Daniel Sargent's A Superpower Transformed seeks to appraise how U.S. foreign policymakers encountered the epochal ruptures of the 1970s and failed to impart coherence to a discordant and disintegrating international system. This is an intimidating enterprise, one that locates the author at the chronological focal point of current historiographical debate and invites comparison with some of the most eminent historians of U.S. foreign relations. Sargent's first monograph competes with memoirs and analyses from the very subjects under study—not least the confident and complicated prose of Zbigniew Brzezinski and the multiple volumes of memoirs and reflections by Henry Kissinger. The book is remarkably bold in ambition and still more remarkable for its successful execution.
The research is impeccable, with good symmetry across the periods and a mastery of both the core archives and a vast array of secondary literature. Although conventional files of the executive branch and the Department of State stored at presidential libraries and the National Archives are the mainstay, they are supplemented by personal papers from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, documents from various non-governmental organizations, and collections from the United Kingdom. Although many of these materials have begun to be examined, the greatest sphere of novelty is not so much in their recovery as in the manner in which Sargent has approached them. Instead of the thematic, temporally stochastic sampling that historians tend to use when surveying foreign policy briefs and memoranda, Sargent has immersed himself in the sequence, reading all of the daily briefing items in the order they arrived to facilitate the “reconstruction of strategic assumptions” (p. 8).
Although no historian escapes teleology, Sargent at least makes a diligent attempt. The value of trying is amply demonstrated in his empathy and appreciation for the dynamism, contingency, and difficulty that hinder any effort to craft strategy. In myriad places, Sargent explains how events thwarted design, which is the central argument of the book, and a pattern that is manifest in his treatment of energy, economic, monetary, military, and humanitarian affairs. Alongside the chosen start point and end point for the book's core periodization, 1968 and 1979, this technique revitalizes a field of history that has previously seemed to have exhausted any further insight. Less obviously, it produces an account that draws out much greater commonality between U.S. presidential administrations that have otherwise been seen as highly dissimilar. Sargent's meta-description of strategy across the administrations of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter is that of “improvised responses amid dynamic circumstances” (p. 13), and the course of the narrative suggests an ad hoc tactical scramble from lily pad to lily pad.
The “long 1970s” have become the epicenter for U.S. foreign policy history and the marshaling point for an armada of diplomatic historians, most recently in a provocative book by Barbara Zanchetta, The Transformation of American International Power in the 1970s (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Although Zanchetta has found some meaningful continuities between previous ages and the 1970s, Sargent is closer to the “rupture” or “breakthrough” view characteristic of Thomas Borstelmann, Daniel Rodgers, and Samuel Moyn (p. 9). For Sargent, the 1970s were a radical reconfiguration of U.S. power, albeit not through the U.S. government's own doing. At the close of the 1970s, he argues, the United States was “a superpower transformed, but its transformation followed no coherent design or strategy” (p. 12). Sargent speaks of the “chaotic pattern” (p. 3) of the 1970s. This was the global terrain of Conamara, with the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations all seeking to tessellate the debris field of a post–Bretton Woods, post-bipolar, postcolonial world into something manageable. Trying to reset a constellation of incongruous elements was a task that was mostly beyond all of the figures, almost all of the time. Vertiginous shifts in domestic attitudes and international conditions frustrated the implementation of each policymaker's envisioned architecture, be it the “reformed” Cold War order of Nixon (pp. 42–67), the remixed Metternichian multipolarity of Kissinger (p. 47), or the globalized, interdependent, technocratic humanitarianism of Carter and Brzezinski. Each of their international interventions produced a domestic disequilibrium and a counterregulatory response—first in the moralistic reaction to détente and hard realism (p. 99) and later in the backlash against Carter's effort to transcend the Cold War.
A Superpower Transformed renders some intricate and contradictory processes and events in superbly high resolution, most notably in the chapters on “Geopolitics and Humanitarianism” and “The Dollar and Decline.” The prose is sufficiently lively that even a fine-grained parsing of the forces at play in currency decontrol, complete with numerous graphs of economic indices, reads well. Sargent's coverage spans from the most elite to somewhat less elite, but this is no flaw in a book that is explicitly aimed at explaining how “decision-makers at the pinnacles of power” (p. 7) sought to manage unprecedented complexity, and the precipitous decline in their control and of sovereign agency in a general sense.
Reevaluation of Brzezinski's insight has been undertaken by a handful of scholars in recent years, but Sargent's book is almost certainly the most comprehensive analysis. Brzezinski emerges as a perhaps coequal architect of some kind of functional modus vivendi with the new world, insofar as one was possible, and the figure closest to grasping the implications of interdependence. Similarly, Sargent's rendering of Kissinger is impressive. The Kissinger who has inhabited a generation of historiography is himself transformed—and in some respects, defamiliarized. “Super K” does not overwhelm a narrative, and a period, that almost inevitably tends to elevate him to the premier animating agent. His contribution to the global realignment is persuasively addressed, but in a calibrated manner. This more nuanced Kissinger, who has populated recent pioneering work from Jussi Hanhimäki, Jeremi Suri, Barbara Keys, and Roham Alvandi, is substantially more compatible with a set of global dislocations that were vastly more “upheaval” than “renewal.”
In a testament to the equipoise of Sargent's book, the two shepherd moons that have tended to bound 1970s scholarship—the rise of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which brought home the reality of an interdependent world, and the rapid ascent of transnational human rights concerns—are not given exaggerated weight. The flagship chapter, “Managing Interdependence,” a detailed analysis of mid-1970s globalism, encompassing the insurgency of the New International Economic Order and the dawning appreciation of the depth of shared planetary problems residing outside Cold War politics, has no direct peer in current scholarship. Around 1974, Sargent observes, “the sources of international danger and instability” were seemingly “shifting from Cold War geopolitics to the challenges of a globalizing world” (p. 186). Although the transient and frightening reassertion of the Cold War occluded this new arrangement for half a decade, Ford and Kissinger and later Carter and Brzezinski began to resolve, if only hazily, the transformative shifts that defined the future—even if they had little success in controlling them.
This is an exceptionally thorough and eloquent history, of relevance not merely to historians of U.S. foreign relations but to scholars of international history, human rights, and globalization. The book maps the foundational moment when the contours of the 21st century came into being at a staccato, haphazard cadence. The sheer difficulty of assessing this reordering of the world, which was largely bereft of design and dominated by contingency and accident, is daunting. Sargent's contribution, though perhaps not revolutionary in its analysis, will be a lodestar for future treatments of the period.