Bacevich on the End of the American Century
Andrew J. Bacevich, currently a professor of history and international relations at Boston University, and a former Army colonel, has become an outspoken critic of US foreign policy in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Bush-era doctrine of preventive war.
Bacevich’s latest contribution to the debate is his editing of The Short American Century: A Postmortem (Harvard University Press), a collection of critical essays about America’s historic and future role in the world.
Jefferson Flanders sat down with Bacevich in his BU office to talk about the book and Bacevich’s views on recent developments in the Mideast.
Q: Why this book now? It sees the American Century as a metaphor for American triumphalism—in your words, the illusion that the United States can preside over and direct the course of history. Isn’t the pendulum swinging away from large footprint military action? Aren’t we at a point where’s there a recognition that we can’t have both guns and butter?
Bacevich: I think we should realize that, but I don’t think we have realized that yet. The inspiration of the book is as follows: my own study of US foreign policy has increasingly been informed by an appreciation that we justify doing what we do in the world based on massive claims of our ability to shape or determine the shape of history. This notion really can be traced back all the way to the founding of Anglo-America but has been particularly evident in the post-Cold War era. When the Cold War ended there were any number of commentators and powerful politicians who proclaimed that the United States had triumphed, had become the indispensable nation, that the world was entering a unipolar moment, that somehow we were called upon now to play the role of benign global hegemon—these are phrases I’m using in a kind of a sarcastic way, but back in the 1990s before 9/11 they defined the conversation.
If you fast forward to the post-9/11 period, in particular take things up to about 2008, none of those claims seem to stand up very well. And in particular, they don’t stand up when we consider the failure of the American project in Iraq—which was not just a failure in Iraq but signified the failure of the George W. Bush plan to transform the greater Middle East using American military power. Combine that also occurring in 2008 with the onset of the Great Recession and suddenly we don’t look like the world’s only superpower; suddenly it doesn’t look like a unipolar world. I concluded that if there had been an American Century, if there had been a period of American dominion, by 2008 it was pretty clearly over. And what I wanted to do was to invite a number of historians to reflect on what the American Century had been about—if indeed there was one.
In order to try to provide sort of a hook for that project I went back and took a look at Henry Luce’s great Life magazine essay from February 1941, an essay which he called “The American Century,” which consisted of an impassioned summons for the American people now to accept the burdens of global leadership, the challenges of global leadership, which Luce himself was absolutely persuaded was our destiny. And so the result is this book, The Short American Century, an American Century which arguably began with the end of World War II and by 2008 had concluded. The various scholars who contributed to this offer a wide variety of perspectives about what the American Century was all about and they don’t agree with one another, nor was the intent for them to agree with one another. I wanted to get this wide variety of opinion.