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The End of America?

Consumerism, expansionism undermine democratic way of life, Bacevich says


In his latest book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew Bacevich argues that the American culture of consumerism, among other things, has undermined basic democratic values. Photo by Frank Curran

One week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was quoted as saying, “We have a choice. Either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or change the way they live. We chose the latter.”

During his lecture last night before a packed audience at the Metcalf Ballroom in the George Sherman Union, Andrew Bacevich, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of international relations and history, argued that it was time for Americans to abandon that thinking and instead look inward. We must change the way we live before it’s too late, the retired U.S. Army colonel urged.

“These are precarious times, even frightening times,” he said. “The United States really does seem to be teetering on the brink of an abyss, and worse, our political system seems ill-prepared and desperately ill-equipped to respond effectively.”

Rampant consumption bolstered by increasing debt, a quasi-imperial executive branch unchecked by a weak Congress, and a nation largely unmobilized in the face of two wars and an open-ended global campaign against terror, Bacevich said, are all threats to the foundations of American life.

“Every war back to the War of 1812, when the U.S. has entered into a conflict, the first thing government does is to expand the federal army,” he said. “The Bush administration explicitly urged the American people to carry on as if there was no war, and I have to say, we did as instructed.”

Speaking as part of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center’s Ready to Vote series, Bacevich drew on themes from his latest book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, part of Metropolitan Books’ The American Empire Project, a series of books on American aspirations at home and abroad by leading writers and thinkers.

The long-held American foreign policy of expansionism — beginning with the acquisition of territory, opening of markets, and establishment of colonies — has run its course, he said. The strategy enhanced U.S. power and material abundance, but was “not a morally uplifting enterprise.”

Bacevich, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, who served in Vietnam, argued that transforming the greater Middle East is beyond our capacity and has only bred bitter anti-American sentiment — at the cost of nearly a trillion dollars and more than 4,000 American lives. Looking abroad to preserve our way of life no longer makes sense, he said.

“Can anyone possibly think at this stage that changing the way ‘they’ live is plausible or affordable?” he said. “To persist on the course that we are following will only lead to ever-greater debt and ever-greater dependence.”

The American economy has since become import- and credit-driven, he said, drawing on outside forces to support an increasingly consumeristic lifestyle. Bacevich said that he felt this distinct shift in values when Black Friday, the first day of the holiday shopping season, became a prime indicator of economic health rather than exports and savings accounts. He called for a new strategy, grounded in realism, “to see the world as it is, and ourselves as we really are.”

As for the presidential campaign, Bacevich said that the election should be a referendum on U.S. foreign policy, but he views both candidates as implicitly endorsing the open-ended global war on terror as the essential core of that policy and only disagreeing on operational approaches. “The election is more likely to yield continuity than the much-touted change,” he said.

During a question-and-answer period after the speech, Natasha Cohen (CAS’12) asked Bacevich how internal change might be brought about.

“We need to live within our means, as individuals in our households and in terms of the services provided for by government at various levels,” he answered. “I’m no economist, but I do believe there is no free lunch. Everything has to be paid for.”

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


44 Comments on The End of America?

  • Azuma on 10.08.2008 at 3:19 pm

    On Point

    Great perspective that gets very little attention within mainstream thought. I was glad to see it represented with such clarity. Thanks.

  • Anonymous on 10.08.2008 at 4:37 pm

    Gotleib Lecture

    Over the two decades prior to 9/11, there were 17 attacks on the U.S. or U.S. interest by Islamic Terrorists, beginning in 1979, in which 734 people were killed. Then 2976 more were killed on 9/11. Since then, although there have been no further attacks on American soil (remarkably!), additional thousands have been killed in terror attacks targeting the west. There are now millions of young Islamic men and women who have been taught in the various madrasas throughout the Moslem world that God wants them to destroy the non-believers, particularly Americans. How to deal with that ubiquitous, suicidal threat is the most serious external challenge our country–and the world–has ever faced. Simply minding our own business and hunkering down doesn’t seem to be an adequate response to this unprecendent and ever-present danger to our people and our way of life.

