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Issue 2

American Illusions

Vital Interests: You have written extensively on serious flaws in American military and foreign policy. You use the term “illusion” as one of the main causes of the United States squandering its role as a global leader. Can you elaborate on this?

Andrew Bacevich: I was born in 1947, basically the year that the Cold War really began. The Cold War had a pervasive impact on the way Americans lived and the way they thought.  After a time, most assumed that the Cold War would never end. This ideological rivalry between East and West, between the Soviet Union and the United States, seemed destined to go on forever.

So when the Cold War did abruptly end, it caught everybody by surprise, especially the members of the policy world and policy intellectuals. In their surprise, exuberance displaced reason. They concluded, in the famous phrase of Francis Fukuyama, that history itself had ended. All the really big questions had been resolved. Our way was now the only way of organizing societies.

Furthermore, national security specialists persuaded themselves that the reason the Cold War ended the way it did was as a direct result of superior American military power.  Permanent U.S. military supremacy now seemed possible. Both of these things together – ideological triumphalism and an infatuation with military power – gave rise to an enormous sense of hubris among policy intellectuals. 

Having won, we set out to exploit our victory by reshaping the global order and bringing others into conformity with our way of life. This was openly expressed by many members of the policy elite.  An illustrative term coined by Madeleine Albright described the United States as “the indispensable nation.”

Illusions proliferated.  The United States was now the “sole superpower.”  This was a “unipolar moment.” Those were deeply corrupting notions, reinforcing a set of claims about how the world was to operate going forward. One of those claims, of course, was globalization, or perhaps we could call it globalized neoliberalism. An open world of open markets promised to create enormous wealth in which all would share.

Second, there was the conviction that the United States had now definitively figured out war. This particular illusion stemmed not so much from the end of the Cold War, but from the episode that followed immediately, namely, the Iraq War of 1991.  Operation Desert Storm seemed to provide a further and definitive demonstration that American military might was indeed without precedent. Never before in history, elites persuaded themselves, had military power been used with such effectiveness. That the U.S. could do so again was taken as self-evident. The American military appeared unbeatable and unstoppable.

So they decided to overthrow the applecart. They did so by rejecting the consensus choice among elites for the presidency, instead electing a bomb-thrower who promised to drain the swamp, overthrow the establishment and so forth. That's the sequence of events through which we squandered our Cold War victory.

The end of the Cold War also ushered in a transformation of our understanding of freedom. Freedom has always been contested in the American experience, but to some degree, I think the Cold War discouraged efforts to expand the meaning of freedom or explore its furthest boundaries.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, those limits went away and a tendency to equate freedom with radical autonomy became prevalent. A rejection of traditional norms pertaining to gender and sexuality followed. 

These three notions – globalization, military supremacy, and a vastly expanded conception of freedom – dominated the American scene during the 1990s and into the 21st century. None of the three produced the intended or expected results. Globalization certainly made lots of people very rich, but it also left many people behind. 

The belief in American military supremacy became the basis and the rationale for various and sundry interventions, some of which arguably produced some positive results, such as the elimination of Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi. More broadly, however, the U.S. plunged into a series of wars that proved to be very costly. The people we were supposedly liberating paid a particularly high price.  Overall, a penchant for military intervention ended up actually creating more problems than it solved. 

A white male heterosexual like me should be careful about offering judgments regarding recent advances made in the realm of gender equality and racial equality and equality for people who are not heterosexual. Yet our expanded conception of what freedom entails has its own underside.  It became evident by the election of 2016, that we are a country that was beset by enormous problems of all kinds. Much attention has been paid in the last couple of years to the opioid addiction epidemic, but there's an epidemic of morbid obesity, there's an epidemic of people who are addicted to pornography, there's the craziness of our mass shootings, and on and on and on.  

My take on all of this is that by 2016, a sufficient number of Americans had concluded that this post-war consensus of globalization, militarism, and radical individual autonomy was not working for them.  Indeed, it was hurting them. So they decided to overthrow the applecart. They did so by rejecting the consensus choice among elites for the presidency, instead electing a bomb-thrower who promised to drain the swamp, overthrow the establishment and so forth. That's the sequence of events through which we squandered our Cold War victory.

VI: When you have a situation like this - where elites are held captive by these illusions and communicate false narratives to the people - how do you dispel the illusions? Is there a dragon slayer of new ideas that can replace these?

