Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse:
America’s Role in a World Transformed (Metropolitan Books 2020)
Andrew Bacevich is one of America’s most relentless and astute critics of United States foreign policy and the role the American military plays in the contemporary world. Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University and presently president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Bacevich is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who served in the United States Army for over 20 years, including a year in Vietnam. In his most recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, which came out toward the end of 2020, Bacevich makes an impassioned plea for a smaller American military, a demilitarized and more humble US foreign policy, and more realistic assessments of US security and genuine threats to that security, along with greater attention to pressing domestic needs. Linking these strands is Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role to play in maintaining world order and promoting American democratic values beyond its shores.
In February 2022, as I was reading, then writing and thinking about After the Apocalypse, Vladimir Putin continued amassing soldiers on the Ukraine border and threatening war before invading the country on the 24th. Throughout the month, I found my views of Bacevich’s latest book taking form through the prism of events in Ukraine. Some of the book’s key points — particularly on NATO, the role of the United States in European defense, and yes, Ukraine – seemed out of sync with my understanding of the facts on the ground and in need of updating. “Timely” did not appear to be the best adjective to apply to After the Apocalypse.
Bacevich is a difficult thinker to pigeonhole. While he sometimes describes himself as a conservative, in After the Apocalypse he speaks the language of those segments of the political left that border on isolationist and recoil at almost all uses of American military force (these are two distinct segments: I find myself dependably in the latter camp but have little affinity with the former). But Bacevich’s against-the-grain perspective is one that needs to be heard and considered carefully, especially when war’s drumbeat can be heard.
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Bacevich’s recommendations in After the Apocalypse for a decidedly smaller footprint for the United States in its relations with the world include a gradual US withdrawal from NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic, an “exercise in nostalgia, an excuse for pretending that the past is still present” (p.50). Defending Europe is now “best left to Europeans” (p.50), he argues. In any reasoned reevaluation of United States foreign policy priorities, moreover, Canada and Mexico should take precedence over European defense. Threats to Canadian territorial sovereignty as the Artic melts “matter more to the United States than any danger Russia may pose to Ukraine” (p.169).
I pondered that sentence throughout February 2022, wondering whether Bacevich was at that moment as unequivocal about the United States’ lack of any geopolitical interest in Ukraine as he had been when he wrote After the Apocalypse. Did he still maintain that the Ukraine-Russia conflict should be left to the Europeans to address? Was it still his view that the United States has no business defending beleaguered and threatened democracies far from its shores? The answer to both questions appears to be yes. Bacevich has had much to say about the conflict since mid-February of this year, but I have been unable to ascertain any movement or modification on these and related points.
In an article appearing in the February 16, 2022, edition of The Nation, thus prior to the invasion, Bacevich described the Ukrainian crisis as posing “minimal risk to the West,” given that Ukraine “possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression.” Rather than flexing its muscles in faraway places, the United States should be “modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order” and avoid “[s]tumbling into yet another needless war.” In a nutshell, this is After the Apocalypse’s broad vision for American foreign policy.
Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Bacevich wrote an OpEd for the Boston Globe characterizing the invasion as a “crime” deserving of “widespread condemnation,” but cautioning against a “rush to judgment.” He argued that the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine, as evidenced by President Biden’s refusal to commit American military forces to the conflict. But he argued more forcefully that the United States lacked clean hands to condemn the invasion, given its own war of choice in Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opinion and the “rules-based international order” (Bacevich’s quotation marks). “[C]coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades,” he wrote. “By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years,” he added, alluding most likely to the United States’ support for the 2013-14 “Euromaidan protests” which resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it had “effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.”
Bacevich’s article for The Nation also argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was alive and well in Ukraine, driving US policy. Bacevich defined the idea hyperbolically as the “conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny,” with these ramifications:
We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People. We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives . . . American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.
Much of Bacevich’s commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects his impatience with short and selected historical memory. Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Bacevich told Democracy Now in mid-March of this year, “was done in the face of objections by the Russians and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.” Russia was then “weak” and “disorganized” and therefore it seemed to be a “low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives.” While the United States may have been advancing the interests of Eastern European countries who “saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity,” American decision-makers after the fall of the Soviet Union nonetheless “acted impetuously and indeed recklessly and now we’re facing the consequences.”
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“Short and selected historical memory” also captures Bacevich’s objections to the idea of American exceptionalism. As he articulates throughout After the Apocalypse, the idea constitutes a whitewashed version of history, consisting “almost entirely of selectively remembered events” which come “nowhere near offering a complete and accurate record of the past” (p.13). Recently-deceased former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s 1998 pronouncement that America resorts to military force because it is the “indispensable nation” which “stand[s] tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future” (p.6) may be the most familiar statement of American exceptionalism. But versions of the idea that the United States has a special role to play in history and in the world have been entertained by foreign policy elites of both parties since at least World War II, with the effect if not intention of ignoring or minimizing the dark side of America’s global involvement.
The darkest in Bacevich’s view is the 2003 Iraq war, a war of choice for regime change, based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction. After the Apocalypse returns repeatedly to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, but it is far from the only instance of intervention that fits uncomfortably with the notion of American exceptionalism. Bacevich cites the CIA-led coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, the “epic miscalculation” (p.24) of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and US complicity in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, not to mention the Vietnam war itself. When commentators or politicians indulge in American exceptionalism, he notes, they invariably overlook these interventions.
A telling example is an early 2020 article in Foreign Affairs by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. Under the altogether conventional title “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden contended that the United States had “created the free world” through victories in two World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall. The “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote, “does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well” (p.16). Not surprisingly, the article omitted any reference to Biden’s support as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Biden had woven “past, present, and future into a single seamless garment” (p.16), Bacevich contends. By depicting history as a “story of America rising up to thwart distant threats,” he had regurgitated a narrative to which establishment politicians “still instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions” (p.17) — a narrative that in Bacevich’s view “cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny” (p.16). Redefining the United States’ “role in a world transformed,” to borrow from the book’s subtitle, will remain “all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United Sates is history’s chosen agent and recognize that the officials who call the shots in Washington are no more able to gauge the destiny of humankind than their counterparts in Berlin or Baku or Beijing” (p.7).
Although history might well mark Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an apocalyptic event and 2022 as an apocalyptic year, the “apocalypse” of Bacevich’s title refers to the year 2020, when several events brought into plain view the need to rethink American foreign policy. The inept initial response to the Covid pandemic in the early months of that year highlighted the ever-increasing economic inequalities among Americans. The killing of George Floyd demonstrated the persistence of stark racial divisions within the country. And although the book appeared just after the presidential election of 2020, Bacevich would probably have included the assault on the US Capitol in the first week of 2021, rather than the usual transfer of presidential power, among the many policy failures that in his view made the year apocalyptic. These failures, Bacevich intones:
ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds. The costs, approximately a trillion dollars annually, were too high. The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media (p.3).
In addition to casting doubts on the continued viability of NATO and questioning any US interest in the fate of Ukraine, After the Apocalypse dismisses as a World War II era relic the idea that the United States belongs to a conglomeration of nations known as “the West,” and that it should lead this conglomerate. Bacevich advocates putting aside ”any residual nostalgia for a West that exists only in the imagination” (p.52). The notion collapsed with the American intervention in Iraq, when the United States embraced an approach to statecraft that eschewed diplomacy and relied on the use of armed force, an approach to which Germany and France objected. By disregarding their objections and invading Iraq, President George W. Bush “put the torch to the idea of transatlantic unity as a foundation of mutual security” (p.46). Rather than indulging the notion that whoever leads “the West” leads the world, Bacevich contends that the United States would be better served by repositioning itself as a “nation that stands both apart from and alongside other members of a global community” (p.32).
After the apocalypse – that is, after the year 2020 – the repositioning that will redefine America’s role in a world transformed should be undertaken from what Bacevich terms a “posture of sustainable self-sufficiency” as an alternative to the present “failed strategy of military hegemony (p.166). Sustainable self-sufficiency, he is quick to point out, is not a “euphemism for isolationism” (p.170). The government of the United States “can and should encourage global trade, investment, travel, scientific collaboration, educational exchanges, and sound environmental practices” (p.170). In the 21st century, international politics “will – or at least should – center on reducing inequality, curbing the further spread of military fanaticism, and averting a total breakdown of the natural world” (p.51). But before the United States can lead on these matters, it “should begin by amending its own failings (p.51),” starting with concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide within the United States.
A substantial portion of After the Apocalypse focuses on how racial bias has infected the formulation of United States foreign policy from its earliest years. Race “subverts America’s self-assigned role of freedom,” Bacevich writes. “It did so in 1776 and it does so still today” (p.104). Those who traditionally presided over the formulation of American foreign policy have “understood it to be a white enterprise.” While non-whites “might be called upon to wage war,” he emphasizes, but “white Americans always directed it” (p.119). The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to show the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States, plainly fascinates Bacevich. The project in his view serves as an historically based corrective to another form of American exceptionalism, questioning the “very foundation of the nation’s political legitimacy” (p.155).
After the Apocalypse raises many salient points about how American foreign policy interacts with other priorities as varied as economic inequality, climate change, health care, and rebuilding American infrastructure. But it leaves the impression that America’s relationships with the rest of the world have rested in recent decades almost exclusively on flexing American military muscle – the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.” Bacevich says little about what is commonly termed “soft power,” a fluid term that stands in contrast to military power (and in contrast to punitive sanctions of the type being imposed presently on Russia). Soft power can include such forms of public diplomacy as cultural and student exchanges, along with technical assistance, all of which have a strong track record in quietly advancing US interests abroad.
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To date, five full weeks into the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has conspicuously rejected the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.” Early in the crisis, well before the February 24th invasion, President Biden took the military option off the table in defending Ukraine. Although Ukrainians would surely welcome the deployment of direct military assistance on their behalf, as of this writing NATO and the Western powers are fighting back through stringent economic sanctions – diplomacy with a very hard edge – and provision of weaponry to the Ukrainians so they can fight their own battle, in no small measure to avoid a direct nuclear confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.
The notion of “the West” may have seemed amorphous and NATO listless prior to the Russian invasion. But both appear reinvigorated and uncharacteristically united in their determination to oppose Russian aggression. The United States, moreover, appears to be leading both, without direct military involvement but far from heavy-handedly, collaborating closely with its European and NATO partners. Yet, none of Bacevich’s writings on Ukraine hint that the United States might be on a more prudent course this time.
Of course, no one knows how or when the Ukraine crisis will terminate. We can only speculate on the long-term impact of the crisis on Ukraine and Russia, and on NATO, “the West,” and the United States. Ukraine 2022 may well figure as a future data point in American exceptionalism, another example of the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” to borrow from President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article. But it could also be one of the data points that its proponents choose to overlook.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 30, 2022