Courtesy Reuters

Assertive America

Between Jimmy Carter's election in 1976 and Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980, the outlook of the American people underwent one of those decisive shifts that historians generally label as watershed events. In 1976 the nation was still in the aftershock of Watergate and Vietnam-unsure of its limits as a superpower, agonizing over the moral rightness of the Vietnam War, dreading involvement in foreign commitments that in any way resembled Vietnam, preoccupied with domestic economic problems, intent on restoring the presidency to pre-Watergate levels of integrity, and dependent on détente with the Soviet Union to lighten both the defense budget and the tensions of international relations.

By the end of 1980, a series of events had shaken us out of our soul-searching and into a new, outward-looking state of mind. The public had grown skeptical of détente and distressed by American impotence in countering the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It felt bullied by OPEC, humiliated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, tricked by Castro, out-traded by Japan and out-gunned by the Russians. By the time of the 1980 presidential election, fearing that America was losing control over its foreign affairs, voters were more than ready to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam and replace it with a new posture of American assertiveness.

Americans have become surprisingly explicit about how the United States should seek to regain control of its destiny, and in the context of the disquieting realities of the 1980s, these ideas create a new, different and complex foreign policy mandate for the Reagan presidency. The national pride has been deeply wounded; Americans are fiercely determined to restore our honor and respect abroad. This outlook makes it easy for the Reagan Administration to win support for bold, assertive initiatives, but much more difficult to shape a consensus behind policies that involve compromise, subtlety, patience, restrained gestures, prior consultation with allies, and the deft geopolitical maneuvering that is required when one is no longer the world's preeminent locus of military and economic power.

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