Andrew Bacevich: I don't know that there's a magic solution here. There is a need for the people who drive  the national conversation to reckon with the failures of the post-Cold War era, and thereby to propose alternatives. To some limited degree, that may be happening. It's certainly happening in the realm of political economy. There is an understanding that the wide-open flat world proposed by Thomas Friedman has had terribly negative consequences.

Simply unleashing the forces of global capitalism does not create the kind of society that we want to live in. So in matters related to basic economic policy a reckoning may be underway.  


Simply unleashing the forces of global capitalism does not create the kind of society that we want to live in. So in matters related to basic economic policy a reckoning may be underway.

VI: Have the experiences of the last number of years with the Trump administration and other global dislocations - nationalism and far-right parties coming to power around the world -prompted a recognition that a re-education of American elites is necessary?


Andrew Bacevich: No. The fact is that we Americans don’t much care about what's going on in the rest of the world.  The average citizen does not believe that the rise of the right in Hungary or Poland or Italy has anything to do with developments here at home. There is, however, a growing recognition regarding the damage that neoliberalism has done, along with the beginning of a process of considering alternatives. We see that  in the Democratic Party, and its flirtation with socialism. In the context of American politics, socialism is a loaded word. But it's a word heard more frequently now than at any time in recent decades. That’s suggestive of change afoot.


I see no comparable process of reflection and re-examination with regard to our foreign policy. There is certainly a widespread recognition that we have misused American military power. There's a wide-spread recognition that the Iraq War was an ill-conceived disaster. I think there's at least some recognition that the Afghanistan War hasn't gone swimmingly well. But there is not a substantial awareness - at least not that I see – that we need to conceive of an alternative to militarism and armed intervention as a cornerstone of American policy. 


You've got some people like Tulsi Gabbard advancing a sharp critique of the misuse of American military power. I admire her for that, but I don't think her message has resonated. It hasn't vaulted her to the top tier of Democrats. The militarized mindset that pervaded the political establishment after the Cold War persists. 

Then there is the tendency to equate freedom with radical autonomy. Some people on the right may equate this new definition of freedom with self-indulgence, corruption, and immorality. But that has not lead to a serious debate regarding the proper meaning, limits, and obligations of freedom. In that realm too, we have a long way to go.

VI: Is there a problem in contemporary society where words like “freedom” and “individualism” have been overwhelmed by rhetoric so that their meanings have become confused? A major tenet of American foreign policy has always been to protect freedoms at home and abroad. What does that mean today?

Andrew Bacevich: You're right. Terms like freedom or liberty are subject to abuse. They almost invite abuse. They can be used in any number of ways to support any number of policies. Mostly the use of those terms in our political discourse is damaging.

The best presidents did have an ability to see the world as it is. They were realists. Franklin Roosevelt offers a good example. The statesmen who had the most damaging impact were those who lacked a sense of realism.

VI: Another term that's used with regard to United States military and foreign policy is the concept of power - the power the United States has because of its legacy, the City upon a Hill exceptionalism, and the country’s standing as a leader of the world. Is there a tacit understanding by those on the Left and the Right that America’s power is in decline? Is there any consensus on how the United States can get its power back or if in fact it should even try?

Andrew Bacevich: I think there are some things that are really hard-wired into the American collective mindset. This notion of America as a City upon a Hill, predating the United States by a century and a half, is one of those hard-wired notions. The City upon a Hill, like freedom, like liberty, is a vague term that can mean many things.  Since the end of the Cold War it has come to mean that we are the engine of history.

VI: That the United States was destined to be the engine of history?

Andrew Bacevich: Called upon to be the engine of history - called upon by God or by Providence to bring history to its intended outcome.  Even when we confront our failures, like the failure of the effort to remake the Greater Middle East in our own image, we back away from confronting the implications of that failure . Maybe we're not the engine of history. Maybe the world is not meant to be an image of ourselves.

This Messianic temptation is always going to be with us.  Right now, neo-conservatives don't have a lot of sway in our political debates. I would confidently bet that in another 15 or 20 years, they'll be back. Probably called something different, but reviving the crusading instinct, this conviction that somehow we can change the world. 

The neoconservatives didn't invent American exceptionalism. It's been around in various forms, and, as I said,  it's probably going to come back again. I say that sadly because I think the impact of that crusading spirit more often than not tends to be negative.

