As 1991 came to a close, the United States was in the grip of an old, somewhat disreputable but distinctly American sentiment: let other countries sort out their own problems; we have enough of our own. This shift in mood followed a familiar pattern. Throughout the twentieth century it has taken wars to engage the United States in the affairs of faraway lands, while peace has tended to bring with it the revival of a national preference for going it alone.
When World War I ended, many Americans and their representatives in Congress turned their backs on the politics of war-torn Europe, thwarting Woodrow Wilson’s dream of American leadership of the League of Nations. After World War II President Truman succeeded in galvanizing support for the Marshall Plan and NATO, but only because Stalin had replaced Hitler as the new foreign dragon to be slain, or at least contained.
It was in the name of that new cause—stopping communist expansionism—that American armies set off to Korea and Vietnam. The first venture ended in an armistice, the second in an American defeat. Against the backdrop of those experiences, 1991 was all the more extraordinary in the annals of U.S. foreign policy. In that year the United States won not one but two wars. The war in the Persian Gulf, which lasted just over 40 days, ended in February with the eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The Cold War, which had lasted more than 40 years, ended with the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact in July, the suspension of the Soviet Communist Party shortly after the abortive coup d’état in August, and, finally, the abolition of the Soviet Union itself along with the resignation of its last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, on Christmas Day.
Yet in the wake of these spectacular and nearly simultaneous victories, a variety of opinion-makers and political figures argued that the United States should draw back from many of its international commitments and take the opportunity to
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