Have our misadventures in Vietnam, Iraq, and now Afghanistan finally shattered the myth of American exceptionalism? Where once that belief was the projection of a nation trying to lead by example, it morphed into the self-delusion of leading by having a bigger gun.
My guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Andrew Bacevich, served 23 years in the US Army, is currently professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University, and is the best-selling author of The Limits of Power and his latest book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed.
Bacevich examines the mistakes and lies of our founding mythology, but places even more blame for our contemporary problems on the myths we created coming out of World War II. This helps explain, he says, our limited, binary view of the world, and our need to always seek out a single enemy, be it Japan, Germany, the Soviet Union, Islam, or now China.
He shows how we are hobbled by the old distortions of great-power competition and, as a result, are ignoring the needs and security threats in our own backyard. For America today, he argues, the call is coming from inside the house.
Bacevich makes the case that we have to abandon our sentimental attachments to the notion of “special relationships” with the likes of Britain, Europe, and Israel. Instead, he urges more focus on Mexico and Canada.
Above all, he says, we have to learn to engage with the world in nonmilitary ways.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Oftentimes, in Silicon Valley we hear that failure is part of the landscape, that to succeed big, you need to go boldly, and often failure comes first. However, if any company in Silicon Valley or anywhere else failed at the same rate as US foreign policy, it would be out of business. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, Iran would all be extinction-level events in the world of the real economy or even real politic, and yet here we are once again.
The siren call of American exceptionalism, the neocon fantasy of nation-building, and the desire to spread a form of democracy we can’t seem to even maintain at home are all part of the failure of America’s foreign policy. Set this against the backdrop of growing economic inequality; climate change; high-speed, technology-driven misinformation; tribalism on steroids; and you have a recipe for apocalypse.
This is the story that my guest Andrew Bacevich tells in his new work, After the Apocalypse. Andrew Bacevich is the author of the previous books, The Limits of Power, Washington Rules, and The Age of Illusions. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, the London Review of Books, and many other publications. He served in the Army for 23 years and is currently professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He’s the founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. It is my pleasure to welcome Andrew Bacevich to talk about his latest work, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. Andrew, thanks so much for joining us.
Andrew Bacevich: Oh, it is my pleasure.
Jeff: One of the things that’s remarkable to think about is how wrong we have gotten foreign policy for so long, and then to try and think about if we got it wrong in simpler times, how are we ever going to get anything right in a more complex world that we live in today? Talk about that.
Andrew: I honestly don’t know if the world is more complex today. In the past though, it looks a little bit simpler when we’re viewing it in the rearview mirror. If you and I were speaking in the mid- to late-1930s, if we were speaking in the early- to mid-1960s, I don’t think things looked simpler. But, it does seem that something fundamental has changed and I think I would cite two things.
The first and the most important, I think, has to do with the idea of American exceptionalism. This notion that as a people, as a nation, we are called upon to transform humankind, to bring history to its intended collection. I think that basic idea existed all the way back at the time of the founding of our republic and is embedded in documents like the Declaration of Independence.
For, at least a considerable period of time, we were going to transform others through our example. We would model the true meaning of freedom. Ever since the end of the Cold War, modeling is not good enough. We’re going to bring history, force history to its intended conclusion. I think that that in spades describes the essence of US policy in the two decades since 9/11.
The other piece, though, is that there was a time, probably a time running from roughly the 1880s to the 1970s, maybe the 1980s when, economically, we were dominant. And economic dominance provides the wherewithal to provide impetus to our ambitions. Nowhere more famously than in World War II, I think. And economically, we’re not dominant anymore. We are not an insignificant power. But the status that we enjoyed relative to the rest of the world, let’s say, in the 1950s, no longer describes where we are today. So I think those are the two big things — economic power and ideological ambition.
Jeff: You talk about it after the Cold War. Was there an inflection point when things changed to the kind of attitude that you’re talking about that we have maintained?
Andrew: Yes, didn’t change instantaneously. It was an incremental process. I think a major post-war event in that regard was the first Iraq war of 1992 when President George Herbert Walker Bush mobilized forces for the first big post-Vietnam War. A lot of trepidation going into Operation Desert Storm, concerns that it would be a long war, costly war. Turned out to be very brief, turned out that the US casualties were far lighter than most people expected.
I think that helped to create a sense that we had achieved something like military supremacy. Remember, we vastly overstated the capability of the Iraqi army. We certainly overstated the generalship of Saddam Hussein. But at the time, it seemed like we had accomplished something militarily that no nation in history had ever accomplished. I think that very much influenced US thinking going forward about the utility of force.
