Andrew J. Bacevich. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002. 302 S. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-00940-0.
Reviewed by Victoria Williams (Department of Humanities, Alvernia College)
Published on H-War (July, 2004)
The Policy of Global Supremacy
At first glance, Andrew J. Bacevich's American Empire makes what today seems to be a commonly accepted argument--that the United States is in fact an empire, an unequaled global power that is intent on dominating and controlling other countries by organizing the world system in its image. While this is a somewhat unremarkable thesis, Bacevich's work is worthwhile for a number of reasons. First and most importantly, he goes beyond the simple evidence of contemporary empire to show a deeper underlying pattern in American foreign policy. Second, he ably demonstrates how well-accepted policies of globalization and openness enable and promote this policy of empire. Third, he provides insightful commentary about contemporary military policy and its ultimate purpose. Lastly, Bacevich's analysis is powerful enough to provoke the reader more carefully to assess the long-term effects and impacts of empire and American foreign policies that reinforce the empire. All of this is done in a book that is accessible even to non-specialists and will be of interest to anyone concerned with contemporary American foreign policy and its implications.
Bacevich's most provocative thesis is that American foreign policy makers have long sought to establish an American empire. Correcting those who have said that the U.S. has not had a "grand strategy" since the end of the Cold War, Bacevich shows that, in fact, the grand strategy now is not only the same as it was during the Cold War, but also the same as it was in World War II and I, and for at least the last century of American politics. As he says, "[the] ultimate objective is the creation of an open and integrated international order based on the principles of democratic capitalism, with the United States as the ultimate guarantor of order and enforcer of norms" (p. 3). One of the most interesting ways he demonstrates the continuity in approach is by the quotes he uses to open each chapter of the book. Despite being garnered from a variety of sources and spanning just over the last century of American policy, if the quotes were not credited the reader might easily believe that the same person had uttered all of those remarks because of their amazingly similar attitude--the attitude of American righteousness and manifest destiny.
Through the promotion of worldwide capitalism and democracy, American foreign policy makers have in fact been promoting a world based on American values and American ideas. This was as true in World War I as it was in the 2003 war on Iraq. What is ironic, of course, is that capitalism and democracy, which have freedom as their base, seem to be antithetical to empire, which has control and domination at its base. Bacevich argues that American pursuit of these goals has less to do with the goals for their own sake--the inherent value of capitalism or democracy--but, rather, with the ability to influence and dominate. Policy makers wish to shape the world in the image of America not because they believe it is the right thing to do (although they may also believe that), but because they believe that it is easier to control that which you understand and that which you have helped to form. Compounding this highly Machiavellian view of the promotion of openness is the overriding conviction of American policy makers that openness is a good thing for the United States--capitalism breeds prosperity; liberal political values breed security (the democratic peace theory).
Bacevich supports his thesis about the relative continuity of American foreign policy by using both historical quotes and examples and also by a convincing array of evidence focusing on the last twenty years in which he shows that foreign policy goals have remained the same regardless of which party has power in the White House. He shows how little difference there has been among presidential candidates in their foreign policy positions. Any differences have dissolved upon entering office, when leaders are quick to realize the usefulness of having an American empire and the relative ease of pursuing the path of empire and the difficulties of retreat from that path. Bacevich argues that American policy makers and citizens alike are convinced of the importance of American leadership (particularly in upholding and promoting American values) and the dangers of American isolation. These beliefs and others help frame foreign policy making, leading to similar decisions regardless of who is actually in office.
Bacevich's second significant contribution is to demonstrate how little policy debate there is among American policy makers concerning the inevitability and benefit of policies of openness, or, as it is frequently called in the post Cold War era, globalization. Rather, policy makers accept that globalization (primarily economic) is happening, that it is generally a good thing for Americans, and that it is American responsibility to lead this process. Globalization will lead to democratization, and it will promote prosperity.
According to Bacevich, this unanimity encourages policy makers to promote economic progress to the level of national interest formerly reserved for traditional security concerns. Because policy makers believe that continued prosperity is necessary and that it depends on foreign consumers, they cannot envision any alternative to global capitalism. Again, Bacevich illustrates that these beliefs are not new to American foreign policy, despite being pushed to the forefront since the end of the Cold War. Naturally, this is an expansionist policy, for it requires that the United States gain increasingly wider access to markets around the world. Since capitalism and democracy are American values, promoting them around the world through globalization will lead to increased American influence and an increased American role in reinforcing the "rules of the game"--and, ultimately, to perpetuating the current state of hegemony.
