the future of world order. On the one hand, the US seems to enjoy great benefits, but it also incurs great costs in maintaining its preeminent position and in doing so is continuing to erode the underpinning of this global position. On the other, the paradoxical nature of strategy suggests that American power may be more resilient than is appreciated. This is not only due to the importance of soft power elements but also because perceived blunders could interact with previously undertheorized global trends to evolve into virtuous cycles. Yet in the case of the unipolar moment, American defense of grassroots democratization movements appear to have served the long-term US national interest by fostering a global demand that ultimately undermined its main Cold War antagonist.

Overall, Brands’ book makes a valuable contribution to Cold War studies and the emergence of world orders by providing both a history of American foreign policy and the emergence of US preponderance during the latter half of the twentieth century as well as a comprehensive conceptual examination of American unipolarity. It is successful in the former endeavor, due in part to the extensive use of fresh archival documents and its depiction of key decision makers, such as US presidents and their strategic contexts. Its broader theoretical implication also succeeds, although in a more circumscribed way: neither structure nor agency alone can sufficiently account for geopolitical outcomes; both seem to matter in equal measure (p. 5). Nevertheless, this is also a drawback of the book, for it does not introduce a truly novel approach to understanding the emergence of US unipolarity. In the end, Brands’ book seems to effectively synthesize the existing literature on Cold War history and American foreign policy and to reinforce this with some new archival materials.


Onur Erpul

PhD candidate, Florida International University

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."