For more than 50 years, from the mid-Thirties to the early Nineties, the United States followed an inspired — and successful — global strategy. The reason the U.S. has been more successful than other Great Powers is that it has not overreached colonially or militarily, and then had to retreat. And — unlike Europe, where Russia, France, Germany, Britain, and at times Austria(-Hungary), Italy, Spain, and Turkey were in roughly the same range in terms of power — the U.S. has been unchallenged in its hemisphere. When France was overbearing, under Louis XIV and Napoleon, Britain put her weight behind the other Continental powers. When Germany and then the Soviet Union were too powerful and aggressive for their neighbors, the United States was required to even and then tip the scales. The major European nations have had to live with one another, often in a state of mortal danger, for centuries. The United States, meanwhile, has been able to remove threats to itself: southern secession, Wilhelmine and then Nazi Germany, imperialist Japan, and the USSR.
Woodrow Wilson, though essentially a pacifist, recognized the danger of German victory in World War I, as well as the intolerable provocation of Germany’s sinking of neutral U.S. merchant vessels, and set forth to “make the world safe for democracy.” He succeeded in his immediate aim, and was one of the nation’s most competent war leaders, but was notoriously unsuccessful in producing long-term security.
Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized from his first days in office that it might be impossible ever to coexist with Hitler. He navigated with great care and agility, given the country’s isolationist majority. He ducked taking sides, even subtly, in the Spanish Civil War, where most Americans favored the Republicans, but most U.S. Roman Catholics supported the Nationalists (Franco), and also voted for Roosevelt. He warned France not to tolerate the German reoccupation of the Rhineland, quietly was skeptical about Munich, and warned Stalin not to sign a non-aggression pact with Hitler. He had himself “drafted” to a nomination for a third term, on a platform of peace through strength and all aid short of war to Britain and Canada; the U.S. was to be “the great arsenal of democracy.”
He could have avoided war with Japan by relaxing his oil embargo, and almost did so; but he chose not to, because he feared that the USSR might give up the fight against Germany in Europe if Stalin couldn’t see a real prospect of the U.S. in active combat against Germany.
Roosevelt acquired a nuclear monopoly. He founded the United Nations, partly to disguise to the world the overwhelming preeminence of post-war America and to collegialize some of its foreign policy, as he rightly (for 20 years) assumed that the Latin American countries and British Dominions would form a durable Anglo-American majority at the U.N. The U.N. was also useful in disarming the isolationists, by demonstrating that the world had become safer. It had — but this was because the U.S. was now engaged in Europe and the Far East.
Roosevelt secured from Stalin the guarantee of the independence and democratic rule of Poland and Eastern Europe. And, despite all the Republican nonsense about FDR’s having given Europe away, President Eisenhower opened the Geneva Conference with Khrushchev in 1955 by demanding that Russia honor its Yalta commitments.
The policy of containment of the USSR was devised by President Truman and his advisers — George Kennan, George C. Marshall, and Dean Acheson — and executed successfully by administrations of both parties for 45 years, until the Soviet Union imploded. The threat removed itself. Of course there were sometimes tactical errors, including the tragedy of Vietnam, but intelligent strategies were executed to complete success at sustainable cost.
For nearly 20 years, we have had the unilateral strength of the sole superpower — but this arrangement has been a failure. There were, indeed, some fine achievements: George H. W. Bush and James Baker handled the reunification of Germany and the Gulf War with great skill (but should not have urged the merits of confederation on Ukraine and Yugoslavia). Bill Clinton achieved NAFTA and NATO enlargement. George W. Bush converted Iraq from a terrorism-supporting anti-Western dictatorship to, it is hoped, a pro-Western country of reasonable power-sharing, and he formed a valuable alliance with India.