Review of American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (2002)
by Andrew J. Bacevich
Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, Andrew J. Bacevich sets out to interpret American statecraft in the 1990s in his text, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Bacevich is a graduate of West Point and served in the United States Army from the Vietnam War to the First Persian Gulf conflict. Given his military background, the reader braces himself for either an apologetic or an acerbic interpretation and is pleasantly surprised to find the absence of both in Bacevich’s book. The author fully understands the American military system and conveys his personal knowledge to his readers in a straightforward, no nonsense, and highly intellectual format. The arguments are not without criticisms, but Bacevich presents his critiques professionally and supports each one with sound documentation. Bacevich’s main argument is that American foreign policy did not greatly change following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. While focusing primarily on the decade following the end of the Cold War, Bacevich argues that the nation’s founding fathers had always envisioned an American Empire and that foreign policy has always been directed toward the domestic goal of achieving, extending, or maintaining that empire. The policymakers in the 1990s served no different purpose than the many who served before them.
In the Age of globalization, Bacevich presents his study as one that explains the necessities and pitfalls of American global hegemony. Following in the footsteps of revisionists (and Bacevich points out in his first historiographical chapter, heretical in their time) Charles A. Beard and William Appleman Williams. Just as Beard and Williams attempted to convince their peers that American foreign policy was neither haphazard nor benevolent, but rather calculated and imperialistic, Bacevich argues that the hegemony America achieved through soviet communism’s collapse was not entirely de facto and that policy following that crowning achievement has not been ad hoc nor only in response to world crises. Bacevich’s explanation for why U.S. foreign policy appears to be haphazard and benevolent is due to the mantra of keeping the image of “American exceptionalism” (43). The author states that there are three “nos” that supposedly dictate U.S. foreign policy: no power politics, no war, and no limits. Yet, as Bacevich points out, an examination of actual practice contradicts all three of the nos. Thus, policymakers package U.S. foreign policy for the public as a series of necessary actions required to promote peace and democracy throughout the world so that everyone (especially Americans) can enjoy the fruits of democratic capitalism.
Democratic capitalism is at the heart of Bacevich’s thesis. The Cold War enemy was not another country, but the economic beliefs of that country’s leaders. Once the Soviet Union folded, logic would prevail that the enemy was gone. Bacevich argues that before, during, and following the Cold War, that foreign policy did not change. The United States was never really fighting an enemy as much as it was striving to reach economic superiority. An enemy simply allowed the U.S. to sell their diplomatic strategies to the public. Becevich does not argue that enemies did not and do not exist, but that they were only a part of the grand strategy for global American imperium. Enemies are also a result of imperium and explain in part events such as the bombings of the USS Cole and September 11, 2001.
The strongest and most disturbing argument Bacevich makes is the increasing militarization of U.S. diplomacy. The author proclaims that following the Cold War, the military “became a central element in what little remained of an American national identity” (122). The United States is its military and the strength that military is capable of wielding. The Soviet Union was no longer a threat and terrorist attacks decreased by 29% in the 1990s, and yet, U.S. military interventions increased from 16 during the entire Cold War era to over 4 dozen between 1989-1999 (122, 142-43). Bacevich tells his reader to just follow the military to discover what markets are the most important to the United States. This branch of his argument is the most damning for American foreign policy as it points out how Eastern European and African turmoil garnered scant attention from the United States even as the world cried out for the United States to help end the human rights violations. The cost of peace in these regions far outweighed the economic benefits the United States would gain at that particular time. However, the United States had to maintain the image of world policeman and the obligation as sole superpower to make an effort at restoring peace. The attempts ended in failure at Mogadishu and Kosovo.
Bavevich presents his argument by comparing the foreign policy strategies of the two separate Bush administrations and the Clinton administration between them. Bacevich elucidates the similarities of actual policy, but points out the effectiveness of how each executive packaged and marketed his policy to the public. President Clinton did especially well at marketing his policy by grasping the necessity of pushing the domestic economic angle. Americans would do anything to maintain their abundant lifestyles, including looking askance at humanitarian concerns with China in order to keep the flow of cheap Chinese wares coming to America. Bacevich demonstrates how this single common goal for Americans blurred the lines between liberals, conservatives, realists, idealists, hawks, and doves in the post Cold War era. Once Bacevich convinces his reader that all Americans want domestic prosperity at any price, then the next logical step in his argument is to show that foreign policy is merely an extension of achieving that goal. Bacevich wraps up his argument with the post September 11 “change” in foreign policy. Again, Bacevich points out that actual foreign policy does not change, it continues to be the same economically motivated and militarily supported objective. It is the packaging of the “new” policy that changed post 9/11. President George W. Bush proclaimed a war on Terror. Terror became the new enemy that America had to fight, but this enemy was different and the United States needed to change its tactics. Bush’s speech convinced the nation that proactive use of American military power was necessary to protect the American way of life. At first, Americans accepted this as fact and viewed the increase in military interventionism as a form of punishing and eliminating the evil wrongdoers of the world and that in turn benefited the entire world. Bacevich argues that the grand strategy has always been to achieve and maintain political stability and openness. Post 9/11 did not use new tactics, just used old ones more frequently.
American Empire is a provocative argument on the effects of globalized capitalism and the consequences of a necessary hegemonic power reigning over a global economic system. The text appears to be well researched (although there is a heavy reliance on newspaper and journal discourses). While Bacevich’s study will not likely win him a place next to Williams and Beard as a revisionist, his participation in their discourse will certainly promulgate further discussion of American empire in the twenty-first century.