INTRODUCTION: A superpower taking roots in the course of 20th century

Since the end of WWI, the US power had been growing and increasing more and more. The Second World War is an opportunity for American authorities to take roots as one of the two victorious superpowers. They highly contribute to the creation of the United Nations (instead of the League of Nations) – so as to solve the conflicts and guarantee peace all over the world. Nevertheless, soon after the “pacification” of Europe, the Cold War breaks out as an echo to the alliances break up.

Ups and downs in the relations between the United States and the USSR may characterize this second part of the 20th century. However, the failure of the Soviet bloc does not lead to the “End of History”,as Francis Fukuyama thought at that time. The USA is confronted to new threats and new stakes – challenging its status of superpower.

How does the United States see its role in the world since the end of WWII?

We cannot deny that during many decades, the USA has been perceived as a window of the Free World (the US President himself was called “leader of the Free World”) by comparison to the Eastern Bloc. They have rooted their influence thanks to a strategic balance between “hard power” and “soft power”. Nevertheless, the end of the bipolar world and the emergence of a unipolar world have led to increasing contests of the USA. Nowadays, confronted to new counter-powers, can they remain the global policeman they pretended to be?



A. CONTAINING COMMUNISM: Building-up of two blocs, “Cold War” and “Thaw” (1946-1953)

On March 1947, President Truman proclaims a specific idea to fight against communism. The doctrine of “containment” implies to contain and control the Soviet (military, political, cultural) influence and to avoid its advance over the borders of the Eastern bloc. Financial and economic weapons are also used. The Marshall Plan may symbolize it, insofar as it is adopted by most of the Western European states to rebuild their countries, the same year in June. At the same time, the USSR competes with the American liberal democratic model by proclaiming the “Zhdanov doctrine”.

One of the most famous and characteristic consequences of this fear of “Red Threat” will be McCarthyism. At that time, a paranoiac “witch hunt” is organized against personalities, high-ranking managers, journalists, etc. – suspected of being communist sympathizers.

Two main conflicts may characterize the Cold War at its “climax”, a period of stormy relations between the two blocs competing through peripheral conflicts. They also symbolize continual “interventionism” of American foreign policy.

The Berlin blockade takes place between 1948 and 1949. Considering the Occidental enclave in West-Berlin as a provocation, Eastern German authorities (obeying Stalin) decide to block the rail and road transits to the Western zone. The blockade is finally defeated by US airlifts (delivering food, coal, medicine). Germany is split in two parts: Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic.

Korean War opposes Northern Korean forces (under Communist influence) to Southern Korean Army (influenced and sustained by the Occidental Bloc). The conflict ends with Stalin’s death in 1953 – and a truce line (separating Seoul from Pyongyang, which still exists nowadays) is established on the 38th parallel on July 53.


After these events, the relations between the two superpowers become easier. The nuclear threat is omnipresent and establishes a balance of terror because of the arms race – but the necessity to avoid using it leads to a period of “thaw”. As an echo to the creation of NATO in 1949, the Warsaw Pact is adopted in 1955 to gather the Red Army and People’s Democracies military forces.
During the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev admits the crimes committed by the Stalinist USSR: a destalinization begins at that time. Despite his decision to open a “peaceful co-existence”, expansionist objectives remain. The same year, riots burst in Budapest against the influence of Moscow on Hungarian authorities: the rising will be bloody suppressed, with massive retaliation. Concerning the German Question, a wall is erected in Berlin in 1961 by East-Berlin authorities so as to avoid massive exiles to the Western camp. It will be denounced by Kennedy in one of his most famous speeches (“Ich bin ein Berliner”).
On 1959, Fidel Castro seizes power after the Cuban revolution. American GI’s try to land on the Bay of Pigs but they are rolled back by revolutionary troops. Nevertheless, they keep their military base there. Two years later, the Communist power allows the USSR to establish a military base on the island, with long range missiles pointed to the USA. The Cuba Missile Crisis bursts on 1962 when Kennedy establishes a naval blockade around Cuba. The conflict is finally resolved by the creation of a hot line (“Red telephone”) between the two leaders. A period of Détente begins, so as to avoid such new threats that could turn into nuclear wars.
The US army gets involved in Vietnam War in 1964 when the Vietcong invade the south of the country. The USA tries to contain the Communist rebellion, according to the Domino theory. Yet, the US Army will be dragged on the Indochinese peninsula for almost a decade, using chemical weapons such as the Orange Agent (a weedkiller used on Vietnamese forests and highly poisonous for human beings). The outcome will be the GI’s leaving the country in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. This important conflict has inspired many authors and movie-makers because of its violence, huge casualties and unpopularity. Moreover, there are increasing American contests against “imperialistic” American foreign policy – added to the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, many citizens of the “Free World” were fighting against color bar compared to imperialism and colonialism – like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or Malcolm X (Black Panthers, Black Muslims, etc.).
The Two Greats do not only compete on a political point of view, but also through their economic and cultural respective models. One of the main aspects of this competition is space rivalry, in which the USA may be considered a leader because of its technological superiority in the “race for the Moon” episode.


