Michael KreponThe Unipolar Moment

Charles Krauthammer is a rapier-witted columnist who reminds me of Joseph Alsop, who skewered liberals, détentists, and anti-Vietnam War activists in Washington Post op-eds during the Cold War. Alsop used his Georgetown salon to extend his influence; Krauthammer’s salon is Fox News.

Krauthammer’s most memorable essay may have appeared in the Winter 1990/1991 issue of Foreign Affairs, in the heady period during America’s first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In “The Unipolar Moment,” Krauthammer wrote that, “Communism is indeed finished… The last of the messianic creeds that have haunted this century is quite dead. But there will constantly be new threats disturbing our peace.”

Krauthammer predicted that the demise of USSR would usher in a period of U.S. unipolarity that would last for decades – unless “America succeeds in running its economy into the ground.” To maintain Washington’s dominance and leadership, the United States needed to prevent “the rise of small aggressive states armed with weapons of mass destruction.” With a nod to Dick Cheney, Krauthammer wrote that, “It is a certainty that in the near future there will be a dramatic increase in the number of states armed with biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them anywhere on earth.”

No region mattered more in this regard than the Persian Gulf: “If the Persian Gulf is not a vital interest, then nothing is. All that is left is preventing an invasion of the Florida Keys.” The United States had the power to prevent proliferation in the Gulf: “American preeminence is based on the fact that it is the only country with the military, diplomatic, political and economic assets to be a decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world it chooses to involve itself.”

The biggest challenges to reaping the benefits of the unipolar moment, in Krauthammer’s view, were the combined forces of “post-Vietnam liberal isolationism” and “a resurgence of 1930’s-style conservative isolationism.” “There is no alternative,” he wrote, “to confronting, deterring and, if necessary, disarming states that brandish and use weapons of mass destruction… The alternative to unipolarity is chaos.”

In the Winter 2002/2003 issue of The National Interest, after the rout of the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Krauthammer triumphantly returned to this theme, critiquing the “declinist school” that mocked his earlier essay “as either wild optimism or simple American arrogance.” In Krauthammer’s considered judgment, the Afghan campaign amounted to “an unprecedented assertion of American freedom of action and a definitive statement of a new American unilateralism.” His concerns over the resurgence of conservative isolationism were misplaced, but the obsessions of liberals with “international legality” and multilateralism remained problematic. “A realist,” wrote Krauthammer, “would hardly forfeit the current unipolarity for the vain promise of goo-goo one-worldism… Unipolarity, managed benignly, is far more likely to keep the peace.”

Afghanistan would be a steeping stone to greater ambitions:

The new unilateralism defines American interests far beyond narrow self-defense. In particular, it identifies two other major interests, both global: extending the peace by advancing democracy and preserving the peace by acting as balancer of last resort… The promotion of democracy multiplies the number of nations likely to be friendly to the United States, and regional equilibria produce stability that benefits a commercial republic like the United States… Critics find this paradoxical: acting unilaterally for global ends. Why paradoxical? One can hardly argue that depriving Saddam (and potentially terrorists) of WMD is not a global end. Unilateralism may be required to pursue this end… What is the essence of that larger interest? Most broadly defined, it is maintaining a stable, open, and functioning unipolar system.

Francis Fukuyama offered a rejoinder in the Summer 2004 issue of The National Interest, arguing that Krauthammer’s prescriptions posed a fundamental problem of legitimacy for U.S. ambitions. (The problems of cost and wearing down U.S. ground forces would become apparent later.) Fukuyama warned that adopting “Israel’s policy of constantly being on the offensive… does not scale well.” In response, Krauthammer hammered Fukuyama for “Judaizing neoconservatism,” and came close to calling him an anti-Semite.

Krauthammer is now hawkish about the Iranian nuclear program. The unipolar moment is, in his view, being lost, not by overarching ambition, but by the timidity of the Obama administration:

This is not just an America in decline. This is an America in retreat — accepting, ratifying and declaring its decline, and inviting rising powers to fill the vacuum. Nor is this retreat by inadvertence. This is retreat by design and, indeed, on principle. It’s the perfect fulfillment of Obama’s adopted Third World narrative of American misdeeds, disrespect and domination from which he has come to redeem us and the world. [“The Fruits of Weakness,” May 21, 2010]


  1. FSB (History)

    Great topic.

