When military analyst Andrew Bacevich was writing his new book last summer, the nation was stuck in the middle of a deadly pandemic, an unstable economy, a racial reckoning and record-setting climate events.
In “After The Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed," Bacevich describes it as being on the edge of catastrophic destruction. And given the current threats the country faces, he argues the U.S. needs to look inward at the problems happening in our own hemisphere, not on the battlefields in the Middle East or the conflicts abound in the Asia-Pacific region.
Bacevich, the president of the Quincy Institute For Responsible Statecraft and a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam, says the “apocalypse” of 2020 exposed a variety of fault lines in the U.S. He points specifically to the Trump administration’s “ill-equipped” response to the convergence of a pandemic and widespread protests for racial justice.
In the book, he writes how the idea of American exceptionalism — which became a key part of former President Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric — burgeoned into the deep-seated notion that the U.S. is an indispensable nation.
The resurgence of U.S. populism seeped into every aspect of our current political environment, Bacevich argues, tainting governance at all levels and undermining threats that Americans face such as disease, border problems and climate change, he says.
Reinstituting a sense of common good that all Americans can get behind is necessary to mend the severe divisions plaguing the country, he says.
The political establishment and intellectual class need to lead the way, he says, with “a willingness to call a cease-fire and to find a way to restore the sense of unity that the nation absolutely needs.”
On his argument that the toxins of American exceptionalism have misguided the country
“The most vivid illustration of the problem are the events that occurred on Jan. 6 of this year. There was a violent effort to overturn the results of an election, which was a direct assault on the Constitution. That was, I think, the ultimate symptom of things that had gone badly wrong. My particular interest is in U.S. foreign policy and in particular the use of American military power. So it's been my view basically since the end of the Cold War, we have been engaged in a pattern of misusing — recklessly misusing — American military power. I think to some degree, the chickens came home to roost in 2020. And I would emphasize here that the pattern of misusing American military power was absolutely bipartisan. It is not a matter of one party or the other taking us down the wrong road. They took us down the wrong road, arm in arm.”
On how Trump’s message of “America First” is at odds with Biden’s message of “American is Back”
“First of all, let us understand that President Trump used that phrase ‘America First’ because he found it politically convenient. I don't think he even understood the historical antecedents of that phrase. And certainly, as president, he never had any coherent strategic sense of how to translate that phrase into a set of policies. ‘America First’ was theater.
“President Biden has given some indications of wanting to pursue a return to rationality. I'm talking here about rejoining the World Health Organization, of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, of attempting to negotiate the restoration of the Iran nuclear deal. And we should give him credit for all of those things. That said, more broadly, he buys into the pre-Trump status quo. What's the evidence? Well, the evidence is a total absence of any serious rethinking of our military commitments. I should amend that he wants to get us out of Afghanistan, but insisting that we will stay in Europe [and] insisting that the Asia-Pacific region is now emerging as an area of confrontation — the basis of what people are calling a new Cold War.
On the U.S. political establishment clinging to an out-of-date national security paradigm
“I would argue there needs to be a rather explicit recognition that the most important threat to our well-being — yours and mine, your families and mine — are things that occur here in North America within our own hemisphere. The threats that matter are environmental change, disease and insecure borders. Those are the places where there needs to be greater attention and investment, which implies let's take money away from the Pentagon, let's give money to some other government agencies that are more directly involved in taking care of us here.”
"Since the end of the Cold War, we have been engaged in a pattern of misusing — recklessly misusing — American military power."Andrew Bacevich
On the advantages of refocusing national security in North America
“I think the benefits would be to provide for a safer and more secure environment for your family and for my family. And let me emphasize: To argue that we should rethink our global military footprint, that's not an argument for isolationism. It is an argument that says that our engagement in the world, particularly since the end of the Cold War, has been excessively militarized. We need to engage with the rest of the world, but we should be engaging with the rest of the world in ways that emphasize diplomacy and economic interaction.”
On his ideas for a new national security blueprint in order to better serve Americans
“Step No. 1 is to have a serious conversation about what the threats are. Climate change is a threat to our way of life. We've learned over the course of the past year that we are threatened by diseases. We've already taken for granted the fact that 600,000 Americans died in the COVID pandemic. That's I think 150,000 more soldiers than were killed in World War II. It's an astonishing figure. That's a danger that needs to be addressed. We've got problems on the border. I am not anti-immigration. If anything, I am pro-immigration. But the relationship between ourselves and Mexico centered on undocumented people coming from Central America is a catastrophe. And certainly, there is a need to get smarter on how to deal with that and also a willingness to devote more resources. Let us not forget nuclear proliferation. The Obama administration initiated a nuclear modernization program where the price tag is going to be about $1.5 trillion — didn't get talked about. Why are we doing that? So I think there's a need for a basic conversation about what poses a threat to us where we live and what's the best way to deal with those threats.”
