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Danziger: Trading Down

Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons and one novel. Visit him at

Weekend Reader: ‘A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking Of American Foreign Relations In The 1970s’

Since the passage of the Marshall Plan, the United States has played a unique and unprecedented role on the global stage. Over the course of the last several decades, the nation’s status as a superpower has evolved several valences: America as cultural imperialist, America as the “world’s policeman,” and America as the beacon of freedom and democracy.

Historian Daniel J. Sargent identifies the 1970s as the crucial period when the tectonics of global power shifted and Pax Americana entered a new and consequential phase. How the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter negotiated the new forces of globalization, and the full impact of their actions, with which we as a nation are still reckoning, is the subject of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970san exhaustive and illuminating study of geopolitics in action and the balance of power in transition.

You can purchase the book here.

A superpower is different. Unlike most other international actors, it operates on the world scale and even presumes responsibility for the international system as a whole. For William Fox, the political scientist who in 1944 distinguished the “super powers” from the rest, what made a superpower were military and geopolitical resources: armed forces and the far-flung bases from which they operate. Yet power, as Fox acknowledged, is relational; it involves the capacity to shape outcomes, to compel others to do what they would not do otherwise. Arms furnish power; but affluence coerces, ideas persuade, and culture entices. The resources on which power depends are myriad, and they are specific to context. As resources ebb and flow and the diverse contexts in which power is wielded evolve, superpowers rise and fall.

Fox identified three superpowers in his times: Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Yet, British superpower was a facade; it could not overcome material debilities and historical processes, especially decolonization, which dried the wellsprings of Britain’s power. This left two. The Soviet Union was at the Second World War’s end the world’s vastest state, and its geographic expanse gave the Red Army proximity to the industrial heartlands of Europe and Northeast Asia. The war’s end nonetheless found the Soviet Union in ruins and its leaders anxious to consolidate a defensive security. America’s predicament stood in stark contrast. The United States bestrode the world in 1945, supreme in military capabilities, serene in geopolitical security, and unrivaled in economic productivity. Confident in their power, American leaders intended to remake the international order, expecting to assume “the responsibility which God Almighty intended,” as President Truman put it, “for the welfare of the world.”

Estrangement between the United States and the Soviet Union transformed the postwar order into a bipolar settlement in which Washington assumed hegemonic responsibilities—not for the whole world, as Truman envisaged, but for the parts of it in which American influence and American arms predominated. The Cold War (or postwar) order that emerged from the 1940s endured for less than a quarter of a century. The postwar order collapsed in the 1970s, and a historical transformation in the superpower role of the United States ensued. This transformation proceeded across distinct arenas of international engagement; it redefined the sources of American power; and it wrought durable consequences, opening a new phase in America’s career as a global superpower.

Until the 1970s, the United States superintended a rules-based international economic order in which tariffs and financial controls kept globalization at bay. With the implosion of the Cold War order, international trade and financial globalization resurged, reaching levels not seen since the late nineteenth century. The relationship of US economic power to the world economy also shifted. The United States in the era of the Cold War was a dynamo of production, an industrial hub, from which resources flowed outward to allies and clients. By the 1970s, this role could not be sustained. “Americans are moving into an era when we are going to be dependent on the outside world,” explained one former official in 1973. “American self-sufficiency is over.” In the 1970s, the US economy became dependent on external inputs, which made the United States a beneficiary of globalization, as it had been in the late nineteenth century. The United States in 1971 ran its first trade deficit since 1893. It became in the mid-1980s dependent on foreigners’ savings to sustain domestic consumption and to finance what Fox defined as the superpower’s hallmark—its worldwide military reach. The US government, meanwhile, began to cede the responsibility for managing the world economic order that it had exercised since the 1940s—not to foreign nation-states but to integrating markets.

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American military power did not retreat from the world in the 1970s, but the locus of its exercise shifted from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, which became a primary zone of US engagement, alongside Europe and Northeast Asia. Having delegated responsibility for regional security to allies and clients, the United States came in the late 1970s to accept a permanent military role in the Persian Gulf. This reorientation hinged on economic changes, which the oil crises of the 1970s made manifest. The world’s dominant oil producer until the late 1960s, the United States became in the 1970s an oil importer. In 1977, Americans imported more than half the oil they consumed. In energy, as in other sectors, the advantages that once made the United States the powerhouse of the world economy were narrowing; as the margins of superiority closed, Americans imported more oil, more goods, and more capital, and the superpower became dependent upon the resources that an integrating world economy furnished.

