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Book Review: A Superpower Transformed

By (February 1, 2015) No Comment

A Superpower Transformed:superpower transformed cover

The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s

by Daniel J. Sargent

Oxford University Press, 2015

Daniel Sargent’s new book A Superpower Transformed is subtitled “The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s” and hinges on the changing of the world that took place in the lifetime of many of the book’s readers. Many – perhaps most – of those readers, looking back on the embarrassingly and slightly pathetic decade of the ’70s, would remember lachrymose music, long lines at the gas station, and a President of the United States acting like a third-tier Mafia capo, but they wouldn’t think it an era of crucial, epochal change. Sargent’s book – prodigiously researched and very intelligently written – will change the view of his older readers and authorititavely shape the perspectives of his younger ones; this is a revelatory volume.

It covers with fifty years of human history, but disgraced U.S. President Richard Nixon and his main foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger tower over the book, especially in their views of the changing nature of the international relations. Nixon famously commented that America’s domestic mechanisms could essentially run themselves and that the President’s main purpose was to articulate and enact the country’s foreign policies – a telling comment, of course, in light of the President’s own subsequent domestic scandals, but there are moments in A Superpower Transformed when it almost comes across as sincere even so. “If we retreat from the world,” Nixon asks in one way or another throughout the book, “who’s left?”(“With all our stupidity, with all our impetuousness,” the book’s most stirring iteration of the question goes, “what other nation in the world is more idealistic than the United States?”)

The question takes on added significance against the backdrop of upheavals Sargent vividly describes, from the oil crisis of 1973-74 to the increase in Cold War anxieties to the dark flourishing of strife in South America and Southeast Asia to what Sargent claims is a heightened awareness of issues of human rights. The picture Sargent paints is that of a United States suddenly and awkwardly waking up to the fact that it no longer enjoyed the sole and uncontested supremacy it had enjoyed in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, and he contents, rightly I think, that the foremost thing that disqualified Nixon from dealing with such a reality was his fundamental inability to acknowledge its extent:

Richard Nixon pursued a coherent strategy, but his assumptions remained those of the Cold War. Nixon’s tactics, which aimed to substitute geopolitical maneuvering for waning material strength, were more original than his purpose, which was to preserve the Pax Americana.

“Nixon’s commitment to American leadership resembled that of Woodrow Wilson,” Sargent writes in this fascinating vein,

Although Nixon cultivated the persona of a foreign-policy realist, at odds with Wilsonian idealism, the two presidents shared a belief that international order was America’s special providence. Fearful of German militarism, Wilson had argued that the United States could not prosper – or even survive – in a hostile world arena. Only America, in the Wilsonian formula, could create an international order in which democracy – and the United States – would be safe. Nixon, who called Wilson “our greatest president of this century.” echoed this bleak outlook, which linked international security with American internationalism.

One of the most controversial methods Nixon used (publicly known and non-military methods, that is) in order to preserve this international order was of course the strategy of “detente” he pursued with the Soviet Union, a carefully-maintained system of checks and balances designed to prevent a long Cold War from becoming a short and suicidal hot one. “To its critics, detente was imprudent and immoral: an ‘accommodation’ with ‘totalitarian Communism,’ [Nixon advisor Daniel Patrick] Moynihan called it,” Sargent writes. “Kissinger nonetheless insisted that detente served American interests, and he was not prepared to sacrifice its accomplishments on the altar of ideological purity.”

(In one of the book’s many wonderfully-done anecdotal asides, Sargent concisely captures what might well have been Moynihan’s best moment in the public eye, the incendiary speech he gave as ambassador to the United Nations in 1975 denouncing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin as a “racist murder”; at an AFL-CIO dinner, Moynihan ringingly asserted, “Ours is a culture based on the primacy of the individual,” gaining, as Sargent notes, the grudging approval of many listeners – and the squirming disapproval of Henry Kissinger)

The Nixon who emerges from these pages will comfort his life-long detractors by being pretty thoroughy venal and evil, but he’ll also unsettle them for often being not only clear-sighted but right on some issues. Whether Sargent intended to or not, he certainly succeeds in creating a small measure of sympathy for a President- however petty and muttering – who faced an entire world in upheaval. President Carter likewise seems, though still in some ways theatrically naive, considerably more nuanced than typical accounts have shown him. The book’s treatment of President Ford leaves wide open field of Ford-reevaluation studies that some day really ought to spring into being.

It’s a thornier, more pragmatic, and – it must be admitted – less admirable United States that’s born in the course of the story Sargent tells so well, a United States somewhat re-shaped in the image of Richard Nixon and his acolytes and cronies (and even some of those who defined themselves in opposition to him), more clandestine, manipulative, untrustworthy, and, worst of all, self-pitying a nation than it had been before the watershed of the 1970s. It’s a subtle deforming, summed up best in Sargent’s book by former Texas governor and Nixon Treasury Secretary John Connally, who said colloquialized the so-called “Nixon Doctrine” as “The foreigners are out to screw us. It’s our job to screw them first.”

Sargent’s more idealistic readers will bridle at that (there were plenty in Connally’s own day who hated the feral, irresponsible nature of such reductions), and the marvel of A Superpower Transformed is that it somehow manages to tell is downward-spiral story of mere anarchy being loosed on the world without succumbing to easy cynicism. His Conclusion (immediately following his masterly chapter “The Revenge of Geopolitics” and immediately preceeding almost 100 pages of densely-packed notes) even manages the occasional hint of optimism, noting that the paradox of the ’70s is that it left America “both empowered and diminished.” Whatever verdicts future historians will impose on the period, their studies will of necessity include Sargent’s book.