Thinking about post-Cold War US foreign policy has been led astray by three conventionally-accepted but mistaken assumptions about the character of the post-Cold War environment (1) that the world is now multipolar, whereas it is in fact unipolar, with the USA the sole superpower, at least for present policy purposes (2) that the US domestic consensus favours internationalism rather than isolationism (3) that in consequence of the Soviet collapse, the threat of war has substantially diminished.
Charles Krauthammer is a syndicated columnist. This article is adapted from the author's Henry M. Jackson Memorial Lecture delivered in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18, 1990.
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Analysts of President Reagan's reelection landslide have made much of the point that it was not necessarily a mandate for tougher policies: the voters' endorsement should be seen as primarily an enthusiastic expression of hope for continuance of the state of economic well-being and patriotic euphoria in which Americans, by and large, found themselves in late 1984. Be that as it may, it does seem quite clear by contrast that four years earlier Jimmy Carter lost votes on foreign policy issues. If Washington's relations with the outside world are going well, they may not be a decisive vote-getter, but the sense that they have gone badly can be a decisive vote-loser. Nothing fails like failure.
The linkup of American and Soviet forces at Torgau on the Elbe in April 1945 may be taken as the event symbolizing a new era in international relations--one largely dominated by the central relationship between two great powers, later known as the superpowers. The meeting at Torgau meant the splitting of Germany, the preeminent European power for three-quarters of a century. Germany's division was to be both a fixture of the postwar era and, additionally, a continuing source of unease. Also, the event dramatically initiated what was to become die Wacht an der Elbe, an American protection against the power of the East of what was to become a democratic Germany--and behind Germany an abiding American commitment to the security of Western Europe. Despite the misjudgments in the immediate aftermath of the war, the lessons of two world wars had been insinuated into American foreign policy. Finally, in the way of symbolism, perhaps the brief exchange of fire between Soviet and American forces on the Elbe provided an early harbinger of the tensions that were ultimately to emerge.
What wise men had promised has not happened. What the damned fools predicted has actually come to pass," exclaimed Lord Melbourne during one of the British politician's fits of exasperation over the situation in Ireland. Well, viewing the post-World War II course of Soviet-American relations, one is tempted to echo the nineteenth-century statesman's sentiments.