If the United States was no longer the freestanding colossus it had been in the 1940s, new developments afforded its leaders opportunities to reinvent Washington’s hegemonic role. A remaking of Cold War geopolitics centered on China. Until the late 1960s, Washington engaged the Communist world as a bloc and China as a foe. China and the United States nonetheless became tacit allies by the end of the seventies, and their realignment carried great significance. Developments beyond the realm of geopolitics opened up different kinds of opportunities. A mobilization for human rights flourished, not in the arena of interstate relations, but in a transnational realm of activism, engagement, and mobilization. The United States, like other governments, at first viewed human rights as an intrusion on the prerogatives of nation-states, but Washington came during the 1970s to align itself, at least rhetorically, with the new idiom of justice. Doing so marked the resurgence of a crusading style in US foreign policy and the end of a pragmatic Cold War phase, during which American leaders accepted ideological diversity as a reality of international life and a prerequisite for stability, even survival.

The transformation of the American superpower in the 1970s was neither foreordained nor planned. Rather, it followed a series of adaptations to unexpected and confounding circumstances. This is not to say that American decision-makers in the 1970s did not pursue grand designs; they did, but these decision-makers mostly failed to achieve their intended purposes. Instead, they improvised in response to events that their strategies neither anticipated nor accommodated. Leaders thus participated in the remaking of America’s super- power role, but they did not fabricate history on their own terms, as they them- selves acknowledged. “History,” Henry Kissinger reflected, “is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different from what one expected.” Explaining how the seventies transformed America’s world role and remade its superpower vocation, not according to a coherent design but in a chaotic pattern, is the central task of this book.

If you enjoyed this excerpt, purchase the full book here.

Reprinted from A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s by Daniel J. Sargent with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press. The book was published on January 2, 2015.

Hagel’s Exit From Pentagon Still Leaves Administration Divided

By W.J. Hennigan and Christi Parsons, Tribune Washington Bureau (TNS)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation Monday amid pressure from the White House clears the way for a new Pentagon leader but still leaves the administration divided over the issues that helped lead to his downfall — most notably how to approach the intertwined problems of the Islamic State militants and the civil war in Syria.

Hagel’s exit starkly illustrates how much national security priorities have shifted in the past two years. When he was appointed, administration officials expected him to focus on ending expensive ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and handling a massive budget retrenchment at the Pentagon.

In an announcement at the White House, Obama praised Hagel’s leadership in overseeing those matters, but said “it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service.”

White House officials had grown increasingly dissatisfied with him as the military’s focus shifted to renewed combat with the Islamic State militants who have taken control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Hagel often appeared ill-at-ease when trying to publicly articulate administration policy on that fight.

The high-profile departure means Obama is in the hunt for his fourth defense secretary in six years, a total matched only by Harry S. Truman, who created the position in 1947.

Hagel’s rift with Obama began to emerge in late October when a blunt two-page memo Hagel wrote about Syria surfaced. In it, he warned the White House that the overall plan in Syria could collapse because U.S. intentions toward Syrian President Bashar Assad were unclear.

Obama has called on Assad to step down but has refused to authorize using military force, including a proposed proxy army of rebels, to remove him.

Hagel never mentioned the disagreement publicly and evaded questions about the memo.

Administration officials acknowledged that the president was ready for Hagel to move on so he could name someone else to lead the Pentagon. But White House aides denied that Hagel and Obama no longer see eye-to-eye about important matters of foreign policy.

Obama did not pressure Hagel to leave because of the memo, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. The two men “arrived together at the determination” that someone else would be “better suited” to lead the Pentagon, Earnest said.

The president’s search for another defense secretary was not lost on ranking Republicans in Congress.

“When the president goes through three secretaries, he should ask: ‘Is it them, or is it me?'” said House Armed Services Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, vice chairman of the committee, accused the White House of micromanaging the military.

“Secretary Hagel’s successor must be a person who is strong enough to stand up against such attempts, who is willing to speak up for our men and women in uniform, and who is prepared to advocate for what it takes for them to succeed in the missions they are assigned,” he said.
Hagel, 68, was the only Republican in the upper echelon of Obama’s circle of advisers. He and Obama forged a friendship in the Senate, where both were critics of the Iraq war.

Hagel won a bitter Senate confirmation battle in February 2013 but never fully fit in with the White House security team, a close-knit group whose most influential members were part of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign.

He never displayed the brash personality that earned him maverick status as a Republican senator from Nebraska who took controversial positions and delivered blunt assessments on issues.

At congressional hearings on the strategy against Islamic State, Hagel often took a back seat to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, who frequently offers frank answers to lawmakers’ questions.

