Andrew Bacevich: American Exceptionalism underlies US world role

Andrew Bacevich delivered this speech at the Massachusetts Peace Action annual meeting on February 8, 2014 at St. Ignatius Parish, Boston College

Andrew Bacevich Speech {Transcription of Bacevich Audio}

    So thank you very much for allowing me to participate in the event. Okay so I was asked to reflect very briefly on three questions. First was why is US world’s policeman, second what is the alternative, third how can we, I assume we means mass peace action, how can we move the united states to a more cooperative peace policy. now I have to say at the outset, I am at best competent to answer only the first question so that’s where I’m going to concentrate my remarks speaking very briefly on the second two questions.

    To begin with however a quibble again question number one is, why is the us the world’s policeman. And the quibble is that it seems to me that the United States in fact does not make an effort to serve as the policeman of the world as a whole and i think its important for us to understand why nt. .US does make a very considerable effort to police and I use the term to suggest an effort to control the course of event sin an area. It does make a considerable effort to police areas of the world us considers to be important. And places the US doesn’t consider to be important, they make no real attempt to police. For example, the us makes no attempt to police sub Saharan Africa. In recent decades at least it has attempted only intermittently to police Latin America. Indeed the focus of us policing for really most of the period since the mid 20th century has emphasized first europe than east asia and most recently of course the greater middle east.

    But why, the question I was given to reflect on is why has the united states laid claim to this policing role where it has. And I think in fact there are many answers to that question mutually supporting and mutually reinforcing answers and each of these answers provides a partial hold on truth. And I’m gonna give you my own rendition on what some of those answers are. You probably won’t find them all persuasive but i think the key point is there is no one answer. I give talks from time to time to groups like this and almost inevitably in the question period someone is going to stand up and say yes but if we could just get rid of the military industrial complex wouldn’t that make everything good? And my answer is well you may want to control or limit or reduce the military industrial complex but I think its an illusion to imagine that there lies the answer to all of our concerns. So what are some of the reasons why the United States has laid claim to this role. I think I’m gonna run through 7 reasons.

    First, aspirations to collective greatness expressed in terms of power and prosperity that really are traceable back to the american revolution. I mean the founders of this republic or indeed the founders of this Anglo American Colony that founded the republic were not modest men. I say men cause they were virtually all men in terms of what they aspired to create in what we called the new world. They were visionaries you may or may not share their vision but they were visionaries of creating something that was going to be great and powerful and abundant. They set out for the very moment that independence was a reality to pursue that vision.    

    Reason number two, the concept of American exceptionalism, this sense of chosen-ness, of specialness, of uniqueness again traceable to the very founding of America and specifically to the founding of Massachusetts Bay Colony and you know that. American exceptionalism, which endows the ambitions sort of the concrete ambitions of the founders and their exsessors with a kind of moral and religious gloss. What we do what we intend to do what we have come to be is what some larger power intended all along. We are fulfilling god’s purpose we are fulfilling providential purpose, we are fulfilling the summons of history when we do what we do. and you know you can be dismissive of that, you can be contemptuous of that but I don’t think you can pretend that those feelings don’t exist and aren’t shared by large number of fellow citizens.

    Third reason, extraordinary favorable circumstances. A continent of vast wealth, incredible beauty that was essentially ours for the taking. I don’t mean to say it was empty, it wasn’t. It was inhabit by people in a scale of relative power however were hard pressed to defend against the rapacious Americans who were going to seize and exploit this continent for their own purpose. Not only a vast and rich continent but also relatively weak neighbors. Relatively weak neighbors to the north and south the result of which was a kind of natural security creating an environment in which the exploitation of the  continent became all the more possible. It’s not like these Americans, this rising generation of Americans were living in a peaceful world. They weren’t living in a peaceful world but where were the adversaries? Where were the threats? They were far, far away on the other side of wide oceans. So again, why do we do what we do? How have we come to assume the prerogatives that we’ve assumed? These enormously fortuitous circumstances offer a third explanation.

    A fourth explanation, shrewd ruthless and opportunistic leaders from the time of Thomas Jefferson to the time of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S Truman. These were men, and again they were virtually all men, who had I think demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for pursuing this most successful project of American expansionism and making it real. One of the things that I, in terms of evolving hist consciousness, that I almost cant get my brain around is the belief that i grew up with that the founding diplomatic tradition of the us was one of isolationism. That there really is very little to learn about US foreign policy prior to lets say 1939 or 1940 or December 7th, 1941 because there was essentially no foreign policy. We were just over here paying attention to our own little business. Well how the heck did we get from the 13 small colonies that became 12 small states in 1776 to roughly a cent later when the republic spans from sea to shining sea and has become already the richest country in the world. Again, whether you approve morally of the methods that were employed or if you approve of the outcome. The story of american expansionism, which is a foreign policy story in the 19th cent is really the most astonishingly successful grand strategy undertaken by any country in the modern era. And it was leaders, again the Jefferson who says yea well take Lousiana, or FDR, the guy who says we’ll let stalin and the Russians do most of the killing so we can scoop up most of these marbles, it was these leaders that made it happen. That’s the fourth explanation of how we got to where we are.

