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The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy

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The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy

Weak Power, Great Power, Superpower, Hyperpower

Oxford UP,

15 min read
8 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

The United States has gone from bit player to “hyperpower” in geopolitics.

Editorial Rating



  • Well Structured
  • Overview
  • Engaging


America’s leading role on the world stage came only after a century of obscurity, followed by decades as an emerging power, writes foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum in this engaging read. US hegemony was anything but assured, he explains, and while American ingenuity gets much of the credit, sheer luck also played a part: Had the British focused on crushing the colonial rebellion, had the French not given up the Louisiana Territory or had a European power backed the Confederacy, the United States might never have achieved its spot atop the global pecking order. This enlightening overview casts the historical record in a new context.


In its first century in global geopolitics, the United States was a “weak power.”

America started life as a geopolitical afterthought. In 1765, it had no military and no government to unify the actions of its 13 colonies. Despite those disadvantages, the United States survived against the far more powerful Great Britain. Three main factors allowed America to emerge from colonialism as an independent actor: distance, a willingness to fight and the divided attentions of its foes.

Its remote location, in large part, protected the budding nation. While British troops easily crossed land borders to vanquish enemies, the recalcitrant colonies were an ocean away. America’s embrace of “active defense” also helped it achieve independence. The animal kingdom offers a parallel – a porcupine may be much weaker than its predators, but its quills, claws and teeth allow it to resist in a way that makes a predator give up and move on. The United States itself later faced an active defense in Vietnam, when a seemingly feeble foe proved robust by virtue of its willingness to endure casualties.

The Revolutionary War of 1775...

About the Author

Michael Mandelbaum is the director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is the author of 10 books on US foreign policy.

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