On his outlook for the future
“I'm not [terribly optimistic]. I mean, one of the things I said in my book is I don't think I'm writing these days in particular for my contemporaries, the baby boomers. I think we are passing on a heck of a mess to the younger generation. I think the best we can do is to try to begin prompting them to appreciate the importance of thinking anew. And I think that if they're going to be able to take on the challenges that face the nation — whether we're talking about climate change challenges or we're talking about white nationalist challenges — I think there's absolutely a need to rethink the national security paradigm as we go forward.”
Book Excerpt: 'After The Apocalypse'
By Andrew Bacevich
Introduction: Not So Innocent
During the summer of 2020, as I was writing this book, nervous Americans sensed the onset of a terrifying Apocalypse. Wildfires scorching vast areas of California, Oregon, and Washington and hurricanes pummeling the Gulf Coast reinforced those terrors. Fears that events were literally taking an apocalyptic turn became explicit and widespread. Editors inserted the term itself into headlines. THE APOCALYPSE FEELS NIGH. THE CLIMATE APOCALYPSE HAS ARRIVED. HOW THE APOCALYPSE BECAME THE NEW NORMAL. AN APOCALYPTIC AUGUST IN CALIFORNIA. AN APOCALYPSE IN CALIFORNIA—COMING TO YOU SOON. By implication, that you could be anyone anywhere.
Fires and floods were only the latest in a succession of punishments Americans were obliged to endure. First had come the toxic and divisive presidency of Donald Trump. Then in the spring of 2020, a deadly pandemic engulfed the nation, nearly bringing it to its knees. Trailing just steps behind came an economic collapse so severe as to elicit comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Before Americans had fully absorbed these disruptions, a mass movement demanding a reckoning with the nation’s legacy of racism erupted, unleashing, in turn, a white nationalist backlash.
Rancor, pestilence, want, and fury: These are the Four Horsemen comprising our own homemade Apocalypse. Each came as a shock to the system. Each exposed weakness and rot in institutions whose integrity Americans had long taken for granted. Each caught members of the nation’s reigning power elite by surprise.
Trump’s ascent to the White House exposed gaping flaws in the American political system, his manifest contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law placing in jeopardy our democratic traditions. The coronavirus pandemic exposed gaping flaws in the prevailing concept of national security, with Americans exposed to life-threatening perils to which government authorities responded tardily and ineffectually. In a matter of weeks, the economic crisis it induced threw tens of millions out of work and drove millions of businesses into bankruptcy. As for the popular uprising known as Black Lives Matter, it exposed deep-seated and widespread residual opposition to genuine racial equality.
The calamities that accumulated during 2020 fostered a sense of things coming undone. The political order seemed unable to cope. Crises following one another in rapid succession tested Americans as they had not been tested for generations. Each cri- sis compounded the significance of the others. Taken together, they gave birth to a moment of profound and disturbing revelation.
What this revelation will ultimately signify remains to be seen. Perhaps post-Apocalypse America will experience a great revival, comparable to what occurred in the 1860s, when a radical realignment of national politics accelerated the nation’s emergence as the world’s wealthiest country, albeit only after the fiery trial of civil war. Or perhaps, as it emerges from its present trials, the United States will suffer the fate of the Third French Republic in the 1930s. Sustained political dysfunction combined with a dismally inadequate response to external danger spelled the end of France’s standing among the great powers.
The premise of this book is quite simple: Regardless of whether our self-inflicted contemporary apocalypse leads to renewal or further decline, the United States will find itself obliged to revise the premises informing America’s role in the world. Put simply, basic U.S. policy must change.
Even before COVID-19 swept the nation, taking hundreds of thousands of American lives, cumulative policy failures ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades-old for- mal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds. The costs, approximating a trillion dollars annually, were too high. The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media.
Through its own fecklessness during the 1920s and 1930s, the government of France laid the foundation for its 1940 defeat by Nazi Germany. Similarly, the fecklessness of U.S. policy during the two decades after 9/11 paved the way for the afflictions of 2020.
The terrorist attacks of September 2001 prompted Washing- ton to double down on its commitment to military supremacy and global power projection as essential to keeping Ameri- cans safe and preserving our way of life. No alternative course received serious consideration. No debate about the prerequisites of basic national security occurred. The beating of war drums allowed no room for hesitation—or even serious reflection.
However belatedly, the Apocalypse of 2020 demands that Americans finally take stock of what post–Cold War national security policies have produced and at what cost. Nearly two decades after 9/11, we can no longer afford to postpone acknowledging our own folly. It’s time to remove the blinders. This, too, describes my book’s purpose: to identify the connecting tissue between the delusions of the recent past and the traumas that are their progeny.
Excerpted from AFTER THE APOCALYPSE: America's Role in a World Transformed by Andrew Bacevich. Published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021 by Andrew Bacevich. All rights reserved.
This segment aired on July 2, 2021.