Structure, Strategy, and American Power: Insights from America’s Last Geopolitical Resurgence
How should we understand the emergence of the unipolar moment, just over a decade after the nadir of America’s 1970s-era malaise? In retrospect, American resurgence occurred at the crossroads of good policy and good fortune. Good fortune was involved in the sense that the profound global shifts unleashed in the 1970s created powerful geopolitical tailwinds for Washington, and allowed American officials to further the country’s national interests by working with—rather than battling against—some of the strongest underlying forces in international affairs. Yet good policy was equally involved, in the sense that American officials proved remarkably adept at discerning these profound shifts, at employing American power to accentuate them, and at acting decisively in moments of great historical fluidity and contingency. Structure and strategy were deeply intertwined in making the unipolar moment; the revival of American power reflected things that U.S. policymakers could not control, as well as things they could.
More recent impressions of America’s standing have often been colored—and distorted—by a fixation on high-profile events that actually tell one fairly little about the broader arc of U.S. power. Getting a more accurate reading of America’s trajectory thus entails going deeper. It requires not simply examining trends in the nation’s share of global economic and military power, but also grappling with the underlying phenomena, from demographics to economics to politics, that will affect how much power the country can generate in the future. Moreover, because international power is only truly meaningful in a relative sense, it requires examining the same issues with respect to other key global players, as well.