Then, of course, the other thing was 9/11, which didn’t for a millisecond cause the George W. Bush administration to ask any deep questions. Armed by our confidence in our military power, we plunged into this thing called the “Global War on Terrorism,” targeting the so-called “axis of evil.” That, I think, really, more than anything else, brought us to where we are today.
Jeff: How much of the need for this came out of the failure of Vietnam, for example, and the fact that there was always this sense that we had to recover from that or make up for that?
Andrew: It’s very hard to measure, but I do think there’s something to that. Vietnam, even today, sticks in our craw. Enormous defeat, debacle, the costs are staggering. The number of people killed, not just Americans but Vietnamese. So I do think that in ways that are difficult to measure, ever since then we’ve wanted to wipe the slate clean of that failure. Operation Desert Storm was perceived as doing that to some degree.
Again, I think probably the Vietnam memory also factored into the determination post 9/11 to have done with Saddam Hussein, to overthrow the Taliban, to show that the memory of Vietnam had become irrelevant. Of course, Iraq, Afghanistan, both turned out to be, each in its own way, a debacle. When we have the horrible, disturbing images of the withdrawal from Kabul, the media instantly jumps to pictures of helicopters in and around the US embassy to provide an oversimplified, I think, comparison of Vietnam and the present moment.
Jeff: To what extent do these failures draw us to think about what the role of America needs to be in the world and how much does it, on the other hand, freeze in place the worst of our instincts?
Andrew: I think it’s the latter. There’s this term, I think Ben Rhodes devised it. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security advisor to President Obama. His term described the foreign policy establishment. He called it “the Blob.” The Blob is bipartisan, the Blob is both civilian and military, and the Blob is committed to maintaining American global primacy. The Blob is not given to learning. The Blob is not given to examining Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 20 years and say, “Aha, what does that mean?”
Even in the present moment, the Blob — not the present moment in its sense today, we’re fixated on Afghanistan, but slightly more generally, the Blob focuses on the People’s Republic of China. The Blob is gearing up for a new Cold War, a new competition with China, a competition that will be defined to a large extent in military terms because the Blob is resistant to learning.
The mission of the Quincy institute that you kindly mentioned is to try to bring about change in our thinking about foreign policy to emphasize restraint. Not withdrawal, not isolationism, but greater caution with regard to the use of military power and perhaps greater creativity and imagination in engaging with the rest of the world in non-military ways. The Blob is not yet anyway — maybe we’ll make some progress — the Blob is not particularly responsive to the principle of restraint, the principle of engagement through other than military means.
Jeff: Before restraint comes into play, isn’t the first thing that has to happen is a bolder reconception of what America’s place in the world is or should be?
Andrew: The answer is heck yes [chuckles]. That’s a great question. It’s not simply America’s role in the world, but we have a different appreciation of the world. Broadly speaking, in the 20th century, 20th century was defined by great power competition, competition between great powers, Germany against Great Britain, United States against Nazi Germany, United States against Japan, and was also defined by the efforts of the imperial powers to maintain their empires.
Again, very oversimplified. That’s what the 20th century was about. Twenty-first century, the empires are gone. Great power competition certainly was diminished by the end of the Cold War. What we have is now a new security agenda. You’re in California and Californians, in particular, I sense, are aware of that new agenda because Californians are wrestling on a daily basis with the climate crisis.
The climate crisis is an example, not the only one, an example of the fact that the threats to our well-being as Americans are here at home. They’re not way out there. In the 20th century, we came to assume that we had to worry about out there. We had to worry about Europe. We had to worry about East Asia. Since 1980, we had to worry about the Persian Gulf — that somehow the American way of life depended upon events out there.
In response to that notion, we therefore developed a huge military force, which is designed to address events out there. The United States Army does not exist to defend California. The United States Army exists to go fight in the Persian Gulf or go fight in East Asia — and say the same thing about the Navy, the same thing about the Air Force. Indeed, the capabilities are quite remarkable.
The fact that we’re able to deploy US Army forces and Marines to Kabul as quickly as we did in order to try to secure the airport is astonishing. Nobody else can do that. Nonetheless, it’s the threats where we live that demand attention. Climate is an example. COVID certainly is an example. The larger deterioration of the environment is an example. Our inability to control our borders is an example. This is not, some would say, “Aha, he must be an isolationist, he wants to turn his back on the world.” On the contrary and, certainly the Quincy Institute argues vociferously, but the imperative of engaging, but we need to engage primarily with those issues that do, in fact, pose a danger to the well-being of the American people. That’s where we start. It doesn’t mean we ignore China, but it means we need to pay attention to those things that actually pose a threat to the American people where they live. Those threats are growing on a daily basis.
Jeff: One of the things that has emerged historically, though, is our ability to only want to see the world it seems in a very binary way. Whether it was the Soviets, whether it was the war on terror, whether it’s China now — that unless there’s an enemy out there, a boogeyman out there, or a binary way to see the world, we seem to be incapable of the greater complexity that you’re talking about.