Speaking at the White House alongside the president, Hagel said the post was the “greatest privilege of my life.” He said he will remain defense secretary until Congress confirms his replacement.

A nominee will be named “in short order,” a senior administration official said.

In addition to fighting Islamic State, Hagel’s successor will oversee a host of challenges across the globe.

A resurgent Russia continues to provoke NATO allies in eastern Europe and has successfully annexed Crimea from Ukraine. The Taliban has stepped up terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, which led the Pentagon to plan a broader role for troops next year. And it has begun a multibillion-dollar effort to overhaul nearly every aspect of the military’s nuclear forces, which have been stung by a series of scandals and mishaps in recent years.

The next defense secretary is in for a difficult task, said John Pike, director of, a website for military policy.

“From a military standpoint, the White House wants to do as little as possible until their two years are up,” he said. “They want to ride it out and hand over their problems to the next administration.”

Obama has been looking at several candidates to run the Pentagon. Two said to be under consideration are Michele Flournoy, a former military adviser, and Ashton Carter, a former Pentagon official who was on the short list when Hagel was chosen.

Flournoy would be the first woman to hold the job, the kind of history-making choice that appeals to Obama, who tapped Eric H. Holder Jr. as the first black attorney general and nominated a successor to Holder, Loretta Lynch, who would be the first black woman to run the Justice Department.

Regardless of who the president chooses, the confirmation process could become a proxy debate over the president’s military strategy.

The Republican majority taking control of Congress in January has already promised greater scrutiny of the fights against Islamic State and in Afghanistan.

Republicans have repeatedly criticized Obama for declining to leave a residual military force in Iraq when he called an end to combat operations in 2011, which they contend led to the rise of Islamic State. They also blame him for not providing Syrian rebels with arms earlier in the civil war when it might have been most beneficial.

Any nominee will have to navigate complicated politics, satisfying both hawkish Republicans and anti-interventionists in the party such as Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, as well as liberal Democrats who have gained a new foothold in the party leadership after the midterm elections thinned the ranks of red-state moderates.

AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla

Obama, Putin Exchange Little More Than Pleasantries In China

By Christi Parsons, Los Angeles Times

BEIJING — President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin came to agreement on Tuesday – that the soaring cloisonne ceilings and elaborately carved teak wood at the Yanqi Lake conference center here were really quite nice.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Putin said in Obama’s general direction as they walked into the room.

“Yes,” Obama agreed, admiring the scenery and not making eye contact with anyone in particular.

The exchange was as close to a meeting of the minds as the two men are going to come during their time at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit of world leaders and CEOs, and it took place in careful proximity to a watching group of reporters and television cameras.

The two leaders and their aides had clearly agreed it wasn’t in their interests to completely ignore each other, but Obama was in no mood to clap the Russian leader on the back.

Putin hasn’t complied with the world request that he withdraw troops from Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists continue to move in the east and a cease-fire agreement appears to be faltering.

Obama, furious as he is, can’t afford to entirely alienate someone with such influence in some of the world’s biggest hot spots, including Syria and Iran.

Their awkward exchanges did not go unnoticed.

At the opening plenary session on Tuesday, the rest of the world leaders noticeably hung back and let their host, Chinese President Xi Jinping, handle the contentious pair. They walked in as a group, with Xi at the lead and Obama on one side and Putin on the other.

Putin was the one to reach out with the “isn’t it beautiful” pleasantry, and, as the two went to take their seats, he reached out to clap Obama on the shoulder.

Obama was already on his way to his seat, though, where he sat down, chewed Nicorette and coolly regarded the proceedings.

As the day went on, the Russians were spreading word about the contact, with the Kremlin spokesman telling reporters the pair had spoken “several times.”

The White House downplayed the interactions, waiting until late in the day to acknowledge that, yes, on three occasions, for a total of about 15 to 20 minutes, the men had spoken.

They talked about Iran, Syria and Ukraine, National Security Council spokesperson Bernadette Meehan said.

News cameras at an afternoon tree-planting on the Yanqi Lake grounds followed Obama and Putin as they prepared to “plant” the evergreen trees representing their nations’ participation in the 2014 summit. (In reality, each leader simply shoveled a few lumps of dirt onto the base of their already-planted tree.)

Putin swaggered toward his tree. Obama approached with his hands clasped behind his back, professor-style, and then turned his attention to a Spanish-language news crew trying to capture his attention.

“Hey, hombre!” he shouted, waving, before resuming his cool detachment.

“Success!” he joked to another leader, as they turned to go inside for more meetings.

AFP Photo/Alexey Druzhinin

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