Freedom Isn't Free
Andrew Bacevich explores the costs of America’s desire to have it all| From Perspectives | By Chris Berdick
Illustration by Christian Northeast
At the root of America’s financial crisis and its open-ended global war on terror, says iconoclastic conservative thinker and former Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, lies a principle as old as America’s founding: freedom. In his latest book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (Metropolitan Books, 2008), Bacevich argues that the meaning of freedom has mutated in recent decades. Today, it stands for unbridled government spending, conspicuous consumption, and “radical individual autonomy.” That new definition, he says, breeds crushing national and personal debt and dependence on foreign creditors and oil producers. To support it all, we’ve needed an expansionist foreign policy rationalized by a centuries-old belief in American exceptionalism — that we are a special nation on a providential mission to spread freedom around the world. The kicker, he says, is that this same definition of freedom saps our ability to sustain the global commitments and conflicts that it engenders.
Bacevich, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of international relations, doesn’t have much hope that any president or political party will change this equation. He spoke with Bostonia about what he sees as the consequences of America’s particular brand of freedom.
Bostonia: Your new book focuses on post–World War II America, but you also quote figures like Alexis de Tocqueville and John Winthrop. Was there an ideal America that you think we’ve fallen away from, or have we been heading this way for centuries?
Bacevich: We have always been a materialistic people, so I’m not trying to imply that there was some golden era in which Americans lived frugally and sat around listening to Beethoven while they read Shakespeare to their children. But roughly since the 1960s, a penchant for conspicuous consumption and a tendency toward self-indulgence have come to be the predominant expression of American freedom.
Now, I describe U.S. policy toward the world beyond our borders as continuously expansionist, beginning with the first colonists. And if you look up to about the time of the Eisenhower presidency, it is a spectacularly successful enterprise. Over that period, a handful of puny colonies are transformed into a global superpower.
But I go on to argue that beginning in the 1960s, this positive correlation between expansion, power, abundance, and freedom starts to become undone. Efforts to expand since then have actually undercut our power, have caused us to squander our material abundance, and, I think, are compromising our freedom. We need to rethink in a very fundamental sense our relationship with the rest of the world, which will be impossible absent a willingness to rethink and, indeed, abandon this notion of American exceptionalism.
But what about using our power to stop acts such as genocide – can exceptionalism be benign?
Bacevich: I think not. Exceptionalism could theoretically be benign if Americans viewed their providential mission as one of serving as the Good Samaritan to the rest of the world, that our mission is to feed the hungry and minister to the sick. But nation states are not and cannot be enterprises that derive their principal mode of force from altruism. Nation states necessarily are entities that, at the end of the day, act in the pursuit of self-interest. And so it seems to me that as a practical matter, exceptionalism will tend to serve as a fig leaf for the pursuit of self-interest and therefore make it much more difficult for us to see ourselves as we really are.
Andrew Bacevich, CAS professor
Would you say that the bill for the excesses of American freedom is now coming due?
Bacevich: I think in a sense the bill is coming due now, but whether our political leaders or we ourselves will be willing to face up to the facts remains to be seen. My interpretation of what we hear from both parties in Washington is that there’s no requirement for fundamental change either in our system or in the way we live. There may be a requirement to exert closer supervision of greedy bankers on Wall Street, but generally, the argument is that once the bailout takes effect, normalcy will be restored. I have my doubts. I think it’s equally possible that the financial crisis really does signal a historic turning point and that the age of American primacy really is coming to an end.
What exactly would it mean to the American way of life to follow your prescription?
Bacevich: We need to balance the federal budget. We need to cease borrowing from foreign countries in order to sustain our penchant for consumption. As households, we need to begin saving again. Those are the sorts of things that I think are required. And to the extent that freedom is more or less synonymous with a compulsion to consume, to the extent that we continue to think that’s really what we value in American life, then it seems almost impossible to learn to live within our means.
To the extent that people would be willing to embrace a different understanding of freedom — not one in which we would all move into the desert and live like hermits, but a definition in which consumption is no longer the central value — then it might become possible to generate political support for sacrifice. But even as I say that, it’s obvious that some kind of wholesale reconsideration of our culture would be required first, and I can’t say that that seems to me to be in the cards anytime soon.
