Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Limits of Power - Review Part I

Last week I linked to Peter Leithart's review of Andrew Bacevich's book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. I just competed the book myself, and will add a few words.

Bacevich is highly critical of contemporary America. In his introduction he writes:

"Realism in this sense implies an obligation to see the world as it actually is, not as we might like it to be. The enemy of realism is hubris, which in Niebuhr's day, and in our own, finds expression in an outsized confidence in the efficacy of American power as an instrument to reshape the global order.

Humility imposes an obligation of a different sort. It summons Americans to see themselves without blinders. The enemy of humility is sanctimony, which gives rise to the conviction that American values and beliefs are universal and that the nation itself serves providentially assigned purposes. This conviction finds expression in a determination to remake the world in what we imagine to be America's image.

In our own day, realism and humility have proven to be in short supply... Hubris and sanctimony have become the paramount expressions of American statecraft." (page 7)


Bacevich sees America as a proud, and aloof nation. We in essence are our own idol, and seek to proselytize the rest of the world. But that is not all.

"The collective capacity of our domestic political economy to satisfy those [self indulgent] appetites has not kept pace with demand. As a result, sustaining our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness at home requires increasingly that Americans look beyond our borders. Whether the issue at hand is oil, credit, or the availability of cheap consumer goods, we expect the world to accommodate the American way of life.

The resulting sense of entitlement has great implications for foreign policy. Simply put, as the American appetite for for freedom has grown, so too has our penchant for empire." (page 8)


He writes more on the profligacy of America in chapter one. He writes:

"If one were to choose a single world to characterize that identity, it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors." (page 16)

"The ethic of self-gratification threatens the well-being of the United States. It does so not because Americans have lost touch with some mythical Puritan habits of hard work and self-abnegation, but because it saddles us with costly commitments abroad that we are increasingly ill-equipped to sustain while confronting us with dangers to which we have no ready response. As the prerequisites of the American way of life have grown, they have outstripped the means available to satisfy them. Americans of an earlier generation worried about bomber and missile gaps, both of which turned out to be fictitious. The present-day gap between requirements and the means available to satisfy those requirements is neither contrived nor imaginary. It is real and growing. This gap defines the crisis of American profligacy." (page 17)


So at the heart of Bacevich's criticism, America has become a profligate, self-serving nation, bent on bringing its power to bear upon those that will not serve its interests or appetites.

More to come...

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