Book Review:

April 1, 2004

American Empire

By Andrew J. Bacevich

Published By: Harvard University Press

On: March 15, 2002

Buy Here $8.98

Reviewed By: Kevin Croke

From its title, American Empire looks like another angry polemic that George W. Bush's aggressive foreign policy has recently provoked. But it's actually much more ambitious than that. International Relations professor and former U.S. Army officer Andrew Bacevich offers a lively and intriguing, yet ultimately unconvincing, deconstruction of the whole of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. His thesis is that American policy during this period has been based on a single vision: a consistent and bipartisan effort to create an integrated and open world economy dominated by the United States. To this end, he provides a tour d'horizon of U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War, challenging conventional wisdom in two ways. He first rejects the idea that post-Cold War foreign policy has consisted of crisis management without grand strategy, and second, refutes the notion that Presidents Bush, Clinton, and Bush have had significantly different approaches to the world. Rather, he sees them each as having followed a distinctive and consistent "strategy of open­ness," characterized by ever-increasing economic integration, an "end of history" - inspired commitment to transform the world along American lines, and the maintenance of American military hegemony.

Bacevich finds the roots of this strategy best explained in the works of two seminal revisionist historians of U.S. foreign policy, Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, who both called attention to the eco­nomic motives behind American expansion, and debunked what Bacevich calls "the myth of the reluctant superpower." In their view, domestic concerns have always driven foreign policy. Above all, the insatiable domestic demand for prosperity has led the U.S to pursue ever-widening global influence, in search of more markets and invest­ment opportunities.

The strategy of openness, he argues, is not at all new; its roots go as far back as the beginning of the 20th century. The fall of the Berlin Wall was less a turning point than an opportunity to finally implement the strategy of openness, free of Cold War constraints. The first President Bush, though perceived as a sober realist, began to implement this strategy, but it was President Clinton, at once more articulate and less a prisoner of the Cold War mentality, who put their shared strategic vision into words. Openness, he argued, was both the sine qua non of economic growth, and a vital precondition for national security: ·membership in the global economy would turn states away from war and towards trade and other peaceful forms of competition. The current Bush administration, Bacevich contends, changed very little of Clinton's policy upon entering office. Their rhetoric may have promised a new approach, but their policy, and above all the globalist worldview that shaped it, was un­changed, at least in their first year in office.

Through his analysis of presidential rhetoric and policy choices, Bacevich provides a fairly convincing case that something like this "strat­egy of openness" exists and influences policy. Yet there's a substantial hole in his argument: he never quite explains the terrible flaws that he sees in this strategy, or what the alternatives are. That the U.S. seeks to open overseas markets to investment in order to increase domestic prosperity is not in itself shocking. Nor is it a surprise to most people that, despite Wilsonian rhetoric, Pentagon policymakers seek to maintain military dominance. Clearly Bacevich thinks there is a compelling case that this American expansionism is harmful to the United States and to the world. But he never spells it out. If American dominance of the world economy is bad, what would be a better policy course? Plenty of coherent critiques of the Washington Consensus exist, but Bacevich declines to offer one. What would a wiser U.S. security strategy look like? He warns vaguely of "blowback," exhibit A being the CIA-funded mujaheddin who transformed themselves into al-Qaeda terrorists. But this is a mere few pages at the end of a 244-page book. It's not enough.

Bacevich at his best is a sharp and knowledgeable critic of a number of trends-the militarization of foreign policy, the dissonance between public will or interest and official goals, the collapse of the tradition of American anti-militarism. But too often his examples seem shoe-horned into his thesis-to argue that the war in Kosovo was fought for the strat­egy of openness is a stretch; at the very least it ignores the parallels (documented by writers such as Samantha Power and Michael Ignatieff) that key administration policymakers drew with their earlier failure to stop ethnic slaughter in Bosnia. Likewise, the argument that George W. Bush's foreign policy is more or less the same as both his father's and Clinton's looks somewhat less than convincing at the moment. Even more curiously for a book published after Sept. 11, he criticizes Clinton's national security officials for exaggerating the threat of catastrophic terrorism in the 1990s. "In the 1990s, terror did pose a danger to Ameri­cans and their interests," he argues, ''but then, so, too, did lightning and food poisoning."

American Empire, then, is less a coherent theory of America's role in the world than one perceptive observer's impressions of a decade of foreign policy entanglements. His realist warning against overstretch is timely and important. But in the end, his argument fails to convince, because after excoriating the status quo at great length, Bacevich has nothing to offer in its place.