    Fifth explanation is it always helps to have stupid adversaries (audience chuckle). And again, we may credit this to god or to providence or to whatever forces but the United States really has had a bunch of stupid adversaries in its rise to power. Japan, Germany, the USSR, countries that really imploded as a consequence of there own reckless judgments and excessive ambitions. Great Britain and France, countries that basically exhausted themselves and had to step aside in post World War Two period to insert itself and enjoy a position of primacy.

    The sixth factor, a historical narrative that I think we imbibe with our mothers milk that largely endorses the story of how we got to where we are and the status we enjoy as a country at present and that delegitimizes alternatives in simplest terms, framing it in foreign policy terms, in simplest terms, a narrative that says that global leadership is good and necessary and works to the benefit of the American people and to the rest of the world. And the only alternative of global leadership needs to be casted and categorized as isolationism and isolationism is bad and leads to world wars. They got this new movie out the monuments men and I guess the reviews are kinda tepid. The gist of the story is, the Americans, thinking ahead and trying to do the right thing, incorporated into their approach to World War Two an effort to try to preserve the cultural expressions of European civilization. how can you not be in favor of that huh? And a guy I know sent me an email that said, yea, but weren’t these the same Americans who were engaged in strategic bombing, blowing up Hamburg and Dresden and Tokyo. Not particularly preserving cultural artifacts. But thats not the American story we want to hear about.

    Seventh and last explanation for why we end up policing the world has do with institutions and particularly since World War Two, we have evolved a series of institutions that both benefit from this concept of global leadership and are certainly committed to perpetuating global leadership because they themselves the institutions and the people who lead them benefit as a consequence. And I do refer here to the national security state military industrial complex to Washington generally and quite frankly to the most influential organs of the mainstream media. And certainly the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, they too are committed to global leadership and react harshly to any notion there might be an alternate approach.

    So second question, what is the alternative to the US exercising a global police policy. Well, I may well differ from many of you in that I tend to have a fairly bleak and pessimistic outlook on human history,. I’ve said this before, I have the highest regard for those who are active in the peace movement. I myself don’t have much hope for world peace. what I would hope for, my alternative is in a world of nation states and we live in a world of nation states. And some would say wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t live in a world of nation states, well we could have an interesting argument about that. It seems to me the alternative to the US serving as global policeman is a condominium of great powers. An agreement between the most powerful nations. An agreement that commits them jointly to stability within common normative framework. What would be the basis of the agreement? The basis of agreement would not be peace and harmony and brotherhood of man. The basis of agreement would be to compete as nation states necessary compete but to do so without resorting to violence. My vision is a very modest vision of an alternative to the United States as the world’s policeman.

    That said it would be an enormously difficult vision to implement for a couple of reasons and one of those reasons has to do with us, who we are, our sense of ourselves. Because this condominium this sharing of great powers means the US has to surrender some of its beliefs in its own uniqueness gonna have to surrender some of the prerogatives that we have asserted prerogatives. Just in the past decade or so, the prerogative of engaging in preventive war, the prerogative of simply disregarding claims of sovereignty on the parts of other nations when they are inconvenient. We would in effect become one nation among many and many of whatever you and I may think, many of our fellow citizens would have great difficulty in accepting that reduction in stature. And its not just us, because in what I just described, these other great powers would also have to curb their ambitions. They would have to accept certain limits, perhaps most difficult they would have to forget old grudges. It’s not possible to do this. I mean in our time we have seen that the likelihood of war between France and Germany, something that used to be common place, the likelihood has reduced to about zero. So it’s not that it’s impossible for countries to forget their grudges and to agree to live with one another. But it’s not necessarily easy to achieve. Can the Chinese and the Japanese and the Koreans forget their mutual grudges? Can the people of India and Pakistan, can the Saudis and the Iranians, can Arabs and Israelis. Well you just go down that little litany and it doesn’t make you very optimistic that even my modest vision of an alternative to the United States being global policeman is very likely.

    Then the third question I was asked to reflect on, and this is certainly the one where I am least competent to offer any thoughts is well, how is it possible to move the United States toward a less assertive less arrogant, less hubristic, more cooperative approach to foreign policy – I don’t know. I mean I have to say, I don’t I think, I give talks to peace groups 3-4 times a year maybe. I say this with all due respect – it seems to me the efforts of peace groups are not particularly effective. Perhaps peace groups are adhering to methods, to approaches that may have been effective or at least more effective in an earlier date. If we harken back to the sixties but arguably those methods have outlived their usefulness, no longer resonate, no longer penetrate into Washington. So other approaches, other strategies may be necessary in order to become more effective. And I think the key to effectiveness and I don’t mean to make this seem like it’s easy, as someone in the education business I am acutely conscious of the limited ability of educators to actually overturn preconceived notions. But it seems to me that somehow we need to educate the American people to understand that the existing paradigm, the notion of the US as the indispensable nation, the conviction that exercising global leadership actually promotes peace or promotes our own well being or security. We’ve got to educate Americans to question that basic proposition. Not easy. Not easy in particular when the resistance of powerful institutions and people to considering an alternative narrative is just so stubborn and determined. But I think that is what we need to do. We need to do a more effective effort and frankly more effective than the peace movement is doing and more effective than college professors are doing. We need to do a more effective effort of overturning the received wisdom and therefore making it possible for a genuine debate to actually occur in places like Washington and therefore to make change possible. That’s a very limp answer to the third question but candidly its the only one that I can come up with.