Leaving San Francisco today, and returning to Andrew Bacevich’s 1998 reflection on “the irony of American power”. It’s worthwhile reading since many are still trying to detox from an incredibly contentious election cycle. Bacevich paints a portrait of American power that is probably at odds with our traditional history:
A nation born of the first great anti-imperial revolution, the United States finds itself today wielding authority and influence in every corner of the globe. A state that once spurned interference by outsiders has acquired a well-documented reputation for instructing others on how to conduct themselves on matters ranging from human rights to environmental regulation. A people once profoundly suspicious of militarism tacitly embrace military power as a central element of national identity. How are we to account for the paradoxes to which America’s emergence as the world’s foremost power has given rise?
The traditional narrative of American history dodges that question, suggesting that the outcome was not of our doing: greatness was thrust upon us. This orthodox view of history asserts that the United States did not advance purposefully to center stage in world affairs; it was drawn there reluctantly, contrary to its traditions and the preferences of its people.
According to this interpretation, America’s transformation from unassuming republic to global superpower was unforeseen and unintended. The United States assumed a paramount role in world affairs only under duress, prodded by malevolent forces that became in the end too monstrous to ignore.
Thus, evil has provided warrant for action. The all-but-forgotten war with Spain now a hundred years past set the pattern. For years, Americans had watched as Cubans suffered abuse at the hands of a decadent and incompetent imperial regime. Finally, in 1898, further Spanish control of Cuba became intolerable. When the smoke of the ensuing conflict cleared, the United States had indeed ejected Spain from Cuba, but had acquired in the process an insular empire of its own, stretching from the Caribbean across the Pacific. In the decades to follow, the recurrence of wickedness in various guises—the militarism of Imperial Germany and Japan, the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler and Stalin, more lately the tinhorn depredations of Saddam Hussein—would offer impetus and justification for the further expansion of American power.
William Graham Sumner’s 1899 speech on this history is The Conquest of the United States by Spain. It’s essential for understanding the genealogy of global American military power.
This interpretation of the nation’s rise to globalism—the United States reacting to peace disrupted, rights defiled, and freedom jeopardized—is one that most Americans have found persuasive. It is reassuringly familiar and morally satisfying. For the average citizen, the standard historical narrative has provided a convenient map for navigating through the perilous and deceptive terrain of twentieth-century politics. But a map only approximates reality. Sketched in response to the press of events, the historical map charting the progress of the Reluctant Superpower has never been completely accurate. Of late, it has become increasingly misleading. Most of all, with the end of the Cold War, it is no longer useful. Indeed, to cling to that map is to misapprehend the hazards that lie just ahead.
If Americans have vigorously defended their way of life against external threat, it is also true that they have sought to imprint that way of life on others. No people on earth have been more eager to see the world remade in their own image. The whole trajectory of Western history, pointing toward an expansion of freedom, equality, and opportunity, only served to validate this belief in American mission, even fostering the notion that the United States possessed a providential mandate to spread the blessings of liberty.
The international institutions that America created with other Western powers after World War II probably still derive their power from American power. If it’s true that our international institutions require a globally dominant America (certainly a debatable if) then it means that those international institutions might be as much a brilliant and subtle new means of empire as much as forums for international cooperation. A charitable view might be that our international institutions are a means of universal democratic governance.
Thus, even before leading the nation into war to make the world safe for democracy, Woodrow Wilson could declare with certainty that “God [had] planted in us the vision of liberty” and that the United States had been “chosen, and prominently chosen, to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.”
Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition. Nor did that proposition die with Wilson. Once revived by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the spirit and grandeur of the Wilsonian project animated the policies and the rhetoric of subsequent administrations as dissimilar as those of John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. “If we judge events by their consequences,” John Lukacs has observed, “the great world revolutionary was Wilson rather than Lenin.” Indeed, if we judge the age of revolutions by its outcome, the United States has been the most successful revolutionary power of them all.
“Wilson’s purpose was not simply to defend American principles, but to secure their extension on a universal basis, a breathtakingly radical proposition.” This vision (potentially still being attempted) is incredibly important to understand for context in human politics of the last few hundred years—if not the last few thousand years.