Mission Failure? America in the Post-Cold War Era


In the wake of the Cold War something unique in modern American history and rare in the historical experience of any great power occurred: The United States faced no serious threats from other powerful states, notes Michael Mandelbaum, Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

The absence of security competition gave the United States an unusually wide range of choices in designing and carrying out its foreign policies, he writes for The American Interest:

It chose what is misleadingly called “nation-building.” The United States in fact attempted, all over the world, two different although closely related tasks: nation building—that is, creating a sense of national community among disparate peoples; and state-building—establishing the institutions of modern government such as courts, legislatures, and competent administrative agencies. Free to ignore the standard business of foreign policy—responding to the international security-relevant behavior of other governments—America chose to try to transform the way governments behaved toward those they governed.

But by the end of 2014 the post-Cold War era, the era of American missions of transformation, had come to an end. The United States could thus no longer afford to concentrate on promoting its values through missions of transformation because it had, as in the past, to protect its interests, adds Mandelbaum, the author of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era. By the end of 2014 power politics had returned to three crucial regions of the world in the form of ambitious, aggressive countries seeking regional dominance. The proper business of American foreign policy had become resisting the designs of Russia in Europe, of China in East Asia, and of Iran in the Middle East.

Mandelbaum argues that “the U.S. cannot succeed when attempting to align vastly different societies more closely with Western ideology,” insisting that “it is not the presence of an ideological component to American foreign policy that leads to failure, but an overemphasis of it at the expense of a focus on hard interests.”

Yet the new era of foreign policy also differs from the Cold War in several ways, he suggests:

The Cold War was a global struggle against an adversary with a presence in every part of the world: Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa were all battlegrounds in the struggle against communism. Now, however, the United States faces distinct regional challenges rather than a single global one. Although they display some affinity for one another, Russia, China, and Iran threaten American interests only in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East respectively, and they hardly form a unified bloc.

Nor, unlike the Cold War, do the current challenges stem from a hostile, aggressive ideology with universal pretensions. Iran does have an official, Islamist political creed that it seeks to spread but it is aimed chiefly at other Muslims. For still-officially communist China, nationalism, not a set of universally applicable ideas, fuels its regional ambitions, as it does those of no-longer-communist Russia.

During the Cold War, to cite two final differences, Russia had far more power than it does now, whereas China had far less. And unlike the first half of the Cold-War era, Russia and China are neither ideological partners nor military allies; but, unlike the second half of that period, they are not adversaries whom the United States can play off against each other.


Michael Mandelbaum, a member of the TAI editorial board, is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the author of Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, from which his essay is adapted.

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