Andrew: Again, I think you’re exactly right. I guess I would speculate that this tendency to take this binary view derives from the deep-seated conviction that we’re number one and we have to be number one. So we’re constantly alert for the problem of number two. And right now the problem of number two has become the People’s Republic of China. And so the Blob fixates on China.
Well, the Blob ought to be paying attention to China because China has become a superpower. But hey, wait a second. China’s like, I think with the exception of the EU, which is not a nation but a community of nations, is our biggest trading partner. The consumer goods, which sadly, in my view, do so much to define what we understand to be the meaning of freedom. The consumer goods come from China. China holds I think it’s over $1 trillion in our debt.
Our relationship with China is one of codependence. Our relationship with China has to include the fact that China and the United States are the two biggest polluters on the planet. This whole notion of a new era of great power competition, which will pit the United States against China or what remains of the West against some vision of the East, is a vast oversimplification that, again, detracts attention from the issues that are really important.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the cultural hegemony, the kind of special relationship that the US sees that it has with other Western nations and how that feeds into some of the worst instincts that we put forth.
Andrew: Well, I’m as big a fan of Downton Abbey as probably anybody who listens to your program. But I do think it’s time for us to, as a people, as a nation… I think, first of all, we need to get over this claim that we’re part of something called the West. Now, the notion that something called the West existed, was useful I think in organizing an alliance to oppose Nazi Germany.
It was useful in organizing a collective response to the perceived threat of the Soviet Union, but I think it serves no purpose whatsoever any longer. Quite frankly, even if there is something called the West, however we define, we’re not part of it. We are a cosmopolitan nation. My grandfather and my grandmother, my father’s side, came from Lithuania, which I guess is part of the West in some definition, but millions of our fellow citizens don’t look to Lithuania or Europe as somehow the point of origin of our nation.
It’s not only, I think, a kind of a silly notion, but it then interferes with coming to a realistic appreciation of what posture we should take in the world, that somehow we’re supposed to be aligned with the United Kingdom. Why? Well, because we were aligned with the United Kingdom in World War II when Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill sang Onward, Christian Soldiers as we prepared to go fight against the Nazis.
Down to the present moment, we have this so-called special relationship with the United Kingdom. We have this bizarre fascination with the American royal family. Why do we care about what Harry and Meghan are all about? I think it’s time for us to outgrow these sentimental attachments, which derived from the 20th century and which no longer have any value. I argue in the book, if we’re going to have any special relationships, the special relationships we need to have are with Canada and Mexico.
Why? Because they are our nearest neighbors. Because our well-being is attached in an intimate way to the well-being of Canada and Mexico. They matter far more to our well-being than the United Kingdom, than Israel, another special relationship, and yet, at least from my vantage point, we started to take Canada and Mexico for granted. We don’t ignore them, but it doesn’t seem to me that they are a priority.
If you look at the amount of money that we spent trying to transform Afghanistan into some version of a liberal democracy, the amount of money we spent trying to do the same in Iraq, I think the estimated totals are somewhere in the vicinity of $6 trillion to $7 trillion. Well, if we’d invested that money in trying to help Mexico make its transition into modernity and strengthening Mexican institutions, I think we’d be a lot better off than we are for the money that we wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Jeff: So much of this goes back to when you alluded to this before in terms of founding documents. It has to do with the foundational mythology of the country itself.
Andrew: It does. When you say founding mythology, of course that conjures up 1776. But in some senses, I think the mythology that has come to exercise a lot greater influence is the mythology of World War II. That’s the war in which both of my parents participated. My mom was an army nurse, my dad was a seaman in the Coast Guard. Certainly, the war was the event that marked their lives and shaped their perspective on America’s purpose and America’s role in the world.
I think it’s time for us in a sense to get over World War II. Certainly, it was a vastly important historical event, but it doesn’t seem to me that — and first of all, we’re not the same country that we were when we went to war against Japan and Nazi Germany — but also that chapter in history no longer has the same relevance, I think, that it once did. That’s a long-winded way of saying I think we need to reconceptualize our understanding of our own history.
Of course, some people would say, “Aha, that’s exactly what The 1619 Project aims to do, is doing. Source of great controversy, let us acknowledge. I don’t think that that controversy is bad. I think it’s probably useful. That said, I don’t think that the 1619 perspective, the notion of looking at our past primarily through the perspective of race, I don’t think that’s going to prove to be adequate.
Jeff: One of the things that looking at these aspects of the past, you talked about World War II, is that they provide simplicity. They provide, again, that kind of binary view of the world that seems to be what people want to latch on to.