    Krauthammer: “If the Persian Gulf is not a vital interest, then nothing is…. ”

    It is now. But we can work to make it not so by following the Chinese example of investing in clean energy research. (Or we can continue to burn wood and oil like Neanderthals.)

    It is not our oil in the middle east: it belongs to the people there who are living under police states that we support because their tyrants (who we seal defense deals worth billions with….) give us the peoples’ oil.

    Francis Fukuyama’s view is much more in line with the intentions of the founding fathers. Live frugally within your means: no foreign adventurism.

    Solution: price gasoline accurately, to reflect the wars that are fought becuase we have a “strategic interest” in the middle east. i.e. the cost of the wars should be added on to each gallon of gasoline.

    Another solution: bring back the draft so that the congress reluctantly takes back its duty of declaring wars from the executive branch.

  2. Greg R. Lawson (History)

    I largely subscribe to the Krauthammer view. In fact, I have written numerous times on this very issue.

    The problem with the approach advocated by President Obama with respect to global stability is his assumption that other powers can or will fill the vacuum left by a U.S. retrenchment as it confronts internal issues.

    Certainly, nature abhors a vacuum so many assume that either another power (or a concert of like minded global institutions) will fill in the gaps left by a declining America. However, even if this holds universally true, it does not define the time frame for such a new balance to emerge nor does it take into consideration the damage done in the interim period of anarchy.

    Consequently, America is subject to a form of the “Hegemon’s Dilema” as it no longer has the ability to step back from its position of global power and responsibility without inviting a much more unpleasant world, including a world that is already experiencing what I term to be a “Golden Age of Proliferation.”

    Anarchy, proliferation, potential resurrection of great power strife. These are what we face.

    Krauthammer’s position, even if infused with a bit of arrogant triumphalism, remains the necessary antidote to the uncertainty of what will happen absent the America of the post World War II epoch to maintain relative (even if far from absolute) stability.

  3. FSB (History)

    I disagree with Mr. Lawson — I think we will be truly Unipolar when we look inwards and fix the “unipole” within. Talking in terms of a power vacuum abroad and a dilemmas to do with hegemony is setting up the argument incorrectly and betrays a misunderstanding of our founding principles. It is in a profound sense, un-American.

    The “better” American it appears, these days, is always the one who is willing to be the more paranoid hawk. This is wrong.

    How did this come about?

    When did this self-perception change in America? When did we go from being a nation leery of intervening abroad, to one that has almost destroyed itself doing so?

    Was it Pearl Harbor? Before?

    America did not start out this way.

    The true American spirit was anti-military, anti-colonial. If it was pro-defense, it was most certainly more isolationist and anti-offense.

    Here is James Madison — a real American — who was quite explicit that he did not want an overgrown military branch:

    “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

    Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

    In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…. [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”


    So I am against power projection abroad (mainly to secure oil, little else). I subscribe to the view articulated by Andrew Bacevich in his many recent books such as “The Limits of Power” and “Washington Rules”.

    And this is not a right vs. left issue.

    Even the libertarian CATO authors agree with me:

    e.g. “Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It” by Benjamin H. Friedman, Jim Harper, and Christopher A. Preble

    “U.S. policymakers too often manipulate and exaggerate the threat of terrorism. The result is a public that believes what terrorists want people to think: that they are global supervillains who can wreck American society unless we submit to their demands. The attempted bombing in Times Square demonstrates again the tensions between media and political demands to ratchet up fears and the focused, methodical, investigatory work that counters terrorism. In Terrorizing Ourselves: How U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It, leading scholars and analysts dismantle much of the flawed thinking that dominates U.S. counterterrorism policy today. They demonstrate that polices inspired by the specter of indomitable terrorists are self-defeating, leading to needless war, wasted wealth, and diminished freedoms. The authors offer alternative counterterrorism and homeland security strategies, ones that play to American confidence rather than fear, while making us safer.”

    Also see:


    “Numerous polls show that Americans want to reduce our military presence abroad, allowing our allies and other nations to assume greater responsibility both for their own defense and for enforcing security in their respective regions. In The Power Problem, Christopher A. Preble explores the aims, costs, and limitations of the use of this nation’s military power; throughout, he makes the case that the majority of Americans are right, and the foreign policy experts who disdain the public’s perspective are wrong. Preble is a keen and skeptical observer of recent U.S. foreign policy experiences, which have been marked by the promiscuous use of armed intervention. He documents how the possession of vast military strength runs contrary to the original intent of the Founders, and has, as they feared, shifted the balance of power away from individual citizens and toward the central government, and from the legislative and judicial branches of government to the executive.

