Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire has to rank at or near the top of nominees for Most Frustrating Book of the Year. It is, on the one hand, a cautionary reminder. In a time when most everyone concedes, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary, that America’s role in the world constitutes some variation of empire, it is useful to note, as Bacevich does, how rapidly this transformation has occurred and how radically it breaks from the nation’s previous self–understanding. More than that, it is salutary to be warned of empire’s risks. Even—or perhaps especially—those who think of modern U.S. hegemony as benign need always to keep in mind Bacevich’s insistence that power can both blind and corrupt, and that there is no reason casually to assume that America’s empire will escape the political, strategic, and moral pitfalls that have beset all empires before it.
At the same time, however, American Empire is a maddeningly elusive, not to say evasive, book. Its ideological presuppositions are difficult to specify: the author takes his theoretical framework from the radical historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, but much of his cultural critique of modern American society carries echoes of Pat Buchanan. (The reader is often left uncertain as to whether Bacevich is speaking in his own voice or is simply passing along the views of others, but I take it as significant that he has been an early contributor to Buchanan’s new journal, the American Conservative.) Bacevich’s tone is critical and skeptical throughout, but while he provides ample evidence that he opposes America’s flirtation with empire, he will not say so directly. He seems clearly unsympathetic to America’s current role and behavior in the world, but he is entirely unclear as to what alternatives, if any, should be put in their place. His voice is now dispassionate, now disapproving, now impossible to penetrate. It is difficult to engage an author whose prevailing rhetorical strategy is the bob and weave.
On one point, at least, Bacevich is clear. The American empire did not develop, as has been said of its British predecessor, in a fit of absence of mind. American leaders since the end of the Cold War have in fact “adhered to a well–defined grand strategy.” From George Bush 41 through Bill Clinton through George Bush 43, America has acted in the world with “a clearly defined purpose in mind.”
That purpose is to preserve and, where both feasible and conducive to U.S. interests, to expand an American imperium. Central to this strategy is a commitment to global openness—removing barriers that inhibit the movement of goods, capital, ideas, and people. Its ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms.
This “strategy of openness” is not actually new—its origins trace at least to the turn of the twentieth century—and Bacevich does not claim to be the first to have discerned it. Here he invokes Beard and Williams. Beard, who was a relentless economic determinist, explained American entry into World War II as a result of Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to divert attention from the ineffectuality of the New Deal on the domestic front. Rather than admit the failure of capitalism and pursue socialism, FDR—like other Presidents before him—sought to solve domestic problems by overseas economic expansion. That policy, Beard concluded, could have no long–term effect other than perpetual conflict abroad and militarism at home. An expansionist America would become Sparta.
Elaborating on Beard’s analysis, Williams argued that ever since the closing of the frontier in the 1890s American leaders had seen foreign trade and investment as “the sine qua non of domestic prosperity and social peace.” Seeking in effect an empire without burdens, they focused on “commercial access,” or, as Williams variously phrased it, “open–door expansionism” and “non–colonial imperial expansion.” Beard’s attack on FDR after World War II had garnered little support—indeed it badly damaged his reputation—but, as protest against America’s policies in Vietnam mounted in the 1960s, Williams became a beacon of the left and his revisionist account of U.S. responsibility for the origins of the Cold War gained widespread acceptance in the academic world.
Bacevich concedes that Beard and Williams were more wrong than right about the origins of World War II and the Cold War, but whatever their errors on specifics, he says, they had the big picture clearly in focus. Thus his conclusion on Williams’ project: “Building on insights first developed by Beard, he unearthed the assumptions underlying the doctrine of liberal internationalism, explained its logic, identified its purposes, and divined its implications. He showed that the essential aim of liberal internationalism was to open the world to American enterprise.” An open world abroad—guaranteed where necessary by the threat or actual use of American power—has been perceived by generations of American statesmen as essential to domestic prosperity and national security.
Bacevich’s application of the Beard/Williams thesis to events since 1989 is less polemical and more open to nuance than the original, but it does not disagree on the essentials. Today’s globalization is yesterday’s open–door imperialism. In a series of concise (and well–written) chapters, the author emphasizes the foreign policy continuity in the Bush–Clinton–Bush years. There is not room here for detailed consideration, but, in brief, where others have seen large amounts of ad hoc improvisation—in the Clinton years especially—and have emphasized ideological differences between the administrations, Bacevich sees instead consistent grand strategy and overwhelming consensus. The “strategy of openness” is everywhere operative, without regard to which party is in power. (Searching for differences between Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts is akin, he suggests, to “contrasting the finer points of the sitcoms on NBC with those broadcast on CBS.”)
There are ways in which Bacevich’s understanding of recent American policy is not only true but uncontroversial. Of course American leaders put great emphasis on continued economic growth, and of course they look to foreign trade and investment to further that growth. They would be derelict in their duty if they did not. It also comes as no great revelation that those same leaders overwhelmingly agree that the constituting elements of democratic capitalism—political freedom, democracy, free markets, and the free flow of ideas—are good not just for Americans but for the world. And few indeed are the Americans—leaders or ordinary citizens—who doubt that the world’s only superpower must take a strong leadership role not only in global diplomacy but, where necessary, in the deployment of military power. Madeleine Albright’s oft–repeated designation of the U.S. as the “indispensable nation” is not so much a boast as a statement of the obvious.
There is of course room for disagreement as to how well or badly America has handled its responsibilities as a kind of neo–empire. But Bacevich’s uneasiness seems to go beyond criticism of particular policies. His is, if I understand it correctly, an essentially moral critique, and it leads him, in my view, into curious distortions and exaggerations.
Bacevich sees an America whose civic morality or sense of common purpose is pretty much in tatters. The counterculture of the sixties has become the common culture today, and Americans are united only by an insistence on “ever fewer restraints on the sovereign self” and an insatiable desire “for ever more material comforts and pleasures.” Politicians know this, and behind their “ritualistic allusions” to liberty, peace, and democracy they operate on the assumption that voters demand of them no more than an ever expanding economic abundance to satisfy their narrow and self–absorbed pursuit of personal freedom.
This unlovely portrait is not wholly wrong, but it is, in its despairing one–sidedness, wholly inadequate as a basis for analysis. Bacevich’s perspective is consistently either/or. Individuals and nations alike can be written off as hypocritical or at least as self–deluded if their behavior does not always match their declared ideals. It appears to offend Bacevich that American leaders regularly proclaim their desire to do good in the world even while their actions are carefully calibrated to do well for their nation. In an analogous fashion, he moves from the commonsense observation that economic self–interest plays a significant role in foreign policy to the sweeping and unjustified conclusion that it is pretty much all of foreign policy. Stripped of the ominous rhetorical overtones with which the author surrounds it, the “strategy of openness” thesis does cast useful light on American motives and purposes. But it is not the all–encompassing explanatory device that he imagines it to be (and even he concedes in a footnote that it does not work for Middle East policy).
William Appleman Williams, on whom Bacevich so heavily relies, was a radical leftist who dreamed of an America that would transcend self–interest and transform itself into a utopian “Christian commonwealth.” That dream inevitably failed, and because it did Williams could write of the American experience only with bitter disappointment. Andrew Bacevich is neither a leftist nor a utopian, but I fear he has absorbed from his mentor too much of the disenchantment of the disillusioned lover.
James Nuechterlein is Editor of First Things.