On Christmas Day, 1991, the hammer-and-sickle flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was lowered for the last time over the Kremlin, and Soviet communism passed into history. On that day, the United States of America stood alone, unchallenged, at the pinnacle of global power. A mighty empire had fallen, the first in history to do so without a major war, leaving America in a position of power unique in modern history.
A year later, I stood at the wall of windows in my office on the seventh floor at CIA headquarters looking out at the Virginia countryside. It was cold and overcast. I was reflecting on my imminent retirement, stepping down as director of central intelligence in less than a month, twenty-six years after joining the agency as a rookie analyst working on the Soviet desk. I had lived through the many crises of the last half of the Cold War, never expecting to witness that conflict’s end. On that wintry day in 1992, I thought about all I had seen and done working for six presidents, and wondered about the shape of the world to come. For someone The Washington Post had once characterized as the Eeyore of national security, able to find the darkest cloud in a silver lining, I was uncharacteristically optimistic.
As Bill Clinton raised his right hand to take the oath of office as our forty-second president on January 20, 1993, the United States singularly dominated the world militarily, economically, politically, and culturally—in every dimension of power. Not since the apogee of the Roman Empire had one country been in that position.
A quarter century later, the United States, while still the planet’s most powerful country militarily and economically, is challenged on every front. China is ascending and likely at some point to surpass the United States economically in terms of gross domestic product; Russia, modernizing its military apace, is aggressively threatening and attempting to destabilize Western democracies and dominate its neighbors; North Korea has become a wild-card nuclear power; the Middle East remains a sinkhole of conflict and terrorism. A savage civil war in Syria and the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and its “caliphate” brought troops from Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the United States to the battlefield. After a military intervention led by the United States in 2011, Libya remains divided and engulfed in violence, and Iraq, invaded by the United States in 2003, still strives to create a sustainable, multiethnic government amid the ruins of most of its cities. Iran continues to strengthen its military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, sophisticated drones, cyber threats, and nuclear research, and intensifies its meddling from Lebanon and Syria to Yemen even as its ramps up its contest for religious and regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia. The war in Afghanistan seems endless. Our closest ally, Britain, is leaving the European Union, and authoritarian governments rule our NATO ally Turkey and are rising in Hungary and Poland. The multilateral institutions, alliances, and trade arrangements the United States created in its own self-interest in the decades after World War II have been weakened, in no small part by the very hand that created them, albeit by a president unlike any other. At home, our government is polarized, paralyzed, and seemingly incapable of addressing the manifold problems facing the country.
How did our country go so quickly from unique global power to a country that is widely perceived as no longer willing to bear the costs or accept the responsibility of global leadership—or even capable of governing itself effectively?
Answering how we got to where we are today internationally requires understanding the multiple forms of power that contributed to our achievement of historical singularity, and our earlier leaders’ skill in using those many and diverse forms of power along the road to that high point. The answer lies also in the mistakes of post–Cold War presidents and Congresses and, in particular, their failure to recognize, resource, and use the arsenal of nonmilitary assets that proved of critical importance in the long contest with the Soviet Union. It lies as well in their failure to understand that our place in the world in the decades ahead will depend for certain on a strong military but also on reimagining and rebuilding those nonmilitary tools. The answer is, essentially, the failure of too many of our recent political leaders to understand the complexity of American power, both in its expansiveness and in its limitations.
Dwight D. Eisenhower became president on January 20, 1953. During his two terms, the Soviet Union acquired the hydrogen bomb; there were repeated crises with China over Taiwan and the Taiwan Strait; the Joint Chiefs of Staff twice recommended using nuclear weapons—once to help the French at Dien Bien Phu and once against the Chinese; there was a major war in the Middle East involving three of our closest allies (Britain, France, and Israel). There were revolutions in Soviet-dominated East Germany, Poland, and Hungary; a revolution in Cuba; and many lesser crises. The period was one of great tension in the Cold War with the Soviets. And yet, from the moment Eisenhower signed the armistice agreement ending the Korean War in July 1953 until he left office in January 1961, not one American soldier was killed in combat. American prestige stood high around the world. How did he manage that feat?
Eisenhower was the only post–World War II president who was a career military officer, a five-star general who became commander in chief. He brought to the presidency great personal strengths, strategic insight, and leadership skills. He understood the uncertainties and risks always attendant to military operations. He knew the limits of military power in the nuclear age. He had the experience and confidence—and rank—to tell his generals no. Above all, he grasped the importance of diplomacy, economics, communication, and the many other tools of influence. He understood and wielded power in all its dimensions.
Ronald Reagan was routinely underestimated. Yet, as the Soviet Union began to falter internally in the 1980s, Reagan effectively used every instrument of American power to push the Soviets over the edge, from crisis to collapse. Upon taking office, he began the largest American military buildup in decades. He mobilized the CIA to covertly challenge Soviet adventurism and activities around the world, arming foes of Cuba—which acted as a surrogate for the USSR—in Angola, Ethiopia, and Central America; challenged the Soviets directly in Afghanistan by arming the mujahedin; and supported anticommunist movements such as Solidarity in Poland. Reagan brought economic pressure to bear on the USSR through sanctions and unprecedentedly aggressive efforts to block its acquisition of Western technology and know-how that might assist their weapons programs and their economy. Not since Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s time did the United States Information Agency and its many channels of communication have such strong presidential support in sending America’s message abroad—a message about the United States and what it stood for, and blunt talk about Soviet tyranny. Reagan also understood the importance of diplomacy and so, in 1984–85, he pivoted, offering an outreached hand to Mikhail Gorbachev. Despite ups and downs, they reached an agreement on eliminating intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe and overall dramatically eased tensions. Most important, Reagan’s outstretched hand gave Gorbachev the political space at home to continue his reforms, which were destroying the Soviet Union.
