After the Apocalypse, Andrew Bacevich. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021.
Summary: An argument that 2020 represented the final unraveling of the United States’ post-Cold War superpower status and that U.S. policy must change, reflecting its changed status in the world and changing priorities at home.
If ever a year might be considered apocalyptic, 2020 is one for the books. We have witnessed a global pandemic that has taken millions of lives globally and over 700,000 U.S. lives and counting. Extreme weather events resulted in drought, flooding, extended fire seasons, extreme storms, and coastal inundations. Police involved shootings inflamed racial tensions. A bitterly fought election resulted in a denial of certified results and a nearly successful effort to prevent the constitutional certification of those results by those who denied them. Meanwhile, U.S. efforts to project power in Iraq and Afghanistan, born of 9/11 failed while China’s power is in the ascendant.
Andrew Bacevich, witnessing these events, and having witnessed the new, post-Cold War order America tried to sustain as the world’s only superpower fail, argues that the U.S. must awaken to its changed place in the world and must change its policies accordingly. He contends that, while paying respect to Reinhold Niebuhr, the U.S. has in fact followed a policy of arrogant hubris instead of the one of “self-awareness, humility, and prudence…of realism combined with moral responsibility” (p. 29). The Cold War alliances of the West, particularly NATO exist mostly in name only. America, apart from token presences, has fought its wars alone.
Bacevich takes the bold step of touching the “third rail” of American policy and argues for no “special relationships”–not with Great Britain and not with Israel. He argues not for cutting ties, but for normalizing them, treating them as we do other countries with whom we do business. He argues that if anything, our relationships with our immediate neighbors, Canada and Mexico, ought to take precedence. He also argues that our changing climate poses threats to our security, and possibly our health, as diseases may find new vectors for global spread. COVID may just be our wake up call.
He also argues, as others have in different contexts, for the importance of addressing our racial history. He implicates racism in the ways we have fought our wars, depending heavily on black soldiers, and in our ventures in Iraq, on the good soldier, Colin Powell, to make the case for war. It was sobering to read this as news came of Powell’s passing, and how this one episode tarnished an otherwise distinguished career culminating in our first Black serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.
Bacevich argues for a policy of sustainable self-sufficiency in global affairs. He believes this means to withdraw from NATO, allowing the European Community to determine its own future. He likewise advocates withdrawal from the Greater Middle East and that terrorism should revert to be treated as a criminal matter. The once exception he makes is in East Asia. He argues that the rise in China’s power, reflected in military power argues for a continued presence. In fact, it may argue for the concentration of our diffused forces, while doing all to pursue peaceful co-existence. He also argues for an enhanced focus on a new North American Security Zone (NASZ) focusing on addressing the challenges and security of our own continent.
Years ago, Paul Kennedy, in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, argued that the fall of the great powers came from the projection of their power in the world that bankrupted them and inevitably involved overreach. Bacevich seems to make a similar argument here, contending that the U.S. already has seen the collapse of its efforts to project itself as a global superpower and must refocus on what it is still capable of in addressing the challenges, international, domestic, and natural, on its own doorstep. In 2020, we at least glimpsed the apocalypse. It could get worse! His call for sustainable self-sufficiency in our own policies and in our relations with the world reflects Niebuhr’s humility and realism. It acknowledges that U.S. cannot do what other nations must do for themselves. It is not isolationist, because it recognizes shared interests with other countries in matters like trade, climate, and world health and that we may need a more tightly focused exercise of our military forces.
Where I have questions is in his proposal to withdraw from the Greater Middle East. Given its strategic location at the nexus of Europe, Asia, and Africa and its energy resources, is it reasonable to assume we may withdraw our presence and the nations of this area will be able to be sustainably self-sufficient? Instead, will there be a vacuum filled by others? While we must not repeat the folly of nation building, may our presence help preserve national sovereignty as does our presence in East Asia? Even if the U.S. and its North American neighbors maintain energy self-sufficiency (a priority I think), this region is vital in the global energy equation, and a disruption could destabilize global relations.
It seems that the policies chosen with regard to our near neighbors, our own racially diverse nation, and our natural environment could either meet or fail the test of moral responsibility. Given our history and current dispositions in all three areas, it seems to me that what Bacevich is proposing is a corporate revival of moral responsibility amid a history of declension. It will require courageous and resolute leadership that refuses the traditional nostrums about American greatness. I hope Bacevich is a praying man. What he prescribes is a tall order that it seems we have little inclination to pursue. I agree that needs to change. I’ll be praying with him.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.