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Week of 17 January 2003· Vol. VI, No. 17

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New Bacevich book
America must weigh costs of economic expansionism

By David J. Craig

American foreign policy often is described as inconsistent, floundering, and reactionary. No longer preoccupied with containing communism, some critics say, our nation’s foreign policy makers are lost, rummaging around for the next big idea, lurching from one crisis to another.

Andrew Bacevich Photo by Vernon Doucette


Andrew Bacevich Photo by Vernon Doucette


But according to Andrew Bacevich, Washington actually has followed a consistent foreign policy agenda for decades. In his latest book, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy (Harvard University Press, 2002), the CAS international relations professor argues that recent presidents have doggedly sought to open up foreign nations to market capitalism and democracy in order to boost profits at home and increase U.S. influence abroad. Foreign policy decisions may not appear to follow any guiding principles, he says, largely because government officials sugarcoat the opportunistic and self-serving aspects of the agenda.

What has changed since the fall of the Soviet Union, Bacevich says, is the newfound ease with which the United States is able to convince, conscript, and coerce other nations into doing business by its rules. The resulting breadth and depth of U.S. international influence can be described today only as imperial, he says, and in the book he exhorts Americans to consider the potential costs of this aggressiveness -- including the threat he believes it poses to national security -- and to examine whether such a foreign policy strategy has outlived its usefulness.

“During the Cold War, I think a lot of people, including me, weren’t aware of the expansionist aspects of U.S. foreign policy, because laid on top of that was the strategy about containing communism,” says Bacevich, a former U.S. Army colonel and the director of BU’s Center for International Relations, in a recent interview. “Containment was certainly part of the strategy, but beginning in 1989 it became clear that a lot more was going on.

“Just consider what’s happening now, with the likely war with Iraq,” he continues. “The administration has become more and more forthright recently in how it wants to use American power: that we’ll transform Iraq into the first Arab democracy, and having achieved that, we can create more Arab democracies and perhaps democratize the Islamic world. To me, that seems like a preposterously ambitious idea, and I think we’re headed for a lot of trouble and a lot of tears.”

Spreading our wings
At the end of the Cold War, Bacevich says, he expected the United States would become “a much more normal nation, in that it would no longer feel the need to throw its military weight around.” But that didn’t happen. In the 1990s, the United States sent its military into action “more frequently,” he says “in more places, for more purposes, than ever before.” Perplexed, Bacevich began researching government statements about these military deployments, and he discovered something that flew in the face of popular opinion regarding American foreign policy -- that policy makers justified U.S. actions based on a set of consistent principles that stretched across party lines.

In fact, a review of the major foreign policy decisions made by George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush convinced Bacevich that there were almost no substantial differences between them on foreign policy, and that partisan debates over foreign affairs amounted to little more than campaign grandstanding. The shared agenda of the three presidents, furthermore, followed a script written in the aftermath of World War I by Woodrow Wilson, which encouraged successive administrations to propagate an international atmosphere of what Bacevich calls “openness” -- characterized by the free movement of “goods, capital, ideas, and people.” Such an atmosphere, he says, still is considered the key to spurring American economic growth and propping up America’s role as overseer of an emerging international order based on democratic principles and free markets.

But don’t expect government officials to spell out their expansionist goals as such. In American Empire, Bacevich relates what happened to Paul Wolfowitz, a highly regarded national security specialist, who while serving as undersecretary of defense for policy in 1992 inadvertently was too frank in a government report that was leaked to the press. Wolfowitz’s report described how the United States must “convince potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role” in the global economy and that America should “maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger role.” The embarrassed Bush administration immediately painted the document as the misinformed musings of a lower-tier official.

Wolfowitz’s only error, Bacevich says, was indiscretion. “He openly suggested that calculations of power and self-interest rather than altruism and high ideals provided the proper basis for framing strategy,” he writes. “No other responsible official in the Bush administration -- or in the successive administrations of Bill Clinton and the younger Bush -- repeated his mistake.”

American values
Of course, most Americans think of U.S. economic expansionism as being good for countries with which we do business, and as generally encouraging respect for human rights around the world. Bacevich doesn’t debate those points, but he says if other nations benefit from American foreign policy, it is “at best incidental.” And in American Empire, he points out that humanitarian explanations for U.S. military deployments -- think Bosnia and Kosovo -- more often than not simply do not hold water, and he sketches the ulterior political and economic motives that likely influenced several recent interventions.

Bacevich also argues that because the United States today finds it relatively easy to squeeze other nations into participating in a world economy defined on U.S. terms doesn’t make it a good idea. While many countries accept America’s economic dominance, he says, plenty do not, either for passionate ideological or religious reasons, or simply because they have notions of directly competing with the United States economically, rather than cooperating with us.

That fact has serious implications for U.S. security, Bacevich says. “It’s striking to me that 16 months after such an unbelievably catastrophic and horrific event as 9/11, we’ve just sort of absorbed it and moved on,” he says. “That event should have told us that there is concerted resistance to our global enterprise.

“There also are serious moral questions we need to consider as an empire, such as what our obligations are to people around the world and whether it is the purpose of our empire to do the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people,” Bacevich continues. “And if our empire is based upon American ideals and freedoms we insist are universal, that seems to suggest our empire has no limits, and we need to ask ourselves how wise that notion is. Will that sort of thinking lead to an empire that is sustainable, for example, or to one that will weaken itself by being too ambitious?”

Barnes and Noble at BU will hold a reading and book signing by Andrew Bacevich at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, January 22, in the fifth floor reading room, 660 Beacon St., Boston. For more information, call 617-267-8484.


17 January 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations