Revolution - DÉtente and its critics



The difficulties of supporting overseas revolution during the Cold War contributed to a crisis of American confidence in the late 1960s. Citizens and leaders doubted whether they could make a world with nuclear weapons, ubiquitous protest movements, and profound economic inequalities safe for democracy. Many individuals—including President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser (and later secretary of state), Henry Kissinger—believed that inherited American sensibilities were out of touch with international realities. Radical critics condemned the nation's long-standing ideals for producing destruction and devastation instead of helping those most in need.

Nixon and Kissinger sought to curtail America's revolutionary ambitions. They emphasized an international balance of power rather than promises for positive change. Through a series of agreements with former adversaries—especially the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China—they created a framework for great power cooperation that limited conflict between different revolutionary models. At home they discredited critics who called for a more idealistic foreign policy. This period, called the era of détente by contemporaries, was one of unprecedented American pessimism and retrenchment. Nixon and Kissinger's foreign policy cut against the grain of basic American assumptions regarding the virtues of liberty and enterprise. After the turmoil of the 1960s, citizens grew skeptical about the application of these values overseas. Americans, however, were also uncomfortable with the empty realpolitik of détente. A foreign policy guided by balance of power considerations, rather than principles, promised only permanent struggle. Americans could not escape their inherited belief in progress. The stability promised by Nixon and Kissinger was not enough. The period of détente ended in the late 1970s as the nation began, yet again, to pursue revolutionary aspirations abroad.

Despite their significant differences, Presidents James Earl Carter and Ronald Reagan embodied this return to revolution in the wake of détente. They promised a more open and democratic foreign policy, one that embraced human rights and condemned communist infringements on liberty and enterprise. They pledged to fight when necessary to make the world safe for democracy. Most importantly, these two presidents spoke of remaking foreign societies in America's image. This is what Reagan meant when he repeatedly claimed that it was "morning in America."

Reagan's popularity at home and abroad speaks to the power of this idealistic message. When the Soviet government began to loosen its grip on Eastern Europe and its own society after 1985, his affirmations of American-style liberty and enterprise contributed to a new period of international optimism. In contrast to the 1960s, the United States now appeared poised to bring democracy and wealth to long-repressed and impoverished lands. The world had reached, in the frequently repeated words of Francis Fukuyama, the "end of history." According to this argument, America's liberal capitalism embodied a system of values that would finally revolutionize the entire world.

Most observers understood that they had not reached anything like the end of history. American ideals remained highly contested. Their applicability in various environments awaited demonstration. Nonetheless, American citizens found themselves drawn to Reagan's rhetoric because it promised international revolution on U.S. terms. It affirmed the messianic quality of America's political model. All of Reagan's successors in the late twentieth century, especially President William Jefferson Clinton, repeated his rhetoric.



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