Twilight of the Republic?

Seeds of Decline, Path to Renewal

In his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush declared the promulgation of freedom to be “the mission that created our nation.” Fulfilling what he described as America’s “great liberating tradition” now requires that the United States devote itself to “ending tyranny in our world.”

Many Americans find such sentiments compelling. Yet to credit the United States with possessing a “liberating tradition” is like saying that Hollywood has a “tradition of artistic excellence.” The movie business is just that-a business. Its purpose is to make money. If once in a while the studios produce a film of aesthetic value, that may be cause for celebration; but profit, not revealing truth and beauty, defines the purpose of the enterprise.

Something of the same can be said of the enterprise launched on July 4, 1776. The hard-headed lawyers, merchants, farmers, and slaveholding plantation owners gathered in Philadelphia that summer did not set out to create a church. They founded a republic. Their purpose was not to save mankind. It was to guarantee for people like themselves “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the years and decades that followed, the United States achieved remarkable success in making good on those aims. Yet never during America’s rise to power did the United States exert itself to liberate others absent an overriding perception that the nation itself had large security or economic interests at stake.

From time to time, although not nearly as frequently as we like to imagine, some of the world’s unfortunates managed as a consequence to escape from bondage. The Civil War did produce emancipation. Yet to explain the conflagration of 1861-65 as a response to the plight of enslaved African Americans is to engage in vast oversimplification. Near the end of World War II, GIs did liberate the surviving inmates of Nazi death camps. Yet for those who directed the American war effort of 1941-45, the fate of European Jews never figured as more than an afterthought.

Crediting America with a “great liberating tradition” sanitizes the past and obscures the actual motive force behind American politics and U.S. foreign policy. It transforms history into a morality tale and thereby provides a rationale for dodging serious moral analysis. To insist that the liberation of others has never been more than an ancillary motive of U.S. policy is not cynicism; it is a prerequisite to self-understanding.

America Ascendant

If the young United States had a mission, it was not to liberate but to expand. “Of course,” declared Theodore Roosevelt in 1899, as if explaining the self-evident to the obtuse, “our whole national history has been one of expansion.” He spoke truthfully. The Founders viewed stasis as tantamount to suicide. From the outset, Americans evinced a compulsion to acquire territory and to extend their commercial reach abroad.

How was expansion achieved? On this point, the historical record leaves no room for debate: by any means necessary. Depending on the circumstances, the United States relied on diplomacy, hard bargaining, bluster, chicanery, intimidation, or naked coercion. We infiltrated land belonging to our neighbors and then brazenly proclaimed it our own. We harassed, filibustered, and, when the situation called for it, launched full-scale invasions. We engaged in ethnic cleansing. At times, we insisted that treaties be considered sacrosanct. On other occasions, we blithely jettisoned agreements that had outlived their usefulness.

As the methods employed varied, so did the rationale offered to justify action. We touted our status as God’s new Chosen People, erecting a “city upon a hill” destined to illuminate the world. We acted at the behest of providential guidance and responded to the urgings of our “manifest destiny.” We declared our obligation to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ and to uplift Little Brown Brother. With Woodrow Wilson as our tutor, we shouldered our responsibility to “show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty.” Critics who derided these claims as bunkum-the young Lincoln during the war with Mexico, Mark Twain after 1898, Robert LaFollette in 1917-scored points but lost the argument. Periodically revised and refurbished, the concept of American Exceptionalism (which implied exceptional American prerogatives) persisted.

Meanwhile, when it came to action rather than talk, the architects of U.S. policy, even the most idealistic, remained fixated on one overriding aim: enhancing American influence, wealth, and power. The narrative of American foreign relations from the earliest colonial encounters with Native Americans until, say, the end of the cold war reveals a record that is neither uniquely high-minded nor uniquely hypocritical and exploitive. In this sense, the interpretations of America’s past offered by George W. Bush and by Osama bin Laden fall equally wide of the mark. As a rising power, the United States adhered to the iron laws of international politics, which allow little space for altruism. If the tale contains a moral theme, that theme is necessarily one of ambiguity.