Andrew: Yes. If you choose not to take the sanitized interpretation of World War II, turns out to be a heck of a lot more complicated. I mean, the simplest example of that is we choose to see World War II as really the ultimate war for freedom and democracy. Well, guess what? Our most important ally in that war was not the United Kingdom. It was not Great Britain. It was the Soviet Union ruled by Joseph Stalin, a dictator, someone who himself committed genocide.
Were it not for the Red Army, it’s plausible to argue that we would never have emerged on the winning side of World War II, but we have to… If you fold Joseph Stalin into the narrative, then morally, it has to look different. If we remind ourselves of the reliance on strategic bombing, both against Germany and, of course, against Japan culminating in the use of nuclear weapons, if we remind ourselves that we were, in fact, targeting civilians, non-combatants, and killed them by hundreds of thousands, then suddenly, the moral picture becomes more ambiguous.
I didn’t just reveal some hidden truth by making reference to strategic bombing and Joseph Stalin. Those are things we know, but we’ve tend to want to put them on the margins of our understanding of this event. One of the things I think that the greater consciousness with regard to race in the last couple or few years reminds us of how race figured in the American conduct of World War II.
It was a Jim Crow army. We sent Black GIs to fight for our freedom when they were denied basic freedoms here at home. That doesn’t invalidate the US war effort. The United States did need to go to war against Nazi Germany, but it sure the heck muddies the picture. Same thing applies. Again, this is something that probably Californians are more aware of than others is the shipping out the Japanese American population and put them in concentration camps.
We didn’t call them concentration camps. The Japanese, not simply Japanese people, Japanese citizens, it’s appalling. We would all acknowledge it was appalling, but that needs to be factored into our understanding of what this enormous event called World War II was. It’s not enough to say it was war of good against evil. There was evil on both sides, I guess, is the bluntest way to say it.
Jeff: To the extent that so much of our defective approach to our place in the world and understanding our place in the world today comes from this kind of selective historical memory, how do we begin to turn that around? Is it only going to be a generational change or how do we begin the mechanism or find the mechanism to begin to change that?
Andrew: Well, the honest answer is I don’t know. Some of the critical take on World War II and the things — the historians have written books about this. The history profession has dismantled the mythic American history, but the historical profession as a profession actually tends to have fairly limited impact. We want the Ken Burns version of history. We want to be made to feel good. Ken Burns doesn’t ignore the underside, but the overall impact is to affirm and that’s what most of our fellow citizens want.
Your question was, how do we get over that? My answer, of course, is I don’t know. I think it would be helpful if at least one of our political parties served as a vehicle for a more critical understanding of our past. It would not be an anti-American political party, but a political party, a set of political leaders who would not bow at the altar of American exceptionalism the way that virtually all of our political leaders tend to do.
Jeff: I guess the other question that overlays all of this that you do talk about is the economic implications of this and how economic considerations, economic pragmatism drives a lot of this.
Andrew: The America of the post-depression, which means the America that fought World War II and that then entered into the post-war era, that America, from the 1930s to the 1970s, was an America that enjoyed substantial economic growth that contributed to greater equality. All boats did rise.
The America since the 1970s emphatically, the America of the 21st century, has enjoyed economic growth in which the rich have gotten much, much, much richer and large numbers of our fellow citizens have been left behind. Frankly, for those who say, “Well, how the heck did a buffoon like Donald Trump become president?”, one of the big answers is that he was able to tap into the awareness of the left behind, the so-called deplorables — tapped into their anger in ways that worked to his political benefit.
Jeff: Of course, that dovetails so perfectly with this sense of American exceptionalism, that if you’re left behind economically, that the salve is this exceptionalism as a way to feel good about something.
Andrew: I think so. The way you’re putting your finger on it, I think, but I’m not sure that’s still the case. I think it was. I may be poor and struggling today, but I know that here in America that everybody has a chance to move up the economic ladder. Again, this kind of gets to the Trump phenomenon. I’ll use the term that Trump uses about rigged. I think people do have an appreciation. The system’s rigged. Some people are doing really well. Here in my little Rust Belt town, no, we’re not doing well.
Here in my little Rust Belt town, I hear the politicians talk about how we’re going to rejuvenate the economy and manufacturing jobs are going to come back and it’s going to be the good old days and they’re saying, “Well, that’s not what I’m seeing.” I think that, to some degree, I’m not sure how one would measure it, that among some number of our fellow citizens, faith in American exceptionalism may be dwindling. Which you can say, “Well, that’s kind of sad,” but you could also say, “That’s where hope for the future lies, the hope that we can come to a more realistic understanding of who we are in this world as it actually exists.”
Jeff: Andrew Bacevich. His book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. Andrew, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Andrew: Oh, I enjoyed it. Thanks a lot.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.