June 8, 2021

After the Apocalypse

America's Role in a World Transformed

During the summer of 2020, as I was writing this book, nervous Americans sensed the onset of a terrifying Apocalypse. Wildfires scorching vast areas of California, Oregon, and Washington and hurricanes pummeling the Gulf Coast reinforced those terrors. Fears that events were literally taking an apocalyptic turn became explicit and widespread. Editors inserted the term itself into headlines. THE APOCALYPSE FEELS NIGH.1 THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE HAS ARRIVED.2 HOW THE APOCALYPSE BECAME THE NEW NORMAL.3 AN APOCALYPTIC AUGUST IN CALIFORNIA.4 APOCALYPSE IN CALIFORNIA—COMING TO YOU SOON.5 By implication, that you could be anyone anywhere.

Fires and floods were only the latest in a succession of punishments Americans were obliged to endure. First had come the toxic and divisive presidency of Donald Trump. Then in the spring of 2020, a deadly pandemic engulfed the nation, nearly bringing it to its knees. Trailing just steps behind came an economic collapse so severe as to elicit comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Before Americans had fully absorbed these disruptions, a mass movement demanding a reckoning with the nation’s legacy of racism erupted, unleashing, in turn, a white nationalist backlash.

Rancor, pestilence, want, and fury: These are the Four Horsemen comprising our own homemade Apocalypse. Each came as a shock to the system. Each exposed weakness and rot in institutions whose integrity Americans had long taken for granted. Each caught members of the nation’s reigning power elite by surprise.

Trump’s ascent to the White House exposed gaping flaws in the American political system, his manifest contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law placing in jeopardy our democratic traditions. The coronavirus pandemic exposed gaping flaws in the prevailing concept of national security, with Americans exposed to life-threatening perils to which government authorities responded tardily and ineffectually.6 In a matter of weeks, the economic crisis it induced threw tens of millions out of work and drove millions of businesses into bankruptcy. As for the popular uprising known as Black Lives Matter, it exposed deep-seated and widespread residual opposition to genuine racial equality.

The calamities that accumulated during 2020 fostered a sense of things coming undone. The political order seemed unable to cope. Crises following one another in rapid succession tested Americans as they had not been tested for generations. Each crisis compounded the significance of the others. Taken together, they gave birth to a moment of profound and disturbing revelation.

What this revelation will ultimately signify remains to be seen. Perhaps post-Apocalypse America will experience a great revival, comparable to what occurred in the 1860s, when a radical realignment of national politics accelerated the nation’s emergence as the world’s wealthiest country, albeit only after the fiery trial of civil war. Or perhaps, as it emerges from its present trials, the United States will suffer the fate of the Third French Republic in the 1930s. Sustained political dysfunction combined with a dismally inadequate response to external danger spelled the end of France’s standing among the great powers.

The premise of this book is quite simple: Regardless of whether our self-inflicted contemporary apocalypse leads to renewal or further decline, the United States will find itself obliged to revise the premises informing America’s role in the world. Put simply, basic U.S. policy must change.

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After the Apocalypse

After the Apocalypse

America’s Role in a World Transformed

Even before COVID-19 swept the nation, taking hundreds of thousands of American lives, cumulative policy failures 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, approximating a trillion dollars annually, were too high.7 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.

Through its own fecklessness during the 1920s and 1930s, the government of France laid the foundation for its 1940 defeat by Nazi Germany. Similarly, the fecklessness of U.S. policy during the two decades after 9/11 paved the way for the afflictions of 2020.

The terrorist attacks of September 2001 prompted Washington to double down on its commitment to military supremacy and global power projection as essential to keeping Americans safe and preserving our way of life. No alternative course received serious consideration. No debate about the prerequisites of basic national security occurred. The beating of war drums allowed no room for hesitation—or even serious reflection.

However belatedly, the Apocalypse of 2020 demands that Americans finally take stock of what post–Cold War national security policies have produced and at what cost. Nearly two decades after 9/11, we can no longer afford to postpone acknowledging our own folly. It’s time to remove the blinders. This, too, describes my book’s purpose: to identify the connecting tissue between the delusions of the recent past and the traumas that are their progeny.

Our Apocalypse didn’t come out of nowhere. It had antecedents, evident in the very way we have packaged the past—what we have chosen to remember and what to discard, what to enshrine and what to ignore.

Sadly, however, even today that failed national security paradigm remains deeply entrenched in Washington. Its persistence testifies to the influence of the military-industrial complex, the lethargy of an officer corps that clings to demonstrably flawed conceptions of warfare, and the policing of mainstream discourse to marginalize critical voices. Enabling each of these is the pronounced apathy of the American people who, apart from ritualistic gestures intended to “support the troops,” have become largely indifferent to the role this country plays in global affairs. Above all, however, a defective approach to policy survives because those charged with thinking about America’s role in the world cling to a series of illusions that derive from a conveniently selective historical memory.

Entry into the precincts where insiders formulate American statecraft comes at a price. It requires individuals to forfeit or at least to suppress any inclination to genuinely independent thought. To be accepted as a member in good standing of the American political class is to pledge allegiance to a worldview. Central to that worldview is a particular conception of history and of America’s designated role in bringing that history to its intended conclusion.

In 1776, Tom Paine wrote that “we have it in our power to begin the world over again.” In the centuries since, Paine’s disciples and imitators have claimed for the United States the prerogative not only of instituting new beginnings but of specifying ultimate destinations. Indeed, through its own evolution toward an ever “more perfect Union,” America itself embodies history’s final destination—or so members of the political class purport to believe.

All such claims fall under the heading of American Exceptionalism, a concept that stands in relation to basic U.S. policy as the Facebook motto “Bring the World Closer Together” does to the mission of that corporate behemoth. Such taglines—“Workers of the World, Unite!” and “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” offer other examples—serve as a source of legitimacy while avoiding any reference to power. Rather than describing actual purpose, they disguise it. Take such slogans seriously and you can get away with just about anything, as the United States has done for much of its history.

Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a book called American Empire that took issue with the ideology of exceptionalism. As an epigraph meant to signal the book’s purpose, I chose a comment that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made on February 19, 1998, during an appearance on NBC’s Today show. “If we have to use force,” she said, “it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”8 Prompting this jaw-dropping assertion—–a monument to the vainglory pervading the American ruling class, both then and now—were preparations within the administration of President Bill Clinton to target Iraq with yet another round of air strikes, deemed necessary by authorities in Washington who had persuaded themselves that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein posed an existential threat to the United States.

Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Bacevich

Books from this Author

After the Apocalypse

After the Apocalypse

America's Role in a World Transformed

A bold and urgent perspective on how American foreign policy must change in response to the shifting world order of the twenty-first century, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Limits of Power and The Age of Illusions.

About the Author

Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich is the author of The Limits of Power, Washington Rules, and,The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory. His writings have appeared in theNew York Times, theLondon Review of Books, and theAmerican Conservative, among other publications. Having served in the army for twenty-three years, he is currently a professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University and founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank dedicated to foreign policy. He lives in Walpole, Massachusetts.

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