Running through American Empire is an analysis of contemporary American military policy. Bacevich shows how the United States uses the military to reinforce its empire, particularly in "important" areas of the world. His overall thesis provides the reader with an interesting lens through which to view conflicts such as the Persian Gulf War, NATO's involvement in the Balkans, and the lack of response to genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Although it is not new to argue that the U.S. has priorities in foreign affairs or that it tends to act most forcefully in regions where it has the greatest interest, Bacevich links that nicely to the overall strategy of openness, therefore going a step beyond a simple realist analysis. Bacevich also points out that American interests have broadened since the end of the Cold War, as the perceived "responsibilities" of the United States for helping countries or peoples and maintaining order have expanded to become essentially open-ended. He shows how the military bureaucracy has also expanded to meet these new interests and responsibilities, which in turn institutionalizes increased military presence, military spending, and military use.
The main goal of American military action, according to Bacevich, is to maintain international order and thereby promote globalization. He states that in the post-Cold War world, "the United States employed military power not merely to respond to a crisis or to signs that a crisis was brewing. It did so to reassure, anticipate, intimidate, preempt, influence, guide, and control. And it did so routinely and continuously" (p. 127). American policy makers are intent on maintaining military reach and supremacy. But although the United States is willing to use its military (and has in fact relied on the military increasingly since the end of the Cold War), that willingness is tempered by the realities of warfare. Thus the empire depends on a ubiquitous military presence to remind the world of its reach, strategic air strikes when necessary, and small shows of high-tech military might. Bacevich devotes a chapter to what he terms "gunboats and gurkhas" to demonstrate how the United States conducts its military operations. First, the gunboats represent the American military might that is poised around the world, ready to strike. When trouble arises, the American military can quickly be there and the threat is broadly understood. Second, if the fight turns ugly or is unpredictable or may result in heavy American casualties, the military finds others to do the fighting instead. Bacevich employs the term "gurkhas," to refer to foreign armies or others who would do the fighting. Although these armies may be trained and paid by the Americans (and would receive American logistic support and intelligence), the non-Americans would actually be involved in dangerous on-ground operations. Bacevich gives the example of the U.S. convincing Australia to do most of the ground fighting in East Timor in 1999 before the operation was turned over to the United Nations. Another example would be relying on the Northern Alliance to help fight the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan in 2001. The "ideal conflict" for Americans in the post-Cold War world, Bacevich writes, "is one in which no Americans get hurt and every American gets rich" (192).
Bacevich returns to his most important thesis toward the end of the book, where he gives several pages of interesting analysis comparing the Clinton and G. W. Bush administrations, demonstrating how little difference there is in basic policy convictions. Bacevich outlines the "imperatives" of American foreign policy that policy makers hold (pp. 215-221). These provide a nice summary of the main points of the book, as they highlight the tenets of Bacevich's view of the "grand strategy": the centrality of American dominance of the international order, the reliance on the principle of openness and maintenance of U.S. military superiority, and the importance of American global leadership and non-isolationism. The final chapter of the book tackles the Bush administration's war on terror, situating it within the overall American grand strategy.
Some people may criticize the book on the grounds that it is incorrect to call the United States an empire. Bacevich himself recognizes that, in the traditional sense of the word, empire requires territorial aggrandizement. But many others would not dispute Bacevich's characterization on the grounds that in today's world there are many methods of control, and that territorial control is neither the most effective nor the most desirable form. The spirit of the word "empire" is captured by the more academic term "hegemony" or, even more simply, "dominance." Whether that dominance is benevolent or not is often in the eyes of those being dominated.
One issue that Bacevich skirts (although it is, in fact, probably a book in itself) is the importance of myth, narrative, and belief in American foreign policy making. He employs the term "myth" on a number of occasions, and frequently talks about the fact that American policy makers believe certain things, but he does not analyze the process of myth formation, how much of a conscious activity it is, and how such beliefs get carried from one generation to another. Although admittedly not the focus of the volume, this topic is critical to his overall message and the book could have benefited from a more in-depth discussion of this issue.
Bacevich is clearly concerned with the implications of a continued American empire; especially one which so blindly ignores policy alternatives. There seems to be an underlying acknowledgement of the traditional problems of empire: overexpansion and a preoccupation with materialism, as well as with the unintended consequences of policies. As an example of the latter, he shows how policy makers refused to recognize that the terrorism of 9/11/01 may have been a consequence of openness. Instead, policy makers reacted by repeating that a policy of openness was needed to prevent this type of thing from happening again. He shows that the world the policy makers perceive through the lens of empire is not always the world as it really exists--they say the world is moving toward peace, for instance, when in reality conflict is as omnipresent as ever, and may be increasing.
American Empire provides readers with a useful way of thinking about American foreign policy. By showing the continuities of administrations and by coming up with central tenets and providing evidence that these tenets have held sway for many years, Bacevich makes a strong case for his interpretation of foreign policy. His warnings are not as blunt as they could be in this book--the reader is left to tease out the implications of Bacevich's argument. Nor does he provide alternatives to the current strategies. Nevertheless, this book is an important contribution to contemporary history about American foreign policy and should serve as a warning about the possible consequences of imperialism.
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Victoria Williams. Review of Bacevich, Andrew J., American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy.
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