Andrew Bacevich spoke in the President’s Lecture Series at the University of Montana on 12 March 2014 and made a powerful case for the continuing importance of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History. Niebuhr, a theologian and public intellectual, wrote in this 1952 book how “modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension and management.” Blinded by a false pride, Americans did not have the tragic vision required of a strong world leadership. The tragic vision includes as its focal point the recognition that all things must prepare for a sorrowful end. Nothing goes on forever. All men die and no great power yet has avoided the decline and fall trajectory of ancient Rome. Oswald Spengler saw this much in The Decline of the West, but to the argument for a tragic understanding of history Niebuhr added the Christian doctrine of original sin. What nation comes into being and the fullness of its power without committing transgressions against the moral law for which it will be forever guilty and under expiatory obligation? Moreover, Christian realism about the ambiguity of human purpose, he thought, is opposed by modern theories of innocence, the American variation of which is the most self-glorifying in all history. From such self-worship comes the idolatrous belief in the myth of American exceptionalism and all of its corollary dogmas about the capacity of the United States to know and to guide the direction of history. Niebuhr thought that America worked pretty well at home, well enough at least to keep the population off the barricades. He worried, though, about how an adolescent nation in the grip of child-like illusions about itself would come to terms with the realities of global politics. The uses to which an inordinately great American power would be put might become a problem for the world.
Bacevich took from Niebuhr’s teaching the lesson that the purposes of God are inscrutable. The American worship of its oligarchic democracy and eagerness to promote it by force, however, contradict the Christian principles set forth in The Irony of American History. Indeed, American leaders have produced what Bacevich called a less vicious version of the Nazi creed. Instead of a master race, the United States promotes a master ideology, which in the proffering hands of an indispensable nation can be refused only by men of a lesser breed. Those who resist the gifts of American freedom logically merit the responses ordered from the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, when the more subtle suasions of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the U.S. Treasury fail to produce the desired results of absolute compliance with the requirements of imperial headquarters, grandly referred to as “the international community.” Bacevich thought that the utter failure of the Obama administration to alter American foreign policy in any meaningful way vividly illustrated how the country’s politics had become subservient to the demands of empire. It does not matter which party holds power in Washington, insofar as the empire is concerned. The only foreign policy issue at stake is how the empire will be managed. The existence of the empire is a given. It literally has become impossible for our leaders in Washington, of either party, to conceive of a world in which the United States is not intensely involved in every crisis. The trillions of dollars spent and the thousands of American lives lost and maimed for such involvements is the price of global leadership, another euphemism for which Niebuhr would have found its equivalent in standard American English.
Bacevich observed that the country’s foreign policy sprang directly from the American way of life. Here he talked about our consumer society and all of the resources required to sustain it. As a culturally conservative Catholic and believer in distributist economics, he could find little of redeeming value in consumer society. Distributist economics, in opposition to socialism and to the plutocracy currently regnant in the United States, holds that widespread property ownership is the key to bringing about a just social order. Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum novarum, the pioneering manifesto of Catholic social justice theory, appeared in 1891. Catholic intellectuals such as G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc based their social criticism on the distributist ideas of the Catholic social justice tradition. Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno (1931) and Pope John Paul II in Centesimus annus (1991) adapted for their times the social justice teachings found in Rerum novarum. In 2013, Pope Francis issued an apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a scalding critique of capitalism run amok and responsible for a world afflicted by worsening economic inequalities. In the manner of the great Catholic social justice popes before him, he called upon world leaders to bend their efforts toward the creation of a just economic and political order. Something other than profit must be the driving force of political endeavor, if humanity is to be saved from a fate of pestilence, war, and terrorism.
Because little interest exists in reassessing the American way of life, it seemed unlikely to Bacevich that the country’s foreign policy would change. All attempts to advance beyond the country’s individualist and consumerist values meet the enormous resistance of the most powerful hegemony in the world. In 2008, he had written The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, a critique of America’s ethic of self-gratification. He thought the time propitious for such a book. The country at that time found itself bogged down in the disastrous Iraq War and, with the economy in free fall, feared the onset of another depression. What better time could there be for an examination of the national soul? The debate that Bacevich hoped for did not happen. Once again, as always, Americans rested content with just muddling through and settled for band aids instead of finding solutions. Something more catastrophic than the Iraq War or the economic meltdown of 2008 evidently will be required to teach Americans the truth about their ironic situation in a world that has never known innocent hegemons.
16 March 2014