The fall of the Berlin Wall certainly marks the conclusion of an era. What John F. Kennedy had called the ‘long twilight struggle’ ended, as T.E. Lawrence might say, ‘not with a bang, but with a whimper.’ The gesture was both symbolic and real: Germany was united and the Soviet Union faced imminent collapse due to its own failings and the aggressive nature of Ronald Reagan. While some Americans predicted the very ‘end of history’ and others expected rich peace dividends, history had something else in store. Rather than simplifying the world, the conclusion of the Cold War, if possible, complicated events further. No longer was there a single ideological enemy, but a mess of a rogue states, terrorists, moral quandaries, and rising powers emerged.
Until now, sorting out this chaos has been a difficult task that has never been completed with satisfaction. I say ‘until now’ because Thomas Henriksen has produced such an ambitious work in American Power after the Berlin Wall. His book offers a thorough and necessary exploration of the recent past, littered with relevant and interesting quotes from contemporary players, historical figures, and political philosophers (Regarding 9/11, “Hell is truth seen too late” – Thomas Hobbes).
Historians have a key advantage in their analysis – decades, perhaps centuries and millennia, of separation that allow an interpretation of the events that can fit nicely into known conclusions, justifying the current state of affairs. While Henriksen is afforded no such luxury in his study of relatively recent events, he lacks neither clarity nor confidence in his referenced, comprehensive walk-through of the last score of years. His writing style allows a certain ease of reading uncharacteristic of many sweeping works, and he manages to condense a lot of information into a fairly short book.
But the book is not merely descriptive but also evaluative, and this is important. His assessments of the global situation are well-informed and nicely presented. While Henriksen can be necessarily critical of certain actions, his analysis proves that, on balance, American use of power has been a positive set of actions. And he remains refreshingly optimistic about the future, stating that our “‘unipolar moment’ has far from lapsed” – and that there is much more to do. While I was personally disappointed not to see more regarding the rise of potentially competitive states, I conclude that any future policymaker must read this book: Henriksen’s analysis of dealing with rogue states and terrorism are exactly the precedents requiring study in the current struggle against radical Islam. But do not take my word for it: George Shultz, Reagan’s Secretary of State, informs us: “This informative review of post-Cold War foreign policies provides and stimulates thoughtful reflections on strategy and tactics for the future. Well written and rewarding.”
If you have any ambition regarding the formulation or implementation of foreign policy in the near future, if you have any interest in the last few years, or if you have an upcoming lazy Saturday afternoon, pick up this book post-haste.