  • Ceaser Weston on 10.09.2008 at 9:25 am


    Personally, I think you bring up some very valid points. I recently bought a house on the beach in Brazil and a small bar and am just waiting for my citizenship to go through (I married a Brazilian national) and when it does, I’m OUTTA HERE!


  • Tinus on 10.09.2008 at 9:35 am

    The next president needs to be an economist

    – Bring the troops home
    – Bring the jobs home
    – Start adding value to the dollar

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 10:52 am

    Not too much to ask

    I’m a college student and struggling to keep food in my stomach and a roof over my head. Living within my means is my only choice, but I still have massive debt from school. Is this really the way we want our youth to start out in the world, in the hole $50k for an education that is becoming increasingly over-rated?

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 12:09 pm

    Ron Paul anyone?

  • Persian Peace on 10.09.2008 at 12:09 pm

    Come & Go

    Every regime/country/person/etc has a Come & Go.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 12:20 pm

    Great article. Especially the part about both candidates having basically the same foreign policy, which is to the far right of mainstream opinion.

  • Brian W. Roberts on 10.09.2008 at 12:26 pm

    Seemingly Blissful Irony

    I served in the military for 9 years. I find it so ironic that an institution which, given a stereotypical view, would create far-right conservatives, generally creates free-thinkers who can see things more clearly than most.

    I attribute this to the simple fact that, as a commander, you must be able to see the situation clearly and without passion in order to keep yourself and your subordinates ALIVE.

    Too bad politics isn’t truly life-or-death. Maybe we actually start seeing some truth and REAL change.

  • Charter on 10.09.2008 at 12:44 pm


    I am (as many I believe) curious to see what will become of it all. Interesting article.

  • debt on 10.09.2008 at 12:49 pm

    yes…we need to learn more things like this about whats going on. Many people are blinded by the fact.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 12:50 pm

    I was glad to see it represented with such clarity. Thanks.

  • Ano on 10.09.2008 at 1:06 pm

    As the article points out, America needs to get back to saving money and producing products that the world needs. That used to be the American way.

  • Buddha on 10.09.2008 at 1:11 pm

    Great post, i have stumbled and submitted your post to digg.com

    you can see this here:


  • Qatar Girl on 10.09.2008 at 1:47 pm

    On Point 2

    Statements like this would be really hard to find just a year ago. Now, it seems that the nation is sobering up and that we actually stand a chance to clean up the mess.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 2:53 pm

    Why the United States people call themself american? America is the whole continent not only United States, it includes North America (Canada, Mexico and United States), Central America and South America. What I trying to say if that you say “american” that means you’re speaking about the people of the continent and not only a country.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 3:10 pm

    Although it’s important that we look inward and reevaluate ourselves, it’s important that people don’t begin to shut the rest of the world out. History will tell you that economic depression + fragmentation = big war. In response to “The next president needs to be an economist,” those things would be great, but blindly pursuing them would likely end in another war on a scale that our generation has never witnessed.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 3:22 pm

    Shore up your home first

    GM killed a multi billion pound economy generator when they binned the electric car EV1 a few years ago. If that car was built today, in America, using exactly the same 100+ miles per charge technology for around $25,000 or even a bit more…. billions of them would be sold. Thats how to resue America.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 3:42 pm

    Of course the Bushies will complain that modern Americans don’t have the sense of duty and allegiance to fight a war but this is the natural result of a commercial culture driven by Wall Street’s bottom line that wants docile consumers to waste their money on frivolous entertainments that encourage collective attention deficit disorder.

    To all these so-called conservative idiots that support Bush, I can only say that if you really want a culture of patriotic fighters, then you have to base your culture something higher than consumerism. If you support Bush and his consumerist values and are still complaining that americans aren’t patriotic enough, you are just a lazy whinning slob.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 4:15 pm


  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 4:19 pm

    Ron Paul warned us!

