American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy

American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy – Book Reviews

Martin Blumenson

American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. By Andrew J. Bacevich. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. 302 pages. $29.95.

Andrew Bacevich, a former military officer who is now a professor of international relations at Boston University, has written a brilliant book that carries a disturbing message. What, he asks, drives American foreign policy? More specifically, what has replaced the policy of containing the Soviet Union since its demise as a world power in 1989? Or, how has the United States reacted to the end of the Cold War and to being the sole superpower in the universe?

To find the answer, Professor Bacevich has looked in some detail at the external affairs in the presidential administrations George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as the first year of George W. Bush’s term. What he finds is perhaps less than surprising: the basic aspirations of American diplomacy–but now without needing to compete with or to defend against the Soviet Union–remain the same as always.

These fundamental aims have shaped the American outlook since the 19th century, and they continue to do so still. They arise out of the belief that the United States–in particular its method of government, its structure of economic life, its culture of freedom–is Providence’s gift to the world, its manner of showing the universe how all states should be organized and maintained. Once that target is reached, once the globe has been converted, eternal peace and goodness and harmony will reign. The concept is missionary in spirit.

The buzzword behind the whole idea is “openness.” American foreign policy strives to attain openness everywhere. Meanwhile, two major thrusts have assumed increasing meaning and importance in the 20th century. One is the constant need to expand markets. The other is the tendency to use military force to gain policy objectives.

In support of his study, Dr. Bacevich has used the works of two American historians, Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams. They were convinced that the business of the United States is business. Prosperity, they were sure, resulted when the market economy expanded in stable environments. The economic motive, as put forth in Beard’s seminal Economic Interpretation of the Constitution, they said, is the most significant aspect of American diplomacy.

Dr. Bacevich has cited statements by Presidents William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson to indicate their positing the need for American economic growth. He has regarded the recent use of force in Iraq, Panama, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere to wonder whether the US military, equipped with advanced technology, is at bottom a war-making or a force-exerting institution. He has looked into civil-military relations and questioned whether the once sacrosanct right of civilian control still holds true when uniformed officers argue with civilian officials, when the power if not necessarily the authority of the regional combatant commanders seems unbounded, when the bulk of the military overwhelmingly favors and identifies with the Republican Party. The latter brings unwanted thoughts of the role political parties played in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Although Bacevich stops short of the recent war in Iraq, the task of re-making the Middle East in our democratic image flows from the realities of Bacevich’s thesis. Implicit in the endeavor is the kind of arrogance that leads to a fall. Implicit also is the rise of opposition. No one can really challenge the American military in traditional ways. But certainly the rise of widespread antagonism and terror are threatening.

Andrew Bacevich has raised questions about American diplomacy that require serious thought and the possibility of change. On the other hand, it may very well be that proselyting the world has become so ingrained a habit that no change is possible.

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