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  /  Top News   /  The Illusion of American Exceptionalism

The Illusion of American Exceptionalism


After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed
By Andrew Bacevich
Metropolitan Books, 2021
Xiv + 206 pages

Andrew Bacevich, a history professor at Boston University for twenty-three years, has written an excellent book on American foreign policy, but it is embedded within a larger and more questionable book. Fortunately, the merits of the former book outweigh the problems of the latter.

Bacevich tells us that “cumulative policy failures ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades-old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds. The costs, approximating a trillion dollars annually, were too high. The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media.”

As will already be clear, Bacevich writes with moral passion, and he has modeled his book on a work expressing similar passion written eighty years ago, Strange Defeat. In that book, the great French medievalist Marc Bloch indicted the French military and political leadership of the 1930s for the failures that led to the collapse of France before the German onslaught in 1940. “My purpose in writing After the Apocalypse compares with Bloch’s. In books and essays published over the past twenty years, I have called attention to various failures of American leadership, particularly related to this country’s recurring misuse of military power. … Like Bloch, I make no pretense of dispassion.”

Bacevich’s indictment of American foreign policy is far reaching. Under the guise of what he calls American exceptionalism, we have sought to impose our will on the world. “[R]edefining the nation’s role in the world will remain all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United States is history’s chosen agent…”

The illusion of American exceptionalism has had bad consequences. Among these, “and most troubling of all, is U.S. involvement in the intentional killing of noncombatants, which is always wrong and can never be justified by ‘military necessity.’ … Targeting civilians became a central component of the American way of war … we can no more tabulate how many civilians were killed by made-in-the- USA fragmentation, incendiary, cluster, or atomic munitions since the 1940s than we can calculate the number of people who died during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s or the Cultural Revolution that Mao Zedong launched in the mid-1960s. All we can say for certain is that the death toll exacted by U.S. bombing was massive and correlated imperfectly at best with intended political outcomes.”

Even if one were to put morality aside, Bacevich says, we need to ask “the most fundamental of questions: Does the United States possess the military wherewithal to oblige adversaries to endorse its claim of being history’s indispensable nation? And if the answer is no, as the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest, wouldn’t it make sense for Washington to temper its ambitions accordingly?”

And it is clear that America does not possess the military wherewithal to continue to rule the world: we are over-committed. “Here we arrive at the abiding, unspoken premise of basic U.S. policy, spanning both the Cold War and all the years since: the conviction that containing or deterring or coercing nation-states that are both far away and classified as dangerous holds the key to keeping Americans safe at home and guaranteeing their freedom … On occasion the United States has found itself face-to-face with threats that did not conform to the profile of Pentagon-preferred adversaries. On each such occasion, with the American people gripped by fear, the existing natural security paradigm was found wanting.”

It is a great strength of Bacevich’s book that he brings into question the entire conventional narrative of American foreign policy in the twentieth century. He says about World War I: “The United States went off to fight, Woodrow Wilson declared, ‘for the ultimate peace of the world and for the liberation of its peoples,’ a stirring vision considerably at odds with the actual war aims of the belligerents on both sides. Alas, the war brought neither permanent peace nor liberation. No sooner did it end than Americans began having second thoughts. Revisionist historians like Harry Elmer Barnes, eventually joined by Charles A. Beard—among historians of his day an acknowledged superstar—argued that U.S. entry into the Great War had been a huge blunder.”

In another fine passage, Bacevich says, “Here, in a nutshell, is the narrative that props up American exceptionalism: the conviction that a succession of victories, engineered by the United States, had ‘created the free world,’ thereby weaving past, present, and future into a single seamless garment. That this narrative cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny is beside the point. (Does the outcome of World War I qualify as a victory or did it pave the way for something worse? And didn’t Soviet leader Josef Stalin, neither democratic nor liberal, somehow figure in defeating fascism in World War II?)”

It is a sign of Bacevich’s courage that he is willing to cite Barnes, a leading American public intellectual in the 1920s and 1930s but now viewed by our Orwellian guardians of public orthodoxy as beyond the pale. He also merits praise for his succinct characterization of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as “the influential historian-political operative.”

That said, one must with regret note that there are limits to Bacevich’s revisionism. He nowhere says that the revisionists are correct, but confines himself to bringing their position to our attention. It is unclear whether he thinks the whole course of American twentieth-century foreign policy a mistake or, instead, thinks that America had the resources in the years following World War II to pursue the policy of global dominance but now no longer does so.

Further, his proposals for a new foreign policy are not all one could wish for. On the one hand, he wants to halt our “special relationships” with Britain and Israel and to bring NATO to an end; but, on the other hand, he calls for continued American presence in East Asia. “The case of East Asia differs: Under a strategy of sustainable selfsufficiency, the United States should continue to maintain a military presence there. Here, once more, the axiom: ‘First, do no harm’ applies. The rise of China and provocations by the Chinese government have caused unease throughout the region. A potential new Cold War centered on Asia looms. The possibility of an actual shooting war cannot be excluded. An abrupt change in the U.S. military posture in the Indo-Pacific could trigger such a disaster.” Is this not an example of the very Cold War logic of the need for America, the “indispensable nation,” to deter foreign “aggression” which Bacevich for much of the book brings into question?

Our confidence in him cannot increase when we find him praising that inveterate Anglophile and Cold Warrior Reinhold Niebuhr as a guide we would do well to follow. “How might Niebuhr’s emphasis on self-awareness, humility, and prudence—his advocacy of realism combined with moral responsibility—find application in the Next Order that now beckons? The chapters that follow will explore the application of Niebuhrian moral realism to specific challenges awaiting the United States as it leaves the New Order behind.” One must say, against Bacevich, that though Niebuhr was indeed an important thinker worthy of study, he in the end provided no genuine alternative to the policy of American global dominance. Instead, he replaced the magniloquent rhetoric of Woodrow Wilson and his acolytes with the language of original sin. The upshot was that, regrettably, we must do moral wrong but be aware of our pretensions in doing so. I venture to suggest that Bacevich would find a better guide here in Niebuhr’s less bellicose brother, H. Richard Niebuhr.

At the outset, I said that Bacevich’s good book on foreign policy was embedded within a larger and more questionable book. We can best approach this other book by asking, why does Bacevich believe the apocalypse is at hand? I regret to say that the “catastrophes” he has in mind are familiar leftist bromides. We must spend less on our military establishment, he avers, so we can confront the menaces of climate change and covid-19. Further, in his zeal to combat American global dominance, he has adopted the “woke” narrative of the New York Times 1619 Project, and he tells us, it has much to teach us. Evidently, its well-documented distortions leave him unmoved, and the white race must repent in sackcloth and ashes for its sins. But enough of that: let us rather concentrate on Bacevich’s contributions to our understanding of American foreign policy.

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