    In Preble’s estimate, if policymakers in Washington have at their disposal immense military might, they will constantly be tempted to overreach, and to redefine ever more broadly the �national interest.� Preble holds that the core national interest-preserving American security-is easily defined and largely immutable. Possessing vast military power in order to further other objectives is, he asserts, illicit and to be resisted. Preble views military power as purely instrumental: if it advances U.S. security, then it is fulfilling its essential role. If it does not-if it undermines our security, imposes unnecessary costs, and forces all Americans to incur additional risks-then our military power is a problem, one that only we can solve. As it stands today, Washington’s eagerness to maintain and use an enormous and expensive military is corrosive to contemporary American democracy.”

    • B_D (History)

      FSB –

      But, the world is significantly different today than in Madison’s era. So, I don’t think it would be wise for the US to adopt a foreign policy that was presented in the context and environment of the late 1700’s.

      And, I fear that if the US were to adopt an isolationist stance in the near future that is similar to the position the US held prior to her entry into WWII, she would be helping to usher in somewhat similar conditions in the world that existed as a result of Britain’s waining power after WWI.

      And, I think the political order of the world in the coming decades will, to a great degree, be dictated by how the US handles difficult and super-power-wanna-be regimes like Iran today.

      And, I leave you with the following article that takes a very critical look at the problems caused by American isolationism prior to WWII and how it relates to how the US should deal with Iran today.:


    • FSB (History)


      I don’t call for adopting an outright isolationist view. Just much much less interventionist. e.g. This should not be happening:


      We need to strive to the ideal of Madison, even though we will not achieve it.

  4. Greg R. Lawson (History)

    I appreciate the comments above. I understand the perspective it represents and am all too familiar with Madison’s perspectives on power and John Quincy Adams’ admonition not to go searching abroad for monsters to confront.

    My point, however, is that American isolationism, at least military isolationism, helped to create the circumstances that led to World War II a conflagration with no equal in history (though by no means was the only or even most important cause).

    I do think the post World War II epoch has forced a large change in America’s role in the world whether we like it or not. This is NOT to say we should be stupid and over committ. Indeed, I am a believer in diplomatic flexibility before all. However, diplomatic flexibility can only be believable when married to the potential (though not necessarily actual) deployment of force.

    The desire to substitute legal frameworks for power did not work in the interwar period of the 20s and 30s. It will not, ultimately, work now.

    • FSB (History)

      I appreciate your comments. Only, I feel we have waaaay overshot in the opposite direction from where we were pre- WW II. We cannot be the United States of the World. Or at least modify the Constitution to reflect that change.

      Basically I agree with the authors (the CATO folks, and Andrew Bacevich) I mentioned above and won’t re-hash their thoughts here.

    • kme (History)

      The desire to substitute legal frameworks for power did not work in the interwar period of the 20s and 30s. It will not, ultimately, work now.

      A similar argument is used a lot, particularly around the efforts for the eradiction of nuclear weapons. The argument posits that some factor (nuclear weapons; USA global hegemony) is resposible for curbing great power warfare in the post-WWII period, and thus if we take that factor away we can expect to return to an era of great power warfare. The argument is compelling, but I am not sure it is correct.

      The other day I observed a bridge being constructed. The process involved constructing a temporary support structure, followed by the pouring of concrete. Once the concrete had completely hardened, it was able to support its own weight and the temporary supports were removed.

      I wonder if the norm of peace between the great powers in the international system is not something like this. In the last half of the 20th century, the threat of nuclear war operated like a temporary support structure – forcing peace where there would otherwise have been war. However, over time the norm against war has hardened; at some point, the norm becomes self-supporting, and we can safely remove the temporary support structures.

  5. MarkoB (History)

    You’re right to focus on this. I suspect that a lot of the neocons (but also Clinton i.e. NATO expansion) were all about locking in the unipolar moment.The realist scholar Chris Layne, however, called the unipolar moment the “unipolar illusion.” What he meant, if memory serves,is that new great powers would arise to balance US power, a point recently repeated in a book by S. Walt (the world’s leading IR thinker at the moment I reckon). But could there have been a deeper unipolar illusion? Maybe the real unipolar illusion was based on two points (a) the unipolarists overestimated the political affects that US military power could have on world politics (i.e. Iraq etc) and (b) the US economy was the mother of all bubbles, so the unipolar moment was economically unsustainable hence an illusion. In the 1990s two questions were asked (1) what to do with American primacy? (2) What to do with all that cash?(that the rich made courtesy of Reagan-Bush-Clinton). The neocons answered (1) and wall street answered (2). The results are now in. So the unipolar illusion burst and the bubble burst and Obama has to deal with the consequences. Strategic arms control is one consequence of this, one might argue. I think this whole unipolar thing is very important, either way.

