American jubilation at the Cold War's conclusion masked significant unresolved strategic and rhetorical problems. Since the mid-1940s, "national security" had served as a profoundly unifying concept, yoking foreign policy, military decisions, and domestic affairs; it was America's "commanding idea." Commanding ideas are concepts so consensually embraced that invoking them "almost magically" rationalizes courses of actions, integrates contradictory information, and ends public discussion by serving as a court of last resort (Yergin 1977, 196). This commanding idea's nationalistic blend of moralism and pragmatism--vectors that Philip Wander (1984) dubbed "prophetic dualism" and "technocratic realism," respectively--had proved symbolically adequate to justify almost any policy choice to domestic audiences. Americans long ago became reasonably comfortable with a Cold War perspective on international events and domestic politics (White 1997, 16). In fact, the Cold War and "Communist containment" strategy influenced Americans' understandings of themselves in virtually every realm, from popular culture to economics, for nearly 50 years.
Although the U.S. government claimed to have engineered Cold War victory, some observers dispute that U.S. choices contributed significantly to--and some even argue that they actually may have slowed--the Cold War's end (see Brands 1993, 203-05; Hunter 1998; Summy and Salla 1995). According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, "There is no sign that the U.S. government expected or envisaged the impending collapse of the U.S.S.R. or was in any way prepared for it when it happened" (1994, 249). Rather, the entire federal government stood prepared "for every Cold War contingency except one: victory" (White 1997, 254). As welcome as it seemed, then, Cold War "victory" entailed a disorienting loss of Americans' dominant shared "frame of reference through which to view, understand and explain all the historical events that occurred during its lengthy life span" (Kane 1991, 80). With the Cold War's end went its rhetoric's power to command public assent.
Communication scholars Thomas A. Hollihan and Mary E. Stuckey separately have plumbed the leading symbolic alternatives that American leaders might use in the post-Cold War as "vocabularies of motives" (Ivie 1974). Holliban (1986) examined two foreign policy dramas that competed with the Cold War orientation in the Panama Canal treaty debates: the New World Order drama and the Power Politics drama. Unlike the dichotomous Cold War orientation, the New World Order frames America as only one among many nations, each an equal moral agent with some right to self-determination. Consequently, policy alternatives and international partners no longer fall into exclusive, polarized categories; shared, contextualized moral challenges, rather than an overarching apocalyptical competition between good (embodied by democracies) and evil (embodied by communism) or amoral appeals to selfish nationalism, are this drama's currency. But the New World Order's emphasis on equal standing fell short of satisfying a longstanding American commitment to "a Theodore Rooseveltian determination to have order and order's more interesting twin--control" (LaFeber 1998, 38). According to Hollihan, the New World Order orientation did not catch on because Americans reject its premise that people or nation-states generally are moral, decent, and equal, because the framework fails to identify persuasive heroes and villains, and because Americans resist reevaluating their past in terms that yield negative moral judgments (1986, 380). The complexity of a world in which terrorists and coalitions other than formal nation-states are pivotal players also makes the New World Order drama publicly unacceptable (Hollihan 1986, 383).
While the New World Order drama turns on nations' moral equality, Power Politics turns on national self-interest. Players on the international stage (including the United States) are understood as formally organized and located units that are intensely self-serving, amoral pragmatists. …