Andrew J. Bacevich is an historian and commentator who writes about American foreign and defence policy.
He graduated from West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army for two decades, including stints in Vietnam and Kuwait. After leaving the Army, Bacevich moved into academia, obtaining a PhD in American Diplomatic History from Princeton, before accepting a faculty role at Boston University.
In the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks, Bacevich developed a reputation as one of the most trenchant critics of the American military-industrial-complex. He was a vocal opponent of the Bush administration’s twin policies of unilateralism and preventive war which culminated in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. More recently, he has written critically about Western military interventions in Libya, Syria, and the Yemen.
Bacevich has published more than a dozen books on these subjects, from The New American Militarism and The Limits of Power to Washington Rules and America’s War for the Greater Middle East. In November of 2018, Notre Dame University Press published a collection of his op-eds and essays, The Twilight of the American Century, which Katrina vanden Huevel described as “a bracingly honest, transpartisan reflection on the limits of American power.”
Last week, British Online Archives editor James Chisem spoke to Bacevich about all of the above.
You have been writing about the history of American foreign policy for nigh on thirty years now—would it be possible to sum up your thinking in a few sentences?
AB: In a single sentence: We’re not nearly as smart as we think are.
During the Cold War, U.S. policy was riddled with mistakes and miscalculations, with Vietnam offering a prime illustration. That said, the Cold War obliged policymakers to acknowledge the limits to American power. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon imposed a useful sense of discipline. With the end of the Cold War, the foreign policy establishment—and more than a few public intellectuals—succumbed to a bout of hubris, captured by phrases that passed for advanced thinking in the 1990s: End of History, Sole Superpower, Unipolar Moment, Indispensable Nation.
Endless mischief ensued.
The central theme of U.S. foreign policy since the founding of the Republic has been expansionism, typically justified by some sort of ideological claims: Manifest Destiny, Cuba Libre, Make the World Safe for Democracy, et. al. Isolationism is a fiction. It has never described U.S. policy.
Is it fair to say that your work has echoes of the historical revisionism associated with the likes of Charles Beard and William Appleman William?
AB: Yes, each in a different way exposed U.S. expansionism—sometimes crossing over into imperialism—in original and creative ways. They also had the guts to challenge received opinion. I admire both their writing and their courage.
One of the key insights offered by revisionist scholars is that domestic politics has an outsized influence on American statecraft. Can you expand on this?
Pace Beard and Williams, I have come to believe that we do what we do abroad primarily in response to perceived needs here at home. The ultimate objective of the exercise is to preserve the American way of life. Sadly, all too often, the projection of American power in some faraway place, whether the Philippines, France in 1917, Vietnam, or Iraq ends up undermining that way of life.
You have been very critical of Western military interventions in the Middle East and other regions. If those interventions have been as catastrophic as you suggest, why do you think policymakers continue to resort to military force (including the deployment of air assets and special forces) to achieve their objectives?
At this point, the principal explanation would seem to be inertia and a reluctance to acknowledge errors in which several administrations have been complicit. So we keep doing what we are doing.
Interestingly, while Persian Gulf oil offered the original rationale for the U.S. commitment to the region, the United States has a plentiful supply of oil available from nearby sources. President Trump has acknowledged that our primary interest in the region is as an export market for high tech weaponry.
I get the impression that it’s quite unusual for students of foreign and defence policy to have experienced the consequences of those policies first-hand. Do you think your service in the Army has given you a unique perspective on America’s role in the world?
No, I do not. It’s been helpful, but exposure to critical interpretations of American statecraft have been far more important—things that I have read and then considered through the prism of recent U.S. foreign policy blunders.
You have argued that nuclear weapons have little strategic utility in the post-Cold War world. Why do you believe this? And is nuclear disarmament a realistic goal?
They are simply not usable, except (in theory) as a deterrent. I doubt that outright nuclear disarmament is on the cards anytime soon. Still, for reasons of self-interest and more, the United States should take the lead in raising the bar against any prospective use of nuclear weapons and it should devote itself to strengthening and deepening the arms limitation regime that is a legacy of the Cold War.
A few months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Henry Luce presciently announced the arrival of the American Century. To whom does the 21st century belong?
Well, Luce or no Luce, the 20th did not “belong” to the United States. The phrase itself has had endlessly pernicious implications. The 21st century may well belong to the planet as a whole—that is, unless nations make common cause to address the threat posed by climate change, we are all going to be in deep trouble.
What is the biggest challenge facing Western civilisation in the next decade or so?
Dealing with climate change is certainly one. Casting off the vestiges of formal and informal imperialism is another. Learning how to live within our means is a third.
And what advice would you give to young men and women who are thinking of joining the armed forces?
Military service is not what you think it is. So ask lot of questions and avoid making an impulsive decision.