Today the United States stands alone as the world's only superpower. This stature became possible only after the sharp decline of the Soviet Union during the watershed years of 1989 to 1991. The ultimate victory of the United States in the Cold War, a rivalry that had begun in 1946, confirmed to many Americans the superiority of their national virtues and resources and validated their nation's worthiness to lead the world. The expression American triumphalism refers to two related subjects pertaining to the global supremacy America has achieved. In the narrower sense of the term, triumphalism refers to the role the United States played in defeating its Cold War rival by forcing the Soviet Union to pursue various policies that culminated in the Soviet system's collapse. The second, broader meaning of triumphalism conveys the sense that the United States enjoys its current power and leadership role because it possesses qualities and virtues that distinguish it qualitatively from other states. In other words, the United States has "triumphed" over all others in the world system—most importantly the Soviet Union—because it is intrinsically superior to them. The two uses of triumphalism work together.
triumph over the soviet union
Triumphalists commonly cite President Ronald Reagan, who held office from 1980 to 1988, as having led the United States to victory over the Soviet Union. His aggressive anti-Communist rhetoric and defense buildup are credited with stiffening American resolve against its adversary, renewing confidence in America's democratic mission, and prompting a meltdown in the power structure of the Soviet Union, which was unable to match the resources that Reagan had committed to fight the Cold War. Triumphalists hold that the Cold War itself was rooted in the ideological hollowness and intransigence of the Soviets, and they regard Reagan as having manipulated these weaknesses to bring about the collapse from within of the Communist experiment in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet premier whose tenure from 1985 to 1991 bridged the administrations of Reagan and his successor George H. W. Bush (1988 to 1992), had attempted to reform both the economy and the civic society of the Soviet Union, but his efforts thereby to bolster his country's power proved to be in vain. He liberalized domestic policy within the Soviet Union by introducing mild capitalistic reforms (perestroika) and providing limited recognition of such democratic rights as freedom of speech (glasnost). Under his watch, the Soviets loosened their stranglehold over their satellites in Eastern Europe. Whereas Gorbachev tried to rescue the Communist experiment, American triumphalists describe his efforts as the last gasp of a desperate country that could no longer keep pace with its rival. Furthermore, triumphalists point to the liberalizing nature of these reforms as evidence of the intrinsic superiority of the Western values they embodied. In addition, triumphalists regard Gorbachev's decision to relax the USSR's grip on satellites such as East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia (among others) as demonstrating the Soviet Union's inability to control restless populations, which the United States had stead-fastly encouraged to challenge their Communist rulers. The Soviets' abject military failure in Afghanistan even more clearly revealed the surprising limits of the Soviets' global power during the 1980s.
causes of the soviet defeat
The broad triumphalist interpretation of these years holds most basically that America's strong assertion of military and economic power during the final decade of the Cold War pushed a decaying and ideologically bankrupt regime over the edge. Once evidence accumulated that the Soviet Union could no longer challenge the United States in superpower rivalry, triumphalists declared victory and the world celebrated the end of the Cold War. Among the events signaling this amazing, historic development were, most notably, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989—the symbol of Soviet oppression and of the divide separating the Eastern bloc nations from the West—and the transformation of the Soviet Union itself into the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS replaced the centralized Soviet empire with a loose confederation of newly born nation-states anchored by Russia and including the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, the Baltic states, and many others, some of which pursued democratic governance with more or less success. By the time Gorbachev himself relinquished power to the initially democratic Boris Yeltsin (who ruled not as the chairman of the Soviet Communist Party but as the president of the newly independent Russia), it could no longer be denied that global politics had undergone a profound transformation. The Cold War ended, and the United States had won.
new world order
The heady days that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union were marked by President Bush's famous proclamation that a "new world order" was being born. The world was no longer divided into two rival camps; the structure of international relations built on the old divide no longer held. Important debates ensued regarding the broader implications of these whirlwind changes, since it was still unclear what form Bush's new world order would assume. The triumphalist position in these debates was relatively straightforward: because the United States had prevailed over its Communist foes just as it had earlier defeated its Fascist enemies, it should shore up its standing as the only remaining superpower, consolidate democracy's gains, and preserve and strengthen global capitalism. Indeed, American success was interpreted as proving unmistakably the inherent superiority of the liberal-democratic system it embodied and, for some, as even marking the final victory of liberal democracy itself. The United States had triumphed over all of its global competitors, according to triumphalists, because its system of governance was simply better than theirs; it had been destined to win.
America's success therefore came to be regarded as reflecting American virtue, its power stemming directly from its values. Of course the United States had won the Cold War, the triumphalist argument went; it is the freest and therefore by right the strongest nation on the planet. What triumphed in the Cold War, then, was not simply one nation-state over its geopolitical rival, but a set of values that were destined to provide the foundation of the new world order under a global Pax Americana. Americans continue to discuss the proper direction of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War world, but it is no longer debatable that the United States is, in the words of Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, the "indispensable nation" in the current international arena. Given the enormous and growing power disparity between the United States and all other states on the world stage and the sheer pervasiveness of American economic, military, and political hegemony, triumphalists believe that their position has been completely validated.
Daalder, Ivo H., and Lindsay, James M. America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2003.
Paul T. McCartney