  6. Alan (History)

    Interesting comment today on the BBC, referencing the NYT (although I couldn’t find it in their online edition), quoting from Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars”.

    Mr Woodward’s book paints a picture of President Obama demanding an exit strategy, saying “I can’t lose the whole Democratic party” and irritated with the military for boxing him.

    Perhaps most significantly it hints at conflicts to come over the timetable for a US withdrawal.

    It quotes the top US soldier in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, as believing they could “get more time on the clock”, and then being told by a senior advisor: “That’s a dramatic misreading of this president.”

    While not wanting to derive too much from a single quote, it would at least reinforce Krauthammer’s fears, but perhaps most interestingly it may suggest Obama could genuinely be interested in regional solutions to these conflicts. It certainly seems to correspond with US activities in Iraq.

    • FSB (History)

      Looks like Obama will not get much traction with any substantial political entity:


      “TARIQ ALI: I know some of his supporters might feel it’s a little harsh, but I think that we’ve had two years of him now, Amy, and the contours of this administration are now visible. And essentially, it is a conservative administration which has changed the mood music. So the talk is better. The images of the administration are better, the reasonable looks. But in terms of what they do—in foreign policy, we’ve seen a continuation of the Bush-Cheney policies, and worse, in AfPak, as they call it, and at home, we’ve seen a total capitulation to the lobbyists, to the corporations. The fact that the healthcare bill was actually drafted by someone who used to be an insurance lobbyist says it all.

      So, it’s essentially now a PR operation to get him reelected. But I don’t think people are that dumb. I’ve been speaking to some of his, you know, partisan supporters, and they’re disappointed. So the big problem for Obama is that if you do nothing and promise that you would bring about some changes, you will not have people coming out to vote for you again. And building up the tea party into this great bogey isn’t going to work. It’s your own supporters you have to convince to come out and vote for you, as they did before. I can’t see that happening.

    • alan (History)

      Dunno. The US is down to 50,000 troops in Iraq, with a monthly pullout program to reduce them to 10,000 by Nov 2011. The chances of a renewed SOFA there after that date now seem negligible. Furthermore, the US also now seems prepared to concede significant influence to Iran there, unless they have placed their faith entirely in Iraqi nationalism transcending all, which seems a little unlikely.

      In Afghanistan, well, it’s a mess isn’t it? It’s way beyond anything controllable by the US. There is a certain reality to all this that seems inescapable to me.

      We could be about to see something really interesting.

      Or maybe not.

  7. Robert Merkel (History)

    I hate to point out the obvious, but American unipolarity is going to run into economic reality in the near future – or, perhaps, it already has.

    While per-capita GDP will remain higher in the USA (and the rest of the currently developed world) than in Brazil, India, and China, probably for the next century, the USA’s fraction of world GDP has peaked and will continue to drop over the next few decades.

    Some time in the 2030s, China will most likely overtake the US as the world’s largest economy. India’s share of world GDP is also growing very quickly.

    Where GDP goes, influence follows.

    Yes, the USA could try the Soviet approach and increase the fraction of its economy devoted to the military, but we all know how well that worked for the Soviets.

    This does not mean that the United States is doomed, or that it will be anything other than an immensely rich and powerful country. Its “sole hyperpower” status, however, is not long for this world.

  8. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’m amused by the pundits for Empire who think that maintaining the current American stance on world security is simply a matter of will. There are forces of economic reality at work to limit our range of actions. For the foreseeable future the range of American options will be in large part measured by how much more poverty Americans are ready to stomach in order to fuel the flawed political fantasies of the Left and the Right.

    American politics has degraded into a faith based non analytical set of stances that was fostered for the hoi-poli then adopted by the very institutions that created what they knew was a falsely simplified message to keep the masses happy, for themselves as if it were real. I think after the Cold War was won, the real intellectuals abandoned politics and left its for the true believers who are unable to look at themselves in the mirror with a critical eye.

    My fav quote was the end of “Messianic” political creeds. Yeah, right, replaced by the messiah of themselves.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, in so many ways.

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