To be sure, America’s ascent did not occur without missteps: opéra bouffe incursions into Canada; William McKinley’s ill-advised annexation of the Philippines; complicity in China’s “century of humiliation”; disastrous interwar economic policies that paved the way for the Depression; Harry Truman’s decision in 1950 to send U.S. forces north of Korea’s 38th Parallel, to name only some. Most of these mistakes Americans have long since shrugged off. A few, like Vietnam, we find impossible to forget even as we persistently disregard their implications.

Yet, however embarrassing, these missteps pale in significance when compared to the masterstrokes of American statecraft. In purchasing Louisiana from the French, Thomas Jefferson may have overstepped the bounds of his authority and in seizing California from Mexico, James Polk may have perpetrated a war of conquest, but their actions ensured that the United States would one day become a great power. To secure the isthmus of Panama, Theodore Roosevelt orchestrated an outrageous swindle. The result affirmed America’s hemispheric dominion. In collaborating with Josef Stalin, FDR made common cause with an indisputably evil figure. But in doing so he destroyed the murderous Hitler while simultaneously vaulting the United States to a position of unquestioned economic supremacy. A similar collaboration forged by Richard Nixon with the murderous Mao Zedong helped bring down the Soviet empire, thereby elevating the United States to the self-proclaimed position of sole superpower.

The achievements of these preeminent American statesmen derived not from their common devotion to a liberating tradition but from boldness unburdened by excessive scruples. Notwithstanding the high-sounding pronouncements that routinely emit from the White House and the State Department, the defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy is not idealism. It is pragmatism, sometimes laced with pragmatism’s first cousin, opportunism.

This remains true today even when President Bush has declared without qualification that “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” In practice, this dictum allows the Bush administration to hector Iran or North Korea about their undemocratic ways while giving a pass to Egypt and Pakistan. It provides a rationale for military intervention in energy-rich Iraq, but finds no application in Darfur, Burma, and Zimbabwe. (On a flight, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I sat beside a retired Zimbabwean supreme court justice. Lamenting the dire situation in his country, he remarked, “Ah, if only we had oil. Then you would come rescue us.”)

Bush’s critics charge him with abandoning principles that long governed American statecraft. A fairer judgment would credit him with having seized on 9/11 to reinterpret those principles, thereby claiming for the United States new prerogatives (such as waging preventive war) while shedding constraints (such as respect for the sensibilities of key allies) that had seemingly lost their utility. In this regard, the president was adhering to a well-established tradition.

In the annals of history, the rise of the United States to the pinnacle of world power is an epic story worthy of Thucydides or Tacitus. It represents a stunning achievement. Yet those who see America’s ascent as an affirmation of virtue are indulging in self-deluding sentimentality. Although sentimentality may sell greeting cards, it ill becomes a great nation that, having reached that pinnacle, now finds itself beset with challenges.

Land of the Free

For those fortunate enough to be Americans, this rise to global power yielded rich rewards. Expansion made the United States the land of opportunity. From expansion came abundance. Out of abundance came substantive freedom. Documents drafted in Philadelphia promised liberty. Making good on those promises required a political economy that facilitated the creation of wealth on an enormous scale.

Writing over a century ago, Frederick Jackson Turner made the essential point. “Not the Constitution, but free land and an abundance of natural resources open to a fit people,” he argued, made American democracy possible. A half-century later, the historian David Potter discovered a similar symbiosis between affluence and liberty. Potter credited “a politics of abundance” with creating the American way of life, “a politics which smiled both on those who valued abundance as a means to safeguard freedom and those who valued freedom as an aid in securing abundance.”

In short, American prosperity underwrote American freedom. The relationship between the two was reciprocal. Especially as the Industrial Revolution took hold, Americans looked to material abundance to ameliorate domestic tensions and anesthetize the unruly. Money became the preferred lubricant for keeping social and political friction within tolerable limits. As Reinhold Niebuhr once observed, “we seek a solution for practically every problem of life in quantitative terms,” certain that more is better. Over time, prosperity also recast freedom, modifying the criteria for eligibility and broadening its claims.

Running in tandem with the chronicle of American expansion abroad is a second narrative of expansion. The theme of this second narrative relates to the transformation of freedom at home. It too is a story of epic achievement overlaid with ambiguity.

Who merits the privileges of citizenship? The answer prevailing in 1776-white male freeholders-was never satisfactory. By the stroke of a Jeffersonian pen, the Declaration of Independence had rendered such a definition untenable. Pressures to amend that restricted conception of citizenship emerged almost immediately.

Until World War II, progress achieved on this front was real but fitful. During the years of the postwar economic boom, and especially during the 1960s, the floodgates opened. Barriers fell. The circle of freedom widened appreciably. The percentage of Americans marginalized as “second-class citizens” dwindled.

Political credit for this achievement lies squarely with the Left. Abundance sustained in no small measure by a postwar presumption of American “global leadership” made possible the expansion of freedom at home. Possibility became reality thanks to progressive political activism.

Pick the group: blacks, Jews, women, Asians, Hispanics, working stiffs, gays, the handicapped-in every case, the impetus for providing equal access to the rights guaranteed by the Constitution originated among radicals, pinks, liberals, and bleeding-heart fellow-travelers. When it comes to ensuring that every American should get a fair shake, the contribution of modern conservatism has been essentially nil. Had Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s counted on William F. Buckley and the National Review to take up the fight against racial segregation, Jim Crow would still be alive and well.

Granting the traditionally marginalized access to freedom constitutes the central theme of American politics since World War II. It does not diminish the credit due to those who engineered this achievement to note that their success stemmed in part from the fact that the United States was simultaneously asserting its claim to unquestioned global leadership. The reformers who pushed and prodded for racial equality and women’s rights did so in tacit alliance with the officials presiding over the postwar rehabilitation of Germany and Japan, with oil executives pressing to bring the Persian Gulf into America’s sphere of influence, and with defense contractors promoting expensive new weapons programs.

The creation of what became by the 1950s an informal American empire of global proportions was not a conspiracy designed to benefit the few. Postwar foreign policy derived its legitimacy from the widely shared perception that the exercise of power abroad was making possible a more perfect union at home. In this sense, a proper understanding of contemporary history requires that we acknowledge an ironic kinship linking cold warriors like Curtis LeMay to feminists like Betty Friedan. General LeMay’s Strategic Air Command-both as manifestation of American might and as central component of the postwar military-industrial complex-helped to foster the conditions from which Friedan’s National Organization for Women emerged.

Cultural Revolution

During the same postwar period, but especially since the 1960s, the nation’s abiding cultural preoccupation focused on reassessing what freedom actually means. The political project was long the exclusive preserve of the Left (although belatedly endorsed by the Right). From the outset, the cultural project has been a collaborative one to which both Left and Right contributed, albeit in different ways. The very real success of the political project lies at the heart of the Bush administration’s insistence that the United States today offers a proper model for other nations-notably those in the Islamic world-to follow. The largely catastrophic results of the cultural project belie that claim.

The postwar political project sought to end discrimination. The postwar cultural project focused on dismantling constraints, especially on matters touching however remotely on sexuality and self-gratification. “Men are qualified for civil liberty,” Edmund Burke once observed, “in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites.” In the aftermath of World War II, Americans rejected that counsel and set out to throw off their manacles. Freedom came increasingly to imply unfettered self-indulgence.

The Left contributed to this effort by promoting a radical new ethic of human sexuality. Removing chains in this regard meant normalizing behavior once viewed as immoral, unnatural, or inconsistent with the common good. On the cutting edge of American culture, removing impediments to the satisfaction of sexual desire emerged as an imperative.

Laws, traditions, and social arrangements impeding the fulfillment of this imperative became obsolete. As a direct consequence, homosexuality, abortion, divorce, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and children raised in single-parent homes-all once viewed as problematic-lost much of their stigma. Pornography-including child pornography-reached epidemic proportions. Pop culture became a titillating arena for promoting sexual license and celebrating sexual perversity. And popular music became, in the words of cultural critic Martha Bayles, a “masturbatory fantasy.”

Some Americans lament this revolution. Many others view it as inevitable or necessary or positively swell. Regardless, the foreign-policy implications of the sexual revolution loom large. The ideals that President Bush eagerly hopes to propagate throughout the Islamic world-those contained in Jefferson’s Declaration and in the Bill of Rights-today come packaged with the vulgar exhibitionism of Madonna and the debased sensibility of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Note, however, that the metamorphosis of freedom has had a second aspect, one that has proceeded in harmony with-and even reinforced-the sexual revolution. Here the effect has been to foster a radical new conception of freedom’s economic dimension. Increasingly, during the decades of the postwar boom, citizens came to see personal liberty as linked inextricably to the accumulation of “stuff.”

Here, the enthusiasm for throwing off moral chains came from the Right. The forces of corporate capitalism relentlessly promoted the notion that liberty correlates with choice and that the key to human fulfillment (not to mention sexual allure and sexual opportunity) is to be found in conspicuous consumption-acquiring a bigger house, a fancier car, the latest fashions, the niftiest gadgets.

By the end of the twentieth century, many Americans had concluded, in the words of the historian Gary Cross, that “to consume was to be free.” The events of 9/11 did not dislodge that perception. In early 2006-with the nation locked in what President Bush insisted was an epic confrontation with “Islamofascism”-an article in the New York Times Magazine posed the question “Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?” In the conduct their daily affairs, countless Americans, most of them oblivious to Bush’s war, answer that question in the affirmative.

Along the way, consumption eclipsed voting or military service as the nearest thing to an acknowledged civic obligation. If citizenship today endows “the sovereign shopper with the right to select from store shelves,” Cross comments, it also imposes “the duty to spend for the ‘good of the economy.’” Americans once assessed the nation’s economic health by tallying up the output of the nation’s steel mills or the tons of bullion locked away in Fort Knox. Today, consumer demand has emerged as the favored metric of overall economic wellbeing. In recent years “Black Friday” has taken its place among notable dates on the national calendar-the willingness of consumers to open their pocketbooks on the day after Thanksgiving having become a key indicator of economic vigor. Woe betide the nation, should holiday shoppers spend less this year than last.

American globalism did little to foster this radical change in American culture. But the cultural revolution-both the sexual liberation demanded by the Left and the conspicuous consumption promoted by the Right-massively complicates our relations with those beyond our borders, who see our reigning conceptions of freedom as shallow and corrosive.

Empire of Red Ink

Still, this consumer’s paradise retains considerable appeal for outsiders looking in. The many millions from south of the border or across the seas seeking entry testify to this fact. In the eyes of the typical Third Worlder, to be American is to be rich, pampered, and profligate. Entrance into the United States implies the prospect of being well-fed, well-housed, and well-clothed-to walk where streets are paved with gold.

But how real are our riches? In a recent book Among Empires, Charles Maier, professor of history at Harvard, has chronicled the shift from what he calls America’s postwar Empire of Production-when we made the steel, the cars, and the TVs-to today’s Empire of Consumption-when goods pour in from Japan and China. The implications of this shift for foreign policy are profound. If we are still paving our streets with gold, we’re doing so with someone else’s money.

In paradise, it turns out, the books don’t balance. The federal budget is perpetually in the red. The current account deficit mounts from one year to the next, now topping $800 billion per annum. The national debt is closing in on $9 trillion. The Republican-controlled Congress of the past decade has dealt with this troubling problem precisely as Congress did back when Democrats called the shots: it has routinely raised the ceiling to allow the debt to balloon ever upward.

Despite these alarming trends, we Americans refuse to live within our means. We have discarded old-fashioned notions of thrift, deferred gratification, and putting up for a rainy day. We have forgotten how to save. We won’t trim entitlements. We adamantly ignore what President Bush himself refers to as our “addiction” to foreign oil. To sustain the Empire of Consumption we are acquiring a mountain of debt, increasingly owed to foreign countries. The unspoken assumption is that our credit line is endless and that the bills won’t ever come due.

Once upon a time, Americans would have dismissed such thinking as twaddle. No more. Having made a fetish of freedom-as-consumption, we have become beholden to others. Dependence, wrote Jefferson two centuries ago, “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue and prepares fit tools for the design of ambition.” As our dependence has deepened, the autonomy that from 1776 through the 1950s ranked as the nation’s greatest strategic asset has withered away.

Although periodically bemoaning this slide toward dependence, the nation’s political leaders have done little to restore our economic house to order. In practice, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of foreign oil and borrowing from abroad to feed the consumer’s insatiable appetite for cheap imports have become categorical imperatives. Back in 1992, when the immediate issue related to curbing greenhouse gases, President George Herbert Walker Bush cut to the heart of the matter: “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” Compromise, accommodation, trimming back the expectations implied by that way of life-none of these are to be countenanced.

Dependence has large foreign-policy consequences. It circumscribes freedom of action. A week after 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld spelled out the implications. In formulating a response to the terrorist attack, the United States had only two options. “We have a choice,” Rumsfeld remarked, “either to change the way we live, which is unacceptable, or to change the way that they live, and we chose the latter.”

More Than a Comma

The global “war on terror” represents the Bush administration’s effort to do just that-to change the way that they live. “They,” of course, are the 1.4 billion Muslims who inhabit an arc stretching from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

The overarching strategic aim of that war is to eliminate the Islamist threat by pacifying the Islamic world, with particular attention given to the energy-rich Persian Gulf. Pacification implies not only bringing Muslims into compliance with American norms. It also requires the establishment of unassailable American hegemony, affirming the superiority of U.S. power beyond the shadow of doubt and thereby deterring attempts to defy those norms. Hegemony means presence, evidenced by the proliferation of U.S. military bases throughout strategically critical regions of the Islamic world. Seen in relation to our own history, the global “war on terror” signifies the latest phase in an expansionist project that is now three centuries old.

This effort to pacify Islam has foundered in Iraq. The Bush administration’s determination to change the way Iraqis live has landed us in a quagmire. Today the debate over how to salvage something positive from the Iraq debacle consumes the foreign-policy apparatus. Just beyond lie concerns about how events in Iraq are affecting the overall “war on terror.” Expressing confidence that all will come out well, President Bush insists that historians will eventually see the controversies surrounding his Iraq policy as little more than a comma.

Rather than seeing Iraq as a comma, we ought to view it as a question mark. The question posed, incorporating but also transcending the larger “war on terror,” is this: Are ongoing efforts to “change the way that they live” securing or further distorting the American way of life? To put it another way, will the further expansion of American dominion abroad enhance the freedom we profess to value? Or have we now reached a point where expansion merely postpones and even exacerbates an inevitable reckoning with the cultural and economic contradictions to which our pursuit of freedom has given rise?

If the survival of American freedom does require pacification of the Islamic world, as adherents of the old expansionist tradition believe, then this must be said: Exertions made up to this point have been laughably inadequate. Changing the way they live presumes a seriousness hitherto lacking on the part of the American people or their elected representatives, including the president himself.

If we intend to transform not only Iraq but also Syria, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, prudence dictates that we stop kidding ourselves that the intended beneficiaries of our ministrations will welcome us with open arms. Why bamboozle ourselves with claims of righteousness that few others believe? Better to acknowledge, as the hawkish military analyst Ralph Peters has done, that we are actually engaged “in an effort to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault.” Doing so will prevent us from being surprised by the intensity of resistance that awaits us as we enforce President Bush’s so-called Freedom Agenda across the broad expanse of Islam.