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 4:32 pm

    I really don’t hope anybody is cutting this fluke a paycheck.

  • Ray on 10.09.2008 at 5:11 pm

    wow so true I am finding out that a 50,000 education is overrated, I love brazil studied there for a summer, thought about moving back there, and yes Ron Paul has been yoda about all things right now…and he was the only person to offer real change
    what can you do when your people are stupid, gata get off the ship while you still can. 

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 5:19 pm

    Paul/Bacevich ’08

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 5:47 pm

    Completely agree with ‘On Point’. Many have thought these things for years and I hope if any good comes out of the turmoil we are currently experiencing, this will be it.

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 6:23 pm

    The only thing we have to fear is fear its self.

  • Raymond on 10.09.2008 at 7:22 pm

    People, if you go to the same university as where your parents live, just mooch off them :P But if you don’t, dam ><

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 7:44 pm

    Bob Barr is the answer Ron Paul is a road to nowhere…

  • Rich Snitch on 10.09.2008 at 9:12 pm


    Do I have to say "Bravo" . 

  • Anonymous on 10.09.2008 at 11:28 pm

    So clear. Bittersweet End.

    I think we will have to have everything fall apart again in order for things to change. The main problem is the fix for our last depression was war.

    That won’t work anymore, luckily we actually do have the agricultural and industrial means in place and running to sustain ourselves, after a crash these will have to be bolstered and foreign policy changed. Exporting high and importing only what is needed to maintain good foreign relations.

    MOST IMPORTANTLY- A depression will hopefully force the poor and middle class to stop and take a look and educate themselves. When the poor get more educated on how they work and affect others lives all over the world- We may see a shift, that is key.

  • Anyone on 10.09.2008 at 11:55 pm

    Ron Paul is your final warning.

    America if you neglect your founding principles you will be lost, and when you are lost you will have no protection. Your army and economy is a paper tiger against the weapons the accuser will bring against you. Witness your current losses as the accuser bears witness against you!

    Get back to where you belong, love your liberty as yourself, or you will burn with no indemnity.

  • Anonymous on 10.10.2008 at 2:49 am

    Ron Paul

    I’m with you on Ron Paul.

  • Professor Fandel on 10.10.2008 at 1:18 pm


    I have been saying this for nearly 8 years to no avail. Go to http://www.opednews.com and search my article THE BUSH/CHENEY GENOCIDE: DEATH OF A NATION

    The writing has been on the wall forever and these criminals knew/know exactly what they’re doing.

    I teach the young woman who talks about the $50,000 college debt that barely keeps food on her table, and they are our hope! We must teach them a new way of living.

    Nanfan (Professor Fandel)

  • Anonymous on 10.10.2008 at 3:02 pm


  • Anonymous on 10.11.2008 at 1:36 pm

    This used to be a country of tough, self-sufficient people. In 50 years it’s become layered in fat, debt and self-indulgence. A nation of indulgent, materialistic babies obsessed with brands and economic status.


  • Anonymous on 10.11.2008 at 6:55 pm

    What a stupid title

    This is a great article, but the title is utterly imbecilic.

    Why is it that so often, that intelligent rhetoric is masked behind idiotic headlines such as this? You draw a line that many people are unwilling to cross. There are a large number of people who will see this title and turn the page in absolute disgust without reading a sentence.

    Andrew Bacevich is a name I will watch for, we need more thoughtful people of this type in our government.

    Caleb Daniloff, I deplore your article’s title, and I find it a strong example of the systemic failure of the media system in the US. It would have been something I shared with as many people as I possibly could have if not for the evident stupidity illustrated in the first four words in this column.

    The right concentrates on the psychology of fear and terror to influence mislead voters, and the left uses contempt as their weapon to relate to other voters who are disgusted with the way our government works. Both tactics do little for true progress.

