- State of the FieldThe 1970s: The Great Transformation in American Foreign Relations
In recent years there has been a dramatic shift in the way historians of American foreign relations view the 1970s. Often dismissed by scholars as a decade when the United States was in a remarkable state of disrepair and decline, while losing ground in the Cold War, a consensus has quickly emerged that now portrays the 1970s as a "transformative" decade in post-World War II foreign relations. [End Page 168]
This historiographical moment is the result of three separate but critically important developments. First, a trove of declassified documents from the Department of State, as well as presidential and international archives, provided an opportunity for scholars to reassess America's role in the world in the 1970s. Second, there has been a concentrated effort by many historians to move the study of the decade away from the Cold War, which has dominated the historical scholarship, and instead explore how the 1970s relates to other narratives—including the rise of transnational issues such as human rights, the emergence of non-state actors, and the intensification of economic globalization.1 Finally, there has been a steady push by scholars to understand the structural currents that set the terms on which the Cold War ended and left the United States in a position of unprecedented global primacy in the post-Cold War era. Combined, these developments show the 1970s as a resurgent decade. U.S. officials, joined by a rising network of transnational actors, non-state groups, and international organizations, repaired the liberal international order that began to unravel at the end of the 1960s and in so doing, paved the way for America's ascendance during the 1980s, the U.S. victory in the Cold War, and the birth of the unipolar moment.
The great turn in the historiography arguably began with the publication of The Shock of the Global: The 1970s in Perspective. This volume, a product of a conference on the "The Global 1970s" hosted by Niall Ferguson, Charles S. Maier, Erez Manela, and Daniel J. Sargent at Harvard University in 2008, signaled that historians of American foreign relations were on the cusp of a major reassessment of the decade. Many of the essays in Shock clung to the traditional view that crises, chaos, and "strategic bungling" beset the 1970s (p. 322). Ayesha Jalal, for example, wrote a scathing critique of America's involvement in the Islamic world, claiming that the continuing Cold War rivalries gave rise to radical Islamic governments in Pakistan and Iran. Mark Lawrence, similarly, offered highly critical assessment of Nixon and Kissinger's "momentous failure" to develop a strategy toward the developing world because they relied heavily on authoritarian leaders in Latin America and the Middle East and subordinated ethics in the pursuit of geopolitical advantage (p. 211). And Lien-Hang T. Nguyen argued that the Vietnam War symbolized the "global shock" of the 1970s, and in particular, precipitated the "crisis in American power" (p. 159).
Others, however, seemed determined to...