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Review by James L. Abrahamson

American Empire: The Realities & Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. By Andrew J. Bacevich. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. Pp. xx, 302. $29.95 cloth.)

“Andrew Bacevich describes recent American efforts to create an informal empire based upon “openness.” No unqualified advocate of what is taking place, Bacevich assesses the military and international implications of the course charted by President George Bush and his two predecessors.”

Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, two prominent American political scientists ventured to predict the future of global politics. In The End of History and the Last Man, an optimistic Francis Fukuyama foresaw a world of liberal democratic states whose commitment to peace would bring history, as the record of conflict, to an end. A few years later, a pessimistic Samuel Huntington described instead a world of hostile, religiously defined civilizations. Where they collided, as in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and South and Southwest Asia, The Clash of Civilizations would characterize a new, conflict-filled world order. In a more recent and compelling analysis, American Empire: The Realities & Consequences of U. S. Diplomacy, historian Andrew J. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and Princeton PhD who is now Director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, offers readers a third, often unsettling view of a world order emerging under American tutelage.

Seeking to account for the alleged incoherence and inconsistency of recent American foreign policy, Bacevich turned to the work of historians Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, both of whom had described American diplomacy as a response to the nation’s preoccupation with economic growth. Using that key to unlock the motives behind America’s seemingly reluctant post-1898 involvement in international affairs, Bacevich discovered that economic need rather than isolation, pursuit of national security, or an eagerness to defend freedom in Cuba, the Far East, or Europe better describes the course of the last century of American foreign policy. Seen from that perspective, the record of the nation’s diplomacy, despite some missteps, becomes one of continuity and engagement.

Employing a national strategy described as one of “openness,” American policy makers, according to Bacevich, have consistently sought to remove all obstacles to the free movement of “goods, capital, ideas, and people.” With the obstacles removed, they believed, the United States would prosper as the centerpiece and overseer of an emerging international order based upon democratic principles, free markets, and respect for human rights. Within that new imperium, the United States, backed by its “predominant military power,” would serve as “the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms.” Fifty years after President Harry S. Truman’s 1947 Independence Day speech, his wish “not for peace in our time—but peace for all time” seemed within reach.

Guided by that insight into the motives and aims of American diplomacy, Bacevich uses crisp, insightful, and well-researched chapters to reveal the steps and stumbles of U. S. foreign policy during the presidencies of George H. W. Bush, William J. Clinton, and George W. Bush. Highlighting the fundamental consistencies of policies often regarded as drifting, uncertain, and incoherent, Bacevich describes the emerging American empire. Though some readers will surely debate his analyses of particular events, they must nevertheless come to grips with the boldness and sweep of his interpretation of the driving and deep-rooted force behind recent American diplomacy.
In his book’s later chapters, Bacevich demonstrates his sensitivity to circumstances that might trouble America’s pursuit of informal empire. To retain the support of a public more given to hedonism than sacrifice, for example, the three presidents and the nation’s foreign-policy elite have had to conceal their ambitions behind a screen of idealistic language. To that end, they have publicly denied any limits to American power, explained that their frequent use of armed force did not constitute war, and hidden the imperial sweep of their goals.

Members of the elite, Bacevich writes, share a common commitment to the United States as “the indispensable nation” destined to lead “the great worldwide march to democracy”—and empire. Convinced that he has broken their coded language, Bacevich considers most partisan debates over foreign policy as noisy conflict over peripheral matters and instead exposes what is actually happening. Whatever election campaigns might have suggested, the new incumbents rarely swerved far from the imperial course of policy.

Given his military background, Bacevich’s description of the ways in which both parties have militarized American diplomacy, politicized its military officers, and relied upon precision bombing and foreign troops to achieve national purposes is particularly insightful, and for many readers probably alarming.

With terrorists now exploiting the world’s openness, which may have facilitated recent attacks, Bacevich closes his study by calling attention to states and groups that will surely resist further imposition of the expanding American imperium. Some nations, he anticipates, may object to the manner in which the global economic system distributes its benefits and destructively demand a larger share for themselves. In the pursuit of national interests, others will prefer to eschew cooperation with an American-dominated global economy and instead rely upon power politics to gain their ends. Still others, groups and nations intolerant of pluralism and multiculturalism, will reject America’s universalist global vision and instead pursue their own, often religiously defined goals. Some peoples, fearful of the corrupting vulgarity and materialism that often accompanies the spread of American culture, will also seek to undermine the new imperium’s openness to ideas. In Bacevich’s estimate overcoming such opposition will increasingly require the United States to rely on force, which may cause average Americans, with little taste for imperialism, to weary of the effort and refuse to make what they will regard as needless sacrifices of blood, treasure, and self-respect.

Though readers may quarrel with Bacevich’s analyses of recent American diplomacy, they will not fail to recognize that he has presented an insightful and provocative explanation for the imperial path the nation seems to be treading. Differences over peripheral details should not, moreover, distract readers from his impressive grasp of a very big picture indeed. His description of the obstacles faced by an imperial America is also telling, though so brief that readers may wish he had more fully assessed the difficulties of going forward and as well as the dangers of turning back. Perhaps they will be subjects for his next book.

This work, however, must be read with care and thoughtfulness. Helping to bring order to a century of diplomatic events, Bacevich’s work provides a superb insight into where the United States may be heading and how that came to be. American Empire might profitably be read in conjunction with the Bush administration’s recently-released national security strategy, and a professor of twentieth-century U. S. foreign policy could build an entire course around this challenging new work.End.

James L. Abrahamson
James L. Abrahamson

James L. Abrahamson, a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, is a retired army colonel who previously taught history and government at the United States Military Academy, the Army War College, and Campbell University. The author of works on military reform, the impact of war on society, and the coming of the Civil War, his most recent is Vanguard of American Atomic Deterrence: The Sandia Pioneers, 1946-1949 (Praeger, 2002).


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