the end of the american century

So there’s an interesting article on Salon today, where historian Andrew Bacevich comments on Richard Cohen’s recent Washington Post article,”What Henry Luce called ‘the American Century’ is over” (yes, a blog post commenting on an article commenting on an article commenting on an even older article; what a hall of mirrors the blog world is).

I’m pretty sure there are many, especially on the right, who will be outraged–OUTRAGED!–by the fact that Bacevich calls for America to a) get over itself, and b) apologize to the world. But he makes some good points–and he doesn’t even get into all the horrors that the “American Century” has wrought. He primarily focuses on international affairs, starting with the things that we take credit for undeservedly:

Yet in determining that outcome [the collapse of the USSR], the brilliance of American statesmen was far less important than the ineptitude of those who presided over the Kremlin. Ham-handed Soviet leaders so mismanaged their empire that it eventually imploded, permanently discrediting Marxism-Leninism as a plausible alternative to liberal democratic capitalism. The Soviet dragon managed to slay itself. So thank you, Comrades Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev.

SO MANY people think we won the Cold War. We didn’t, unless by “won” you mean “still standing when the USSR imploded, due entirely to internal problems and not at all to anything the US did.”

And then there are the things we did that we won’t admit were wrong (Iran, Cuba, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Afghanistan). These, of course, are events and decisions that are important because they’re still affecting us today. But there are plenty of events he left out. The decisions we made in the “American Century” – we could also call it the “Imperial Presidency Century” or the “American Empire Century” – were largely self-serving, in the worst possible way.

In the interests of American business interests and American oil supplies, we overthrew numerous governments–Bacevich doesn’t even get into our various escapades in Central and South America, or the numerous other times that the CIA interfered with democratically-elected governments, installing harsh, oppressive right-wing leaders who would be friendly to US business interests or support us during the Cold War. He doesn’t discuss the Monroe Doctrine, or the fact that once we ran out of contiguous land to conquer (let’s not even get into Manifest Destiny and the Mexican-American War), we started looking for an overseas empire. He mentions Cuba but not the other consequences of that early imperial era: the Philippines, Hawaii. For a country that prides itself on being the land of the free, the home of the brave, a country founded on principles of democracy and freedom, we’ve frequently acted in ways antithetical to those core beliefs.

I’m sure there are plenty of people out there (although probably not reading this blog) who would deride for my lack of patriotism. Here’s the thing though: the fact that I acknowledge that there are plenty of bad decisions and mistakes in our history does not mean that I think it negates all the good. There are some great things about this country: the idealism of the our founding documents, the spirit of hope that runs through so much of our history. In fact, I think there’s enough good in this country, its history and its people, that we don’t need to whitewash our history. I think we’re capable of taking an honest look at who we are and what we’ve done, and finding a way to move forward, to be better in the future, to aspire to greater things.

Let’s get back to Bacevich. Here’s the core of his argument:

In short, the persistence of this self-congratulatory account deprives Americans of self-awareness, hindering our efforts to navigate the treacherous waters in which the country finds itself at present. Bluntly, we are perpetuating a mythic version of the past that never even approximated reality and today has become downright malignant. Although Richard Cohen may be right in declaring the American Century over, the American people — and especially the American political class — still remain in its thrall.

Constructing a past usable to the present requires a willingness to include much that the American Century leaves out.


No, we apologize to them [countries we have wronged], but for our own good — to free ourselves from the accumulated conceits of the American Century and to acknowledge that the United States participated fully in the barbarism, folly and tragedy that defines our time. For those sins, we must hold ourselves accountable.

To solve our problems requires that we see ourselves as we really are. And that requires shedding, once and for all, the illusions embodied in the American Century.

This doesn’t just apply to American foreign policy and foreign affairs, but to domestic policy as well. So many of America’s contemporary domestic problems are rooted in the fact that far too many American are far too invested in the idea that American is #1 and no challenges to that will be entertained. How can we look to the future, how can we take a long, hard, critical look at our problems and decide how to fix them, if we won’t even acknowledge that there ARE problems? There’s nothing inherently wrong with being proud of your country and its accomplishments, but you have to understand that countries are made up of people. As people are imperfect, so are their governments and countries. There is always room for improvement, and we should always be striving for bigger and greater things.

My favorite summation of this theory is from Bill Maher, of all people.


For all my cynicism, it looks like I’m still an optimist, deep inside. I read somewhere (wish I could remember where), that cynics are really idealists, that they’re cynical because they want better and still believe it can happen, they just don’t see it happening at the moment (whereas pessimists just think  it won’t ever happen).


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