  • candra on 10.12.2008 at 12:30 pm

    it's just beginning

    I thinks this crissis is just the begining… let’s we see the big bang out there? Are AMerica still the” Great Country” tomorow?

  • Ti-bob on 10.13.2008 at 3:41 pm

    listen to that colonel

    Not being American but having lived and enjoyed your country for more than a year, all I can add to this article is that I hope something is going to change. I do not blame anybody for the average American view on foreign policy…every European, although we do not want to admit this fact, would take just the same approach if we had your history and territorial advantages (one country = one continent). We in Europe and especially we in Germany have made many mistakes during the (long) course of our nation but today we are so much different. America has much more to offer than what people perceive living outside of it, so go ahead and show them!

  • Anonymous on 10.14.2008 at 2:34 pm

    why we seem not to understand a thing until get hit by a four-by-eight

  • Anonymous on 10.15.2008 at 8:41 am

    Its not about change

    At last, someone who realizes that this election is not about change at all. Its just about rhetoric and posturing. The events of the last few weeks ought to prove to us that NONE of our politicians are any more competent than their Wall Street counterparts.

  • Anonymous on 10.15.2008 at 10:12 am

    Looking forward

    After eight years with the rudder in the hands of people with the wrong priorities, we need great thinkers like Bacevich to help us set a new course.

    Perhaps President Obama will consult Professor Bacevich on these matters in order to inform his domestic and foreign policies.

  • Anonymous on 01.29.2009 at 2:55 pm

    The End of America

    If civil rights interests you, then check out The End of America movie. It is a documentary about the novel by best-selling author Naomi Wolf. I personally saw it when it was screened at my school. It was very interesting and raises some scary points.

  • Gilll on 06.24.2009 at 11:17 pm


    Political rhetoric of the two primary U. S. political parties, and would-be-contender party drum beaters has sought to blame “those other parties” for all the economic ills of the U. S. The history of over-spending by the U. S. government began during WWII, when few of us would argue it was not necessary to save the world from tyranny. What few U. S. citizens today seem to be aware of is that sacrifices were made at all levels of our society — millions of young men volunteering or being drafted, millions of domestic housewives and agricultural workers stepping into jobs in industry, enduring rationing of fuel and food goods,
    victory gardens… and, overall, just buckling down and doing more, and doing without more. The result was increased productivity.

    After WWII, productivity continued to be high, and
    increases in income followed naturally — increased earnings for increased results, as opposed to inflation, alone. And the Great American Dream began to be conceived as manifest by people’s having more “things,” and having more “conveniences.” That was not, in and of itself, a bad thing. It was a good thing. But many of us were not content to live less well than the Jones’s, and, when property values were going up, and jobs were increasing, and life was getting seemingly easier and better, many of us began to perceive ourselves as “deserving” to have “more” and “more” and “more” things and conveniences. And with everything getting “better” we could borrow increasingly against what we were going to be earning in the future, and what our real property was going to be worth in the future… ad infinitum.

    Meanwhile, as Prof. Bacevich explains in “The Limits of Power,” our government began to feel a necessity to operate with borrowed funds, as well… or, more particularly, our presidents did. Citizens individually and state governments severally and our national government central decided more and more often that certain things were WORTH going into further debt for. After all, we deserved to live in a world increasingly democratized in accordance with our political philosophy did we not? Other countries who were not yet democratized “deserved” to be “free” as defined by having a voice in their social and political affairs, as we did and do, did they not? We were the
    “city on the hill,” and, concomitantly were under a duty and an obligation to “fix” countries whose governments did not perform in accordance with our interests — dressed up as a “freeing” of those people, did they not. Damn the COST, full spend ahead!

    And spend we did, not only as individuals in our own country but as a country (our government) demanding that other countries become more perfect democracies like our perfect (or so we deemed) democracy.