President-elect Barack Obama has promised a culture change in Washington. But you think it’s unlikely that new leadership will be able to put America back on track?
Bacevich: President Obama will face enormous constraints. The federal deficit for the current fiscal year is expected to be upwards of a trillion dollars. That alone, it seems to me, is going to impose real limits on his ability to make good on his promise to change the way Washington works.
Furthermore, an important legacy of the Bush administration has been to demonstrate how much more limited American power is than we imagined in the heady aftermath of the Cold War, while also damaging America’s standing and reputation in the world. And in that regard, it seems to me that rather than embarking upon any great decisive foreign policy initiatives, President Obama is going to have to attend primarily to repairing the wreckage left by his predecessor.
You Asked, We Answered
Readers took advantage to ask Professor Andrew Bacevich about America’s foreign policy priorities under President Barack Obama. Here are his responses to some of your questions.
QTwo of the best books I have read this year are yours--and Three Cups of Tea. The strong interest in our country in the latter book may be especially significant in light of your own analysis of our national character. It is as if at least some of us, perhaps more of us than we think given our election of Obama, long for another model of what it could mean to be an American that gets out from under the wide umbrella of the military-industrial-media-church complex. This could be an opportunity to replace "The ends justify the means" with Martin Luther King's formulation, "The means are the ends in the making." What nascent ideas and movements in our country give you hope that we can change?— Winslow Myers (CFA’68)
AI can't say that I am especially hopeful. That Americans elected Obama because he promised "change" I readily concede. But what most people want is "change" that leaves them undisturbed. They want the president to fix what's broken without having to make any sacrifices. I don't see that as being in the cards. Real change will have to begin from the bottom up before it can come from the top down.
QYour last paragraph was quite revealing. Please expand on how you think President Obama can "attend primarily to repairing the wreckage left by his predecessor."— George L. Getchell, Col, USAF (Ret), (ENG’54)
AMany things to do. Here are three. First, re-evaluate the global war on terror. Does global war make sense as an antidote to terror? Is it working? Is it affordable? Second, demonstrate that the United States intends to be a global "good neighbor" rather than a nag instructing others how to run their affairs. This means acknowledging the legitimacy of concerns that other nations express. Climate change is one issue where we can begin to show our neighborliness. Three, abrogate the Bush Doctrine of preventive war. Force should be used only as a last resort — that should apply to the US as much as to any other nation.
QMost of the questions on foreign policy on Obama's website were concerning Palestine-Israel...and all of those questions were in favor of greater justice for the Palestinians. Yet both political parties here try to outdo each other and AIPAC in unquestioning support for Israel. A letter I wrote to Bostonia a few years ago was re-edited to reflect a pro-Israeli slant. It is impossible to criticize Israel without one's self and one's employment being jeopardized. What changes should be made in our foreign policy with regard to the Palestinians and Israel?— Joseph Brownrigg (STH’67,'76)
AThere is no magical solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Obama's elevation to the presidency doesn't change that essential fact. My one modest suggestion is that the United States acknowledge openly and candidly that when it comes to Palestine, US and Israeli interests have diverged. Maintaining the pretense that we share the same interests is false and counterproductive.
QIn your opinion, where do we draw the line between getting involved in foreign disputes and letting things happen? Should we go all one way or the other? Should we say "it depends," which gives us impetus to do as we please? How best do we formulate foreign policy for us in today's world? Thank you. — Chris Grande (GSM’06)
AThere is no clear-cut line. Just as we cannot run (or save) the world, we cannot withdraw from it. The best we can do is to be clear about where our interests lie and about how those interests change as the world changes, while also being conscious of how limited our power is — not to mention our wisdom.
QWhat do you believe Barack Obama, once in office, should do about the Palestinian/Israeli issue? And where do you believe this matter should rank on his foreign policy agenda?— Katina Varmazis
AIt should rank very high. But as I suggested above there's not much he can do. The notion that we can bribe or bludgeon the two sides into settling their differences is an illusion.