VI: Are you saying that the reality is that the United States certainly has changed the world but not necessarily always in a positive way. Critics focus on the way in which the United States has contributed to climate change and on the way the U.S. has exercised influence around the world for our own purposes. Can we also expect a popular movement that says "Yes, the United States may not be the engine of the world but maybe we as a people need to be participants in the world and work to be part of solutions rather than part of the problem?"

Andrew Bacevich: Well, I think that's true. You're speaking in very general terms, but you're suggesting an America that is more collaborative, more willing to listen, less insistent about having its own way might benefit itself and others.  Less war, more dialog. Take the example of climate change as a growing threat, arguably an existential threat. There is no American way to deal with that problem unilaterally. There has to be a global approach. This implies give-and-take, compromise, finding a middle ground, listening to other people.

I myself don't think that Russia poses a substantial threat to the United States. I recognize that they've got nuclear weapons. I don't know that those nuclear weapons are useful in any meaningful way.

VI: When you get down to it, would you say much of what is needed is good leadership? As candidates are gearing up their campaigns this fall for the 2020 primaries and the ultimate election, how can we ascertain what kind of a leader he/she will be in implementing policies that could have the United States playing a more positive role in the world?

Andrew Bacevich: I don't know if there is a magic formula but I think we begin by seeing the world as it is without blinders. The best presidents did have an ability to see the world as it is. They were realists.  Franklin Roosevelt offers a good example. The statesmen who had the most damaging impact were those who lacked a sense of realism. Woodrow Wilson is one good example and George W. Bush another.

I think we need realism, a sense of modesty - meaning a modest sense of our ability to define the future, or see the future - a recognition of our own history, with its accomplishments and also its flaws and mistakes. These are among the essential qualities of presidential leadership.  We are too quick to forget the things we screwed up. It's not clear to me that the rest of the world is quite so forgiving. 

There's no laundry list of qualities that will ensure that a president is an effective leader. You can make those kinds of lists, but there are intangibles that are difficult to identify in advance. Walter Lippmann famously said of Franklin Roosevelt that he was somebody who obviously wanted to be president but had no particular ability to fill the office.  Lippmann got it wrong.

VI: Wasn’t part of Roosevelt’s success as a leader his ability to surround himself with really knowledgeable, capable, and imaginative people?

Andrew Bacevich: I think it's a good point. You need to have a good team. You need to be somewhat open to what members of that team have to say within that team; you want to create an environment in which there is serious and candid debate. Sadly, there's no evidence that such candor exists in the current administration.

I'm far more concerned about the implications of climate change and the implications of the rise of China.

VI: What are your views of the military threat landscape that the United States currently faces? We've got a resurgent Russia, we've got a challenging confrontation with China, we're engaged in proxy wars around the world, Yemen for example. What should the candidates be addressing in their campaigns?

Andrew Bacevich:  Realism implies a willingness to prioritize.   I myself don't think that Russia poses a substantial threat to the United States. I recognize that they've got nuclear weapons. I don't know that those nuclear weapons are useful in any meaningful way. I'm far more concerned about the implications of climate change and the implications of the rise of China.  When a nation emerges over a short period of time as a powerful actor in some region, instability is often the result.  

That's what we must avoid in East Asia. We need to find a way for China to pursue its destiny without destabilizing the region, which could result in a terrible war. That's a huge challenge. It's not a matter of containing China. I don't believe we have that ability to do so. After all, China is our partner in many respects. We need to have them be a partner in dealing with climate change. 

VI: Shouldn’t coping with many of these problems be handled via diplomacy where there is a considerable deficit of support at the moment within the current United States government?

Andrew Bacevich: Yes, absolutely true.

VI: Can this be rectified in a new administration?

Andrew Bacevich: We'll see whether the next president wants to rebuild the State Department and address the apparent morale problem there, with members of the Foreign Service basically feeling disrespected and ignored.  I know Senator Warren has come up with a plan to reform and revitalize the Foreign Service. I don't know about the other candidates. Of course, promises are one thing and delivering once you're in office is another, so we'll just have to wait and see.

 
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Andrew Bacevich, is the President of Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a professor at Boston University. Before joining the faculty of Boston University, he taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins. He is the author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War (2010); The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008); among others. His essays and reviews have appeared in a variety of scholarly and general interest publications including The Wilson QuarterlyThe National InterestForeign AffairsForeign PolicyThe Nation, and The New Republic. His op-eds have appeared in the New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalFinancial TimesBoston Globe, and Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers.