U.S. Pivotal Deterrence in the
Unipolar Era, 1990-2002
International stability is never a given. It is never the norm. When achieved, it is the product of self-conscious action by the great powers, and most particularly of the greatest power, which now and for the foreseeable future is the United States. If America wants stability, it will have to create it.
Charles Krauthammer, Foreign Affairs, 1990/91
When the Eastern Bloc dissolved and the Soviet Union broke up, the United States became a unipolar power. No combination of other great powers could contest its military might in areas beyond their vital interests, where the logic of basic nuclear deterrence would not operate. The resulting power vacuum, predictably, invited greater U.S. activism. The United States found new freedom of action, and more reasons to use it. Expanding conceptions of its national interests encouraged the United States to become deeply engaged in disputes, such as that in Kosovo, which in the past it might have ignored. Also competing for attention were conflicts—such as those between Greece and Turkey, India and Pakistan, and in the Taiwan Strait—that endured after the Cold War's end.
In these situations, and many others, the United States was called on to deter two sides from provoking or escalating fighting. Although this was an important subtext to U.S. policy even during the Cold War, it was largely overshadowed by the strategic problems of basic and extended deterrence against a clearly defined, and formidably armed, adversary and its allies. As this most salient strategic challenge faded, however, U.S. policy makers waded into a raft of messier conflict scenarios saddled with a corpus of deterrence theory that was not always relevant. That the field of security stud