There is no precedent in history of a great empire collapsing without a major war. Yet, through extraordinary diplomacy, George H. W. Bush (Bush 41) facilitated the liberation of Eastern Europe and managed to end the Cold War—and the Soviet Union—without violence. He orchestrated the reunification of Germany inside the NATO alliance, assembled a coalition of three dozen countries to reverse Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Kuwait, and used that victory to begin a peace process in the Middle East. Building on and broadening what Reagan achieved, through skilled diplomacy and the judicious use of force, Bush 41 brought the United States out of the Cold War to a place of unparalleled dominance in every measure of national power.
Eisenhower, Reagan, and Bush, three presidents with very different backgrounds, wielded all the instruments of American power with extraordinary skill. This book assesses their post–Cold War successors’ decisions in fifteen critical places, the effectiveness of their use of the instruments of American power, and the lessons we must learn for the future.
They are vital lessons because a quarter of a century after the collapse of the USSR a new rival for global influence and power has emerged, one far more formidable in the breadth and scale of its nonmilitary achievements and instruments of power than the Soviet Union. The USSR in its last decades was purely a military peer to the United States. As it degenerated into a paralyzed political gerontocracy and economic shambles, Moscow held little appeal around the world as a model to emulate.
China, by contrast, has a huge and growing economy and in recent decades has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty. It has built new cities and an enviable modern infrastructure. Its educational and technological achievements—and potential—are daunting. It has undertaken vast new initiatives to build infrastructure in countries throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and is expanding its economic and trading relationships globally. Xi Jinping, China’s leader for life, now touts his country as a model for governance, independence, rapid economic development, and technological achievement—an attractive alternative to the liberal democracies’ political dysfunction, economic crises (as in 2008–9), and disparities between rich and poor. China is beset by many difficult problems of its own, but it is also a multidimensional power eager to challenge the United States in every sphere. While both sides continue to build military power, they recognize that a military conflict between them, nuclear or not, would be catastrophic. And so, as in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, this rivalry in the years to come is most likely to play out in the nonmilitary arenas of national power, in which China has been investing and which the United States has neglected since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Whether the perception, and in some cases the reality, of America pulling back from global leadership can be reversed, whether America will reassert its willingness to bear the mantle of such leadership, whether America has the will and the creativity to cope with China’s global ambitions and those of other authoritarian regimes—not to mention other international challenges—depends upon a better understanding of what constitutes American power, how to revitalize it, and how to wield it more effectively.
Throughout history, power has most commonly been defined in terms of the ability to coerce obedience or submission by force of arms. But it is a mistake to think of power only in those terms. Think of the power of patriotism to inspire military service; of ideology and faith to evoke sacrifice; of government to protect the weak and disadvantaged; of a military to provide relief after a natural disaster; of peaceful resistance to oppression. From ancient times, there have been noncoercive, intangible forms of power that have changed history, such as the idea of democracy in Greece; Roman law and broadly offered Roman citizenship to conquered peoples; religion; the concepts that fueled the American and French revolutions; the Napoleonic Code; Marxism; and nationalism.
I argued as secretary of defense that the American government had become too reliant on the use of military power to defend and extend our interests internationally, that the use of force had become a first choice rather than a last resort. It is time to look afresh at the many forms of power available to America (and others as well) and then assess how well—or not—we have done since the end of the Cold War in resourcing, integrating, and using those tools. We can then draw conclusions about our approach to the world now and in the future.
A fundamental question about American power is: To what end do we use it? What are our purposes and goals in the world beyond protecting our own interests, particularly when it comes to advancing freedom and democracy? This question has dominated American foreign policy during the first quarter century after the Cold War, and it has been debated since the first days of the republic. How should we incorporate America’s democratic ideals and aspirations into our relations with the rest of the world? When should we try to change the way other nations govern themselves? Should America’s mission be to make the world “safe for democracy,” as President Woodrow Wilson said, or, in the words of John Quincy Adams, should America be “the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all” but the “champion and vindicator only of her own”? Of our post–Cold War presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush came down on the side of Wilson as interventionists, with long-term consequences for us and the world; Barack Obama tried to play it both ways; and Donald Trump has been all about minding our own business—both literally and figuratively—and being silent about the internal affairs of other countries, especially authoritarian ones. His and Obama’s actions, both much closer to Adams’s than Wilson’s, have also had significant consequences.
Their varied responses demonstrate that once we get beyond broad agreement on protecting the country from foreign threats, the answer to the question of American purposes and goals in the world is not a simple one. But, based on our history and our experience during the Cold War and since, we must define our role and the means to fulfill it in ways that can win broad support in this splintered republic and among its leaders. Drawing on more than fifty years in the national security arena serving eight presidents, I intend to make a stab at it.
Copyright © 2020 by Robert M. Gates. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.