When you think about it, Earth is a relatively modest-sized planet—about 25,000 miles in circumference at the Equator, with a total surface area of 197 million square miles, almost three-quarters of which is water. It’s not so hard, if you’re in a certain frame of mind (as American officials were after 1991), to imagine that a single truly great nation—a “sole superpower” with a high-tech military, its capabilities unparalleled in history—might in some fashion control it all.
Think back to that year when the other superpower, the lesser one of that era, so unbelievably went down for the count. Try to recall that moment when the Soviet Union, its economy imploding, suddenly was no more, its various imperial parts—from Eastern Europe to Central Asia—having largely spun free. It’s hard now to remember just how those months after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and that final moment in 1991 stunned the Washington establishment. Untold sums of money had been poured into “intelligence” during the almost half-century of what became known as the Cold War (because a hot war between two nuclear-armed superpowers seemed unimaginable—even if it almost happened). Nonetheless, key figures in Washington were remarkably unprepared for it all to end. They were stunned. It simply hadn’t occurred to them that the global standoff between the last two great powers on this planet could or would ever truly be over.
And when you think about it, that wasn’t so illogical. Imperial rivalries had been the name of the game for so many centuries. A world without some version of such rivalries seemed genuinely unimaginable—until, of course, it happened. After the shock began to wear off, what followed was triumphalism of a soaring sort. Think of that moment as the geopolitical equivalent of a drug high.
Imagine! After so many centuries of rivalries between great powers and that final showdown between just two superpowers, it was all over (except for the bragging). Only one power, the—by definition—greatest of all, was left on a planet obviously there for the taking.
Yes, Russia still existed with its nuclear arsenal intact, but it was otherwise a husk of its former imperial self. (Vladimir Putin’s sleight-of-hand brilliance has been to give what remains a rickety petrostate the look of a great power, as in MRGA, or Make Russia Great Again.) In 1991, China had only relatively recently emerged from the chaos of the Maoist era and was beginning its rise as a capitalist powerhouse overseen by a communist party—and, until that moment, who would have believed that either? Its military was modest and its leaders not faintly ready to challenge the United States. It was far more intent on becoming a cog in the global economic machinery that would produce endless products for American store shelves.