Andrew Bacevich’s book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, has much in common with my own book The End of the American Century but is, if anything, even more pessimistic about the outlook for the United States. Bacevich, a retired military officer and currently professor of history and international relations at Boston University, recently visited Butler as part of the Drew Brahos lecture series.
The Limits of Power sees three interrelated crises afflicting the U.S.: the crisis of profligacy; the political crisis; and the military crisis. The guiding ideological light in his book is the early 20th century American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr (who I also quote in my book). During the Cold War, Niebuhr complained about U.S. tendency to hubris and sanctimony, which Bacevich views as even more prevalent now, becoming “the paramount expressions of American statecraft.”
As Bacevich sees it, our failures abroad (including especially the Iraq War) are a function of our unending consumer appetites at home. “The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.”
“Centered on consumption and individual autonomy, the exercise of freedom is contributing to the gradual erosion of our national power.”
The Iraq War is just the latest step in the gradual erosion of U.S. power, weakening us both externally and internally as we refuse to face up to our own problems. He includes a wonderfully revealing quote from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from October 2001:
“We have two choices. Either we change the way we live, or we change the way they live. We choose the latter.”Bacevich is scathingly critical of the American political system, which he sees broken and corrupted by an imperial presidency, a “feckless” Congress, and an incompetent national security structure. Our democracy has been hijacked, he says, by a political elite who “have a vested interest in perpetuating the crises that provide the source of their power.”
These are powerful charges and surprisingly radical, coming from someone who has been part of the establishment and who considers himself a conservative. When Butler faculty and students met with him over breakfast, we raised the question of whether the capitalist system itself was broken, given the arguments he made in his book and his lecture. However, even though he sees little hope for any kind of economic or political recovery in the U.S., Bacevich maintains a firm commitment to capitalism and democracy. Many of us found this to be paradoxical. If the system is broken and can’t be fixed, shouldn’t we be searching for some alternative?
The Limits of Power is a powerful and sobering analysis and critique of the American prospect. The message is similar to that of my book, though there are differences. Bacevich focuses more on the U.S. itself, whereas I link what is happening in the U.S. with broader international and global trends. While both of us decry American consumerism, he focuses more on the cultural (and even spiritual) aspects of this, while I spend more time on the economic and social consequences of it. Neither one of us is terribly optimistic about the outcome, but the last pages of my book offer some inklings of hope, whereas the last paragraph of The Limits of Power is thoroughly downbeat. He quotes, once again, Niebuhr to the effect that social orders inevitably destroy themselves in an effort to prove they are indestructible. “Clinging doggedly to the conviction that the rules to which other nations must submit don’t apply,” concludes Bacevich,
“Americans appear determined to affirm Niebuhr’s axiom of willful self destruction.”
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (American Empire Project)