    Perhaps the cold war was “necessary.” Perhaps the North Korea policing was “necessary.” Perhaps the North Vietnamese policing was “necessary.” Perhaps
    the botched Cuban invasion was necessary, and the move into Afghanistan (followed by occupation), and Desert Storm, and the military move into Iraq (followed by occupation).

    In a very real way, we may find rationales whereby we can salute the flag, sing the national anthem, cry for those who died, call anybody who disagrees a “coward” … But, each of those “necessities,” if we wish to call them that entailed COSTS far, far beyond our present ability to pay.

    To say each and every one of these “police” actions or military actions was necessary is financially equivalent to saying it is NECESSARY for a nation — if it deems itself under a duty and an obligation to save the world from tyranny on an on-going basis, to BANKRUPT ITSELF in the process.

    We might use similar reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that a young person who cannot afford to go to college as financed by employment (sorry, but that is how I did it… not on borrowed money). We might reason that it is necessary for that young person to buy a top quality wardrobe on credit and a high-end motor vehicle, to make the right impression in seeking employment. Also, we might reason that this young person, if he or sees any person who lacks enough to eat, is obligated to use his credit card to
    buy that person some nice clothes and some food, too. And, why should there be no duty and obligation to use the credit card to rescue a few
    children from an abusive father (as a nation tries to rescue another nation’s citizens from a ruler who does not allow free elections)… etc. ad infinitum.

    Is not every individual, and every democratic nation, under a duty and an obligation to leave no stone unturned to right all the wrongs in the world, ON CREDIT?

    This is the question that should haunt all of us, I believe: What are the limits of our obligations RELATIVE TO our ABILITY TO PAY out of hand.

    How many generations should a young person going to college, just out of college seeking a job, employed and feeling he must keep up with the standard of “having” and the standard of ‘ease” of his most affluent neighbors have to go deeper and deeper into debt, and what are the limits of the duty and obligation of that individual to rescue others from the burden of a situation in life less “successful” than his own. Should every young person not spend himself into bankruptcy seeing to all these duties and obligations. And should not a nation, so blessed as ours, not pull out all the stops in spending — if not to democratize the world then surely to make the world more ready for global democracy and affluence?

    In my own life, I have spent what I have earned, and have made do with it. A child of the post depression years, it was enough for me to live within my means, to live less well than I might on credit, and pay as I went. In my own life I have helped other as I could, without going into debt. And, in my life, I have wished that the government of my country could find some way to keep expenditures within the bounds of
    this nation’s net domestic product…

    You can see where I am going with this. I am leading up to one final question which all U. S. citizens should — in my humble opinion — take to heart and mind — the question:


    Or, let us put it this way: Just supposing it is the only right and reasonable thing for us to do, as a people, and as a nation, to spend money we cannot even hope to pay the interest on, eventually.

    What is the end result of all this duty performing and all this obligation satisfying?

    As Prof. Bacevich explains in his book, this is the situation we are in, and our presidents (having gained too much power as war presidents, and then passed that power along to their successors), and our congress — which has become a self-serving country club, as well as a hackery at the beck and call of the wealthiest and most powerful interests both nationally and internationally (by way of power and money to influence elections on part of multi-national mega corporations). This is the situation we are in.

    A genuine question hangs over us like the Sword of Damocles: What is the weight of our duties and obligations to exercise control over how other peoples think and live on this globe, when the COST of it, as financed by increasing reliance upon DEBT increasingly approaches a point beyond which we cannot even make the minimum payments?

    Where do we go FROM HERE as we teeter at the brink of financial collapse, in trying to “fix” the world’s problems by exercising ever expanding control over it — of, should I say, TRYING to?

    That young person we pictured, with the credit card, and buying of an education to be paid by future earnings, and buying that fancy wardrobe, and fancy automobile to be paid by future earnings, and buying more justice, and more possessions and more ease for unfortunate others… is he a yellow-bellied coward to take a breather and ask himself, “Where is all this leading to?”

