The Breakup: American Foreign Policy in the 1970s

A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s
Daniel J. Sargent (New York: Oxford UP, 2015)

Early in White House Years, the first volume of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs, the former secretary of state and national security adviser details the worldview he carried with him into office. “In the life of nations, as of human beings, a point is often reached when the seemingly limitless possibilities of youth suddenly narrow and one must come to grips with the fact that not every option is open any longer,” Kissinger writes. “The process of coming to grips with one’s limits is never easy.” It was an America of limits which he tried to guide when he became Richard Nixon’s chief foreign policy adviser in 1969.

According to Kissinger, the US was “in a period of painful adjustment to a profound transformation of global politics; we were being forced to come to grips with the tension between our history and our new necessities.” He saw his role as one of managing American decline, adjusting to a world where the US no longer predominated while also maintaining as much power as possible under the country’s altered circumstances.

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White House Years outlined the causes of what Kissinger saw as the dimming of America’s fortunes: a resurgent Europe and Japan, a Soviet Union growing in power, the burgeoning independence of the third world, and the disaster in Vietnam. “Our resources were no longer infinite in relation to our problems,” Kissinger wrote. “Instead we had to set priorities, both intellectual and material.”

Kissinger’s book was written in 1979, but Daniel J. Sargent, author of A Superpower Transformed: The Remaking of American Foreign Relations in the 1970s, still finds Kissinger’s analysis of these times to be accurate more than thirty-five years later. A historian at the University of California Berkeley, Sargent argues that the years spanning the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations indeed witnessed a deterioration in America’s position in the world from its postwar dominance. Where Sargent differs from Kissinger, whose presence permeates this book, is on the question of what replaced American supremacy.


For Kissinger, whose academic specialty was eighteenth-century Europe, the world was returning to a traditional balance of power among great states, a system in which the US would share international influence with the Soviet Union and countries like Germany, Japan, China, and England. Sargent contends instead that American predominance was replaced by globalization. Used interchangeably with “interdependence,” globalization is loosely defined by Sargent as “the integration of markets in its narrowest definition and the expansion of social and economic processes to the planetary scale in its broadest sense.” He asserts: “With the implosion of the Cold War order, international trade and financial globalization resurged, reaching levels not seen since the nineteenth century.” In discussing American decline, Sargent points to the country’s transition from a production-based economy to one dependent on external inputs; to the fact that 1971 saw the county’s first trade deficit since 1893; and, not least, to the fact that the US became an oil importer after decades of being the world’s largest oil producer.

Indeed, oil plays a large role in the story Sargent tells. Its ability to influence world affairs wasn’t always anticipated by senior members of the Nixon administration. An exasperated Kissinger told aides in 1973, “Don’t talk to me about barrels of oil. They might as well be bottles of Coca-Cola. I don’t understand!” His state-centric perspective could not incorporate the importance of less traditional metrics of power, such as energy commodities.

But the oil shocks of the mid-1970s were not temporary aberrations. They were, instead, according to Sargent, “the result of economic changes and geological realities.” The growing self-confidence of newly independent third-world oil producers led them to renegotiate contracts with Western oil companies to ensure better profits, increasing the price in the process. It also inspired them to cooperate to embargo oil against the United States for supporting Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The increasing American appetite for petroleum stretched supply, compounding the problem.

Such developments often shocked policymakers. In a prior century, Kissinger said wistfully, the great powers “would have landed, they would have divided up the oil fields, and they would have solved the problem.” Alas, widespread notions of decolonization, self-determination, and human rights now precluded such actions. Not that this reality soothed Kissinger’s irritation. “It is ridiculous that the civilized world is held up by eight million savages,” he ranted during the oil crisis. “We are now living in a never-never land in which tiny, poor, and weak nations can hold up for ransom some of the industrialized world.” Nixon reportedly told the shah of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, that he would support an Iranian invasion of Saudi Arabia if necessary; Kissinger mused about conquering oil-rich Libya.

Late though he may have been to the party, Kissinger identified the problem swiftly. “A new international system is replacing the structure of the immediate postwar years,” he said. “The energy crisis indicates the birth pains of global interdependence.” A Superpower Transformed does a good job of describing Kissinger’s diplomatic acrobatics in adapting America to its lessened position in the world.

Long forgotten now, the New International Economic Order (NIEO) was an effort by third-world nations to restructure global North-South relations along lines more favorable to the latter, based on the theory that what was keeping poorer nations poor was the behavior of the wealthier countries. Taking inspiration from OPEC’s behavior, NIEO proposed that developing countries nationalize their natural resources. It inspired the Group of 77 to pass the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, which gave governments absolute power over private property and any economic activity within their countries.

In response, Kissinger brilliantly set the third-world countries against each other, offering enough concessions to lure some developing nations into dropping ideas of nationalization or other extreme measures. He fashioned the concept of economic summits, designed to encourage the industrialized nations to coordinate their economic policies.


Unfortunately, Kissinger, along with Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford, was less successful in accommodating to new ideas about human rights. Nor did Kissinger anticipate, as he admits in the third volume of his memoirs, published in 1999, the emergence of neoconservatism, which in the 1970s was largely a noisy faction of Democratic centrists led by Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson who felt the Soviets were advancing as a result of détente with Moscow.

Though Kissinger is now firmly embraced by virtually all movement conservatives, the neocons first became an important factor in American politics in opposing what they regarded as Kissinger’s amoral foreign policy—notably his accommodationist approach to the Soviets. As Sargent tells it, Kissinger insisted that lessening superpower tensions was in fact the most moral action the United States could take: “We have an historic obligation to engage the Soviet Union and to push back the shadow of nuclear catastrophe.” But there was significant space between going to war and keeping silent about the Russians’ totalitarian system. “The proponents of human rights were not proposing to take the world to the brink of nuclear war,” as Sargent puts it. “Rather, they presumed that a mature superpower relationship could withstand some advocacy on behalf of ideological commitments.” Sargent wisely notes that, for Kissinger, “invoking the specter of nuclear holocaust offered legitimation for policies that he believes served geopolitical interests.”

The reality is that Kissinger simply didn’t care much for human rights or democratization as forces in world affairs. Good student of aristocratic Europe that he was, he believed that sovereignty trumped humanitarian considerations. Tapes released in 2010 revealed Kissinger complaining in 1973 about the pressure placed on the administration to convince the USSR to allow its oppressed Jews to emigrate. “If they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern,” he tells Nixon. (When released, the tapes’ contents were denounced in only the mildest terms by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, who weighed them against Kissinger’s support for Israel.)

Liberals like Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and new groups like Amnesty International joined the neocons in calling on the Nixon and Ford administrations to foreground human rights as a concern of American foreign policy. Between 1973 and 1975, Congress enacted a series of laws that banned aid from being dispersed to certain countries that were severe human rights violators, as well as mandating the State Department to submit reports on human rights in countries receiving American aid. The concept’s importance can be judged by the fact that Kissinger used the term “human rights” in 5.5 percent of his public statements in 1974, 13.2 percent in 1975, and 39.6 percent in 1976. Nonetheless, détente as a concept, and Kissinger as an individual, came under constant criticism from both 1976 Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter and former Governor Ronald Reagan, who ran strongly against Ford in the 1976 Republican primaries.

All of this is recounted masterfully in A Superpower Transformed, which has a superb grasp of the literature of the Cold War. Sargent perhaps overstates America’s dominance following World War II—even at its height, the United States couldn’t prevent, say, China from being taken over by Communists. And it was the threat of Nazi Germany that really made notions of complete independence of action on the part of Americans completely obsolete. But as a guide to the upheaval that bedeviled policymakers in the 1970s, this book is among the best yet to appear.

Jordan Michael Smith, a contributing writer at Salon and the Christian Science Monitor, has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Atlantic.

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