Helsinki agreements are adopted after the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (including the USA and Canada) so as to guarantee human rights and the 1945 borders. At that time, the Détente is at its peak – but the end of the seventies is punctuated by a revolution in Iran. In 1979, Khomeini’s partisans chase the Shah (and American influence) away and seize power to establish an Islamic Republic. Oil reserves are nationalized and a new political and cultural model spreads in the Middle East (fighting against “the Big Satan” and the “Small Satan”). The USA loses a bit of its influence in the area, but remains powerful to deliver weapons to both countries during the Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988. This is a way to neutralize two important independent and hostile states, and also a means to develop their armament industry.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is another main turning point, insofar as the USA supports the Afghan Islamic resistance –embodied by the Taliban. Speaking about them, Ronald Reagan declares in the eighties that “these gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s Founding Fathers”. Nowadays, it is well-known that Osama Ben Laden was trained by the CIA to fight against the Soviet Army. The war ends in 1989 when USSR is defeated and in rout.

At the same time there is a new internal policy, and several important reforms adopted in the USSR when Gorbachev becomes the Soviet leader: openness/transparency (Glasnost) and restructuring (Perestroika). So as to save the Communist model, he needs a new Détente with the USA. The Euromissile crisis in 1983 had cost a lot to their economy, and the Disarmament treaty signed in 1987 is an opportunity to stop the arms race. Attempts to preserve the Eastern Bloc are useless and show how weak they are in front of a “triumphant America”. In a first time, this leads to the collapse of People’s Democracies.




In 1989, economic and political crisis are at their peak in the countries of the Eastern bloc. To be precise, fascination of people for the Occidental model and the American dream add to nationalist demands. Most of these movements are supported, in a way or another, by the USA – according to the Wilson’s Fourteen Points (“right for people to be independent and to have their own Nation-State”). The weakened regimes are unable to resist to popular pressures and collapse one after the other. The Iron Curtain opens, and the Berlin Wall is destroyed on November. Germany is reunified the following year, in 1990.

With the collapse of People’s Democracies, the Soviet sphere influence is considerably undermined and sapped. In 1991, Gorbachev fails to maintain the regime: this is the end of the USSR, breaking up in many independent republics. A famous essayist (Francis Fukuyama) said that the end of bipolarity would be the “end of history”. He thought that the American only superpower would impose its model and pacify the world politically and economically. As the famous leftist journalist and philosopher Noam Chomsky said in 1994, the end of bipolarity represented an opportunity for “the United States to intervene without concern for a Soviet reaction anywhere”.


Yet, in Europe and on the other continents, many conflicts remain to establish a new world order. The Middle East quickly becomes a hot spot for American foreign policy because of oil wells and useful reserves for their economy. The USA supports Koweit when it is invaded by Iraq – triggering the First Gulf War. Huge casualties occur at that time, and Madeleine Albright justifies thousands of Iraqi dead children because of the “necessity to fight against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and weapons of mass destruction”. Another important element is the necessity to protect their Israeli ally and secure their position in the area (which is a crossroad between Europe, Asia and Africa). The Camp David Agreements had been signed in 1978 at the White House so as to guarantee peace and borders between Egypt and Israel. Yet, a new increasing problem is that of Palestinian territories and growing Jihadist anti-American movements, and their influence on the Middle East. That is why the USA as a “global policeman” is more and more called into question at the end of the nineties.

Concerning Europe, Yugoslavia breaks out in several moments because Croatia and Bosnia proclaim their independence. These wars go on for three years, with massive slaughters and ethnic cleansing committed by Croatians, Bosnians and Serbs troops against civilians in the different areas of the former Socialist Republic. The American power is part and parcel of the conflict, helping Bosnians and Croatians so as to weaken Yugoslavia, guarantee access to natural resources and establish military bases in the area. Dayton agreements are finally adopted in 1995 (after a Conference led by Bill Clinton) to stop these regional wars and recognizing the new borders and independent Nation-States.

However, the Serbian province of Kosovo remains a fundamental stake in the Balkans (“the European gunpowder”), when the Albanian majority demands its independence. Under the American influence and according to multilateralism, NATO decides to get involved in the conflict by supporting Islamic secessionists of the UCK, and by bombing Belgrade in 1999. [The most important American military base outside the US territory is actually located in Kosovo – which is an “independent state” since 2008, full of mineral reserves and administrated by the UNO. The dollar was chosen as the official currency…]




For the first time in its history (except Pearl Harbor), the USA has been attacked on its own territory. The collapse of the Twin Towers because of planes hacked by Jihadists appears like a symbol of increasing contests of the American superpower. In many countries of the Third World, the attempt against the World Trade Center was cheered and applauded. Multiplication of terrorist attacks (attributed to Osama Ben Laden or Al-Qaeda) reveals some unforeseen consequences of the US foreign policy in the Middle East – and the failure of some of their Good Neighbor policy. In many countries of the Third World, Islamic doctrines are seen as an alternative model and a means to resist to the acculturation to the Occidental way of life. They also often coincide with independent movements opposed to the interference of Developed Countries.

Ronald Reagan had talked about the “Empire of Evil” concerning the USSR. In the 1980’s, it was already considered as a Manichean vision – disrupting with an era of Good Feelings. At the beginning of the 21th century, Bush denounces the “Axis of Evil” as a group of hostile states – threatening the American interests and including the “rogue states” like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria and Libya. Chomsky had declared in the nineties that “the Soviet pretext could no longer be dredged up to justify traditional Pentagon-based industrial policy and intervention forces”. As a matter of fact, the “war on terror” was used instead of the “Red Scare”.

B. US FOREIGN POLICY LED BY UNILATERALISM (a weakened superpower confronted to new stakes)

After the trauma provoked by terrorist attacks on 9/11, George Bush Junior decides to make “war on terror” the following year, in 2002. This will lead to a Big Stick policy, with two major invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. At first, war in Afghanistan was supported by most of the Allied countries and NATO members so as to “establish democracy” instead of the Taliban regime (supposedly related to Al-Qaeda). But concerning the war in Iraq, several contesting voices are heard at the UN Security Council. France uses its veto right to forbid a UNO intervention in the area. American reaction will be extremely violent against France: “French fries” are recalled “freedom fries” (French being considered as “supporters of international terrorism and dictatorship”). Without UN agreement, the USA decides to attack Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003, pretexting the existence of chemical weapons and weapons of mass destructions. At that time, US foreign policy is led by unilateralism, and uses international legal instruments such as the right of intervention (if genocides, crimes against humanity, etc. are going to be committed). Other powers such as Russia and China emerge and take roots in the international diplomacy to counter-balance the supremacy of this “global policeman” in the following conflicts. These counter-balance powers announce a multipolar world established instead of the unipolar world of the 1990’s – and demanding a new American position on foreign affairs. The failure of this “war on terror” and the “Iraqi quagmire” and the new waves of Anti-Americanism in many countries from the North to the South have shown the necessity of multilateralism in the new world order.


CONCLUSION: A necessity of multilateralism? (Increasing contests against the USA and emerging counter-powers)

Actually, the American authorities still consider themselves as a global policeman. We may perceive their strong influence on some main facts or events nowadays – for example when we talk about the “international community” (that is to say “the USA and their allies”). Since Obama has become President of the USA in 2008, there is a new legitimacy for them to get involved in most of the hot spots in the world. The same arguments are used: establishing democracy, free trade and human rights all over the world (so as to guarantee their hegemony and global dominance). That is why anti-Americanism is still increasing, even from American citizens and journalists or professors, such as Edward S. Herman. The latter declared a few years before: “the cycle of violence will only be broken if the Washington Axis of Evil is defeated”.

The nuclear threat remains a predominant problem in Iran or North Korea, just like the growing competition of emerging countries of the BRIC’s (challenging the US supremacy). Nevertheless, concerning its relations with the rest of the world, the USA underestimates an increasing threat: Latino narcotraffickers across the US border, and the risks of bloody guerillas and retaliations (just like in Mexico).

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