Chapter 14 America in Our Time, 1992–Present
The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only military superpower. Some hoped that the nation would respond with massive reductions in military spending, perhaps even an “America first” policy that was similar to the isolationism of earlier periods in US history. Taxpayers had spent $4 trillion building nuclear weapons and trillions more maintaining its military and fighting proxy wars around the globe. Two generations had lost their lives fighting in wars many believed were a mistake and for causes that seemed no longer relevant. Others hoped that America would use its unrivaled military and economic power to promote democracy and human rights around the globe. Still others saw the end of the Cold War as an opportunity for profitable business expansion via globalization.
In many ways, each of these ideas affected US diplomacy in the post–Cold War years. However, even after the fall of Communism, US foreign policy was as much a response to the actions of others throughout the globe as it was an attempt by Americans to shape the world around them. A series of economic crises reminded Americans that their economy and their nation were part of a global system. The cowardice of nineteen terrorists on September 11, 2001, likewise reminded the nation of its vulnerabilities, while the response to this attack demonstrated the character of its people. The attack also awakened the world to the ways that the Cold War had obscured ethnic, religious, and regional conflicts in places such as Central Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The relationship between the two biggest challenges of the post–Cold War era—global security and economic stability—would shape the US response to the terrorist attacks and define the politics of the next two decades.