By Jeane J. Kirkpatrick
“The postwar era collapsed in 1989,” the U.S. diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote in Foreign Affairs that year. For four decades, U.S.-Soviet competition had determined “the structures through which international affairs [were] conducted.” But as the Soviet Union faced mounting pressure from within—pressure that would culminate in formal dissolution in 1991—the Cold War was winding down.
Over the next few years, Foreign Affairs contributors grappled with an urgent question: what would follow the Cold War order? Kirkpatrick suggested that Washington would need “to learn to be a power, not a superpower” and “[revert] to the status of a normal nation.” Charles Krauthammer argued the opposite, declaring the United States “the unchallenged superpower” tasked with “laying down the rules of world order and being prepared to enforce them.” John Lewis Gaddis contended that the new era would bring “not an end to threats, but rather a diffusion of them.” And Samuel Huntington proposed that cultural difference would replace ideology as the primary source of international disputes—but made the case for coexistence, noting that “differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence.”
The opening of a new era didn’t mean the problems of the previous one had disappeared, either. Dealing with the fallout of the Cold War would prove a “truly daunting” task, Zbigniew Brzezinski warned in a 1992 essay. The West may have secured a decisive victory with the crumbling of the Soviet Union, but the United States and its partners would need to display “a longer-range geopolitical vision” to secure a lasting peace.