Mounting such a campaign implies mobilization, commitment, sacrifice, and reordering national priorities with the prerequisites of victory rising to first place. It will necessarily require the allocation of additional resources to satisfy the mushrooming requirements of “national security.” We will have to hire many more soldiers. A serious attempt to pacify the Islamic world means the permanent militarization of U.S. policy. Almost inevitably, it will further concentrate authority in the hands of an imperial presidency.

This describes the program of the “faster, please” ideologues keen to enlarge the scope of U.S. military action. To paraphrase Che Guevara, it is a program that calls for “one, two, many Iraqs,” ignoring the verdict already rendered by the actually existing Iraq. The fact is that events there have definitively exposed the very real limits of American hard power, financial reserves, and will. Leviathan has shot his wad.

Seeking an escape from our predicament through further expansion points toward bankruptcy and the dismantling of what remains of the American republic. Genuine pragmatism-and the beginning of wisdom-lies in paying less attention to “the way that they live” and more attention to the way we do. Ultimately, conditions within American society determine the prospects of American liberty. As early multiculturalist Randolph Bourne observed nearly a century ago, ensuring that authentic freedom will flourish at home demands that we attend in the first instance to “cultivating our own garden.”

This does not imply assuming a posture of isolationism, although neoconservative and neoliberal proponents of the global “war on terror” will be quick to level that charge. Let us spare no effort to track down those who attacked us on 9/11, beginning with Osama bin Laden, still at large more than five years later. But let us give up once and for all any pretensions about an “indispensable nation” summoned to exercise “benign global hegemony” in the midst of a uniquely opportune “unipolar moment.” For too long now these narcissistic and fallacious claims, the source of the pretensions expressed by President Bush since September 2001, have polluted our discussion of foreign policy, and thereby prevented us from seeing ourselves as we are.

Cultivating our own garden begins with taking stock of ourselves. Thoughtful critics have for decades been calling for just such a critical self-examination. Among the very first canaries to venture into the deteriorating mineshaft of postwar American culture was the writer Flannery O’Connor. “If you live today,” she observed with characteristic bluntness a half-century ago, “you breathe in nihilism.”

O’Connor correctly diagnosed the disease and other observers bore witness to its implications. Her fellow Southerner Walker Percy wondered if freedom American-style was not simply becoming the “last and inalienable possession in a sick society.” The social critic Christopher Lasch derided “the ideology of progress” manipulated by elites contemptuous of the ethnic, social, and religious traditions to which ordinary folk subscribed. Lasch foresaw an impending “dark night of the soul.” From his vantage point, Robert Nisbet detected the onset of what he called “a twilight age,” marked by “a sense of cultural decay, erosion of institutions...and constantly increasing centralization-and militarization-of power.” In such an age, he warned, “representative and liberal institutions of government slip into patterns ever more imperial in character....Over everything hangs the specter of war.” Towering above them all was Pope John Paul II who, in a message clearly directed toward Americans, pointedly cautioned that a democracy bereft of values “easily turns into a thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

Our own self-induced confusion about freedom, reflected in our debased culture and our disordered economy, increases our susceptibility to this totalitarian temptation even as it deadens our awareness of the danger it poses. Escaping its clutches will require something more than presidents intoning clichés about America’s historic mission while launching crusades against oil-rich tyrants on the other side of the globe. We are in difficult straits and neither arms (already fully committed) nor treasure (just about used up) will get us out. Our corrupt age requires reformation.

Shedding or at least discrediting the spurious conceptions of freedom to which Americans have lately fallen prey qualifies as a large task. Still, when compared to the megalomania of those who under the guise of “eliminating tyranny” are intent on remaking the entire Islamic world, the restoration of our own culture appears to be a positively modest goal. At the end of the day, as William Pfaff has observed, “The only thing we can remake is ourselves.”

And who knows? Should we, as a consequence of such a reformation, actually live up to our professed ideals-restoring to American freedom something of the respect that it once commanded-we may yet become, in some small way, a model worthy of emulation.

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About the Author

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country.