    Meanwhile, every politician tells us all this is the fault of the other party and its candidates. Every politician tells us spending will be decreased, while spending has NOT decreased, not at ANY time (with a rare few breathers). Taxes have NOT decreased.

    The over-empowerment of the presidents — all of them — and the country-club mentality of the congress — and the burgeoning indebtedness pushed every farther into the future earnings of U. S. citizens — that is no partisan thing. It is a ubiquitous thing among politicians of this nation, for at least the past half century.

    Partisanship is a red herring, friends. It’s a party alright, but the politicians are all enjoying the benefits. The pointing of fingers by the one or the other is comparable to two children who have done something they should not, and each is pointing the finger at the other and saying, “He’s the one who started it.”

    Does it occur to you, as to me (and I believe I speak for Prof. Bacevich on this question) that we are half a century late in STOPPING it? Hopefully, better late than never.

    Can we change the way we think enough to see that, if we spend this nation into complete financial collapse, we are not going to be able to defend ourselves, much less rescue everybody else in the world from one another.

    And, at present, WE HAVE ONLY AN OVER-WORKED MILITARY, and have spent so much that our politicians are afraid to acknowledge the fact that, as a military power, we are over-extended and are SITTING DUCKS.

    Some things we must spend on, or else. But have we already spent so much on causes and actions and things that bankrupted us, that we are no longer able to spend what we must to survive?

    If you want a better perspective on where we are, and how we got here, and what we need to be putting the highest of priorities upon, even to survive, READ Andrew Bacevich’s book. If it does not provide you any idea of what we might do to
    save the U. S. from failing financially as a nation,
    at least you will understand better what you and I and all of us, and our government are up against right now.

  • Anonymous on 06.25.2009 at 8:36 am

    On Credit

    Let us assume that each and every expenditure of the U. S. government and each and every expenditure of the people of the U. S., as individuals, has been necessary, the only right thing to do, the only recourse to keep the enemies of the U. S. from destroying it.

    We have, as a nation, and as individuals spent more than we have earned — president after president, individual after individual.

    We — both government and people taken as a collective whole — have spent more than we have EARNED.

    If an individual or a nation spends on credit more than it EARNS, that person or that nation can APPEAR to be very successfull for a while. But as the amount of the DEBT exceeds the earnings (which for the nation comes in form of TAX REVENUES), day after day, year after year, decade after decade… it eventually adds up to more than can be paid off in a generation, in two generations, in three.

    If a group of militant Muslim extremists can spend
    two thousand dollars on explosives, and give up the lives of a handful of their number, and cause the U. S. to spend MILLIONS on defense… or, if two or three teams of militant Muslim extremists can hijack a few airliners and give up a dozen or less of their number and kill a couple of thousand U. S. citizens and destroy half a billion dollars worth of office space… and the U. S. RESPONDS by spending many billions…

    …on CREDIT…

    … is is “enough” to make the observation that the enemy is WINNING.

    If enemies of the U. S. can goad the U. S. into going deeper and deeper and deeper into DEBT, then it need not win a shooting war. A gorilla attacl here, a gorilla attack there, and the U. S. will spend itself to death.

    How clever. They cannot beat us in a shooting war, but can cause us to bleed ourselves to death financially by keeping us saying, “It is not enough to just stand by and not borrow more and more and more and more to finance shooting wars.

    If that is the only game in town, then the name of that game is, they eventually win. They cause us to bleed ourselves to death financially.

    Is THAT the best game plan we (the U. S. government and U. S. citizena) can come up with?

    When a nation is bankrupt, who must it ask to “forgive” its debts? Do all who believe the costs of
    large wars are the only right, and reasonable, and courageous thing to do… believe that we can, as a nation, continue to throw more money at problems of national security that we EARN?

    What are the future consequences in THAT????

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