The Gathering Storm vs. the Crisis of Confidence
Are we entering a redux of the dangerous 1930s or the geopolitical malaise of the 1970s?
The darkness before the dawn
So what about a more optimistic analogy? Darkness might mean a gathering storm, but it also could herald the arrival of a brighter future. The night before the 1980 presidential election, after a long period of national doubt and soul-searching, Ronald Reagan intuited that national renewal was at hand, declaring that “at last the sleeping giant stirs and is filled with resolve.” Such a vision seemed out of place with the dejected mood of the country. “Many of us,” he said, addressing the American people, “are unhappy about our worsening economic problems, about the constant crisis atmosphere in our foreign policy, about our diminishing prestige around the globe, about the weakness in our economy and national security that jeopardizes world peace, about our lack of strong, straight-forward leadership.” Reagan’s description purposefully built off Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech of the previous year. Though Carter nowhere mentioned the word “malaise,” in the speech, he spoke of America’s “crisis of confidence,” which was “threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.”
In many ways, this was an accurate reflection of the national mood at the end of the 1970s. During that decade, the United States faced a raft of serious challenges — severe economic competition from other leading powers, the rise of the Soviet Union as a global peer competitor in military terms, the stagflation and national humiliation caused by the oil shocks. There were concerns that the United States was turning inward in the wake of Vietnam, as leading congressional observers even sought to withdraw significant numbers of U.S. troops from Europe. Economic nationalism was on the rise. Richard Nixon’s first treasury secretary, John Connally, artfully expressed the ethos: “Foreigners are out to screw us. Our job is to screw them first.”
In these circumstances, doubts about the staying power of the United States and the postwar international system were pervasive. Defenders of that system fretted that the American era was coming to a close; enemies of the free world were often exultant. “The retreat of American power” could “become a rout,” James Schlesinger, the former secretary of defense and secretary of energy, wrote in 1979. “The trend could well become irreversible in many respects.” “Imperialism is not able to face the crises,” Leonid Brezhnev had told Warsaw Pact leaders the year prior.
And yet the 1970s proved not to be the death knell for American power and the free world system erected after World War II, but simply a difficult moment that served as prelude to renewal. By the late 1970s, the world was again turning in America’s direction — democracy was spreading, globalization was racing ahead, America’s primary great-power competitor was sliding into irreversible decline. And by the early 1980s the United States was pursuing assertive and broadly effective strategies for re-establishing its global ascendancy and pushing the positive trends along. Within a decade, the Cold War had ended on American terms, as democracy and markets were advancing — with U.S. assistance — further than ever before.
If focusing on the 1930s analogy thus leads one to fear that the end of the international order is nigh, looking at the 1970s encourages the conclusion that perhaps the future is relatively bright after all. In this view, the United States and the international system it anchors still have tremendous and unmatched strengths vis-à-vis the competition, the long-term trends are working in Washington’s favor, and America is simply experiencing one of its periodic moments of doubt and introspection rather than a more fundamental turn away from internationalism — just as occurred during the 1970s.
So how well does this analogy fit? In some ways, emphasizing the 1970s comparison risks understating the difficulties and challenges America faces today. For all the disillusion occasioned by Vietnam, America did not elect a president who repudiated key traditions of U.S. foreign policy as vehemently and frequently as Donald Trump did during the 2016 campaign. American “soft power” took a beating amid the domestic upheaval of the 1970s, but that weakness may ultimately prove to be minor compared with the loss of prestige the United States is already suffering as a result of Trump’s presidency.
From a global perspective, the Soviet Union may have been an authentic military peer rival during the 1970s, but even at its peak its sclerotic, command economy never threatened U.S. economic primacy as China does today. And in the 1970s, the United States was able deftly to play China and the Soviet Union against each other; today, Washington has fraught and deteriorating relations with both powers as they challenge international norms and geopolitical arrangements to which they were never genuinely reconciled. The 1970s were a difficult period, no doubt, but the comparison may — at least in some ways — encourage too rosy a view of what America confronts today.
Yet if the 1970s are far from the perfect analogy, the period does nonetheless illuminate important aspects of the contemporary moment. It reminds us that, today as in the past, America’s competitors face long-term challenges that make ours look relatively modest by comparison. Russia is, after all, a declining economic power and a demographic basket case; its military power thus rests on extremely precarious foundations. China is already dealing with slowing economic growth, a rapidly aging population, and a massive debt bubble, and its sense of geopolitical self-confidence hardly conceals its leadership’s transparent nervousness about growing social unrest and other signs of dissatisfaction with a corrupt and ruthlessly authoritarian political system.
Similarly, the 1970s analogy reminds us to take into account long-range U.S. strengths that no adversary can match and to factor in emerging trends that may play to America’s advantage. Washington’s unequaled collection of allies, its relatively healthy demographic profile, its culture of innovation, and its repeated resilience in the face of macroeconomic shifts falls into the first category; an energy revolution that is giving America new economic and geopolitical leverage is but one example of the second.
Moreover, the experience of the 1970s underscores that assertive challengers often overplay their hand, thereby risking overreach and exposing vulnerabilities for the United States and its allies to exploit. An overconfident Moscow took on numerous Third World commitments during the 1970s, allowing Carter and then Reagan to punish that overextension through support to anti-communist guerrillas. Should Russia and China continue their revisionist behavior today, they are similarly likely to encourage geopolitical blowback, if only by driving their rivals toward closer cooperation with one another and with the United States. Additionally, we can learn from the 1970s that our current traumas are neither unprecedented nor particularly severe by historical standards. In its effects on U.S. political stability and American power, the Vietnam War was far worse than anything the country has experienced in Iraq or Afghanistan over the past 15 years.
Finally, the experience of the 1970s also cautions us not to panic about the state of American internationalism. Yes, the Trump phenomenon is deeply disturbing for those who wish to see a globally engaged America contributing constructively on issues including international trade and combating climate change. But we have lived through periods of American disillusion with the world before, as the experience of the 1970s reminds us, and the logic of global engagement and activism has generally reasserted itself after a fashion — usually in response to threatening developments abroad. Indeed, the fact that public opinion polling on support for U.S. alliances and honoring America’s overseas commitments actually looked much worse in the mid-1970s than it does at present (after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, for instance, only 36 percent of Americans felt that “it was important for the United States to make and keep commitments to other nations”) provides some antidote to pessimism today.
If there is a single key lesson to be learned from the 1970s, then, it is that we have been here before — that challenges to American engagement and the international system are not new, that they have often been more severe than they are today, and that American power and leadership have repeatedly proved more resilient than predicted. Near the end of his presidency, Jimmy Carter told the National Security Council that if the United States could just weather the near-term storms that were battering its geopolitical position, the longer-term horizon looked fairly promising. Present traumas and travails notwithstanding, a similar case for such optimism could be made today.