Bacevich, Niebuhr, and “The Limits of Power”

Professor Andrew Bacevich recently authored The Limits of Power, basically arguing that proactive efforts to “control” or “manage” history, to achieve some desired outcome, are vain hubris (how cynics and pessimists adore that word); the best we might aim for is a “stable balance of power.” As if this is a new idea. Nevertheless, the lefty intelligentsia (so fond of seeing limits to everything) reverentially greeted the book as some profound revelation; Bill Moyers on his PBS show duly drooled over Bacevich.

Excuse me, but there is nothing novel, interesting, or useful here. It’s a shallow straw man argument: there’s nobody who thinks we can “manage” history. But does that mean we should just give up all ambition, all idealism, all efforts to make the world better? Bacevich seems to say yes. Thanks a lot, Prof, for that thoughtful advice.

He argues that because historical processes are too vast and messy for anyone to really grasp, let alone control, because of the law of unintended consequences, and so forth, any efforts toward remaking the world are futile. Bacevich’s particular focus (fixation?) was upon Iraq where, it did appear, we were failing. But that judgment now seems premature. And taking a larger view, his impotence theory is indeed flatly contradicted by history. After WWII, the US adopted an over-arching foreign policy vision: to support democracy and contain communism. And we spectacularly succeeded. Democracy has made tremendous worldwide gains, and communism was not merely contained but defeated.

Bacevich would have said: don’t even try. No, his ideal, again, is a “stable balance of power.” That might be an expedient –- but a goal? What’s so delightful about a “balance of power” that should make it a goal? Or about “stability” – which is merely entrenchment of a status quo? Should we now aim for a stable balance of power with radical Islam? (By helping it equalize our own strength, mayhap?)

Bacevich reprised his dreary, enervating thesis in his introduction to a reprint of Reinhold Niebuhr’s 1952 book, The Irony of American History. Niebuhr too disparaged what he saw as America’s misguided effort to “manage” history; “messianic” he repeatedly called it. This he analogized to the communist ideology, which indeed invoked a mission to push history toward a particular outcome. Through the cold war, we worked to thwart that messianic vision; doing so was not analogously messianic on America’s own part, it was fundamentally defensive.

True, America has always seen itself as a special nation, a model for the rest of the world. But that’s not messianic either; we’re not on a mission. In fact, through most of our history Americans displayed little appetite for remaking the world, believing instead that the rest of the world should fend for itself. Niall Ferguson’s book Colossus expressed frustration with America’s recalcitrance concerning the kind of messianism Niebuhr talks about. All our recent wars – Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan – engendered widespread, instinctive opposition at home. And the one presidential speech that might arguably have conformed to Niebuhr’s picture – Bush’s second inaugural – was extensively derided and denounced by the American intelligensia.

What America believes is not that we have a messianic mission to democratize the world, nor that we can or should seek to “manage history,” but, instead, merely that it would be a desirable thing if the world did become more democratic, and backward nations did become more like us. We regard that as our own national interest, and in the interests of those other nations as well. As John F. Kennedy said, “We seek not the worldwide victory of one nation or system, but a worldwide victory of men.” [And women.] And, with admittedly many zigs and zags, that is the essence of American foreign policy. It’s not misguided. In fact it has succeeded to an extent Niebuhr would never have believed, and to which Bacevich seems blind.

So history is not some ineluctable force impervious to human effort. America believes not that we’re on a mission from God but, rather, in our obligation as human beings to do all we can to make the world as good as possible. The entire history of our species reflects our unwillingness to accept things as they are and to try to improve our situation.

The last thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote was a letter saying he was too ill to attend a 50th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence. I believe he there expressed the American mindset far better than Niebuhr’s grotesque caricature. Jefferson viewed the Declaration as a signal arousing people everywhere to gain their freedom; a liberation that he dared to hope would come “to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all.”

2 Responses to “Bacevich, Niebuhr, and “The Limits of Power””

  1. Lee Says:

    I am with you — never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed. It is the only thing that ever has.

    Two quibbles — First, I don’t think it has ever been in doubt that the Iraq war is better than having done nothing; even to me a strong proponent of non-violent approaches, it is fairly clear that the war is better than having done nothing. Of course, that’s all a diversion — although it gets no press, the real question is whether the war is more effective than its alternatives. Reasonable people can disagree, but my answer is that Israel-Egypt, Northern Ireland, and South Africa, are examples that lasting peace, even with terrorists, is best achieved with (aggressive) non-violent approaches.

    Second quibble: I think it is more than self-interest that has us caring what goes on outside our borders. For instance, I argue that we impose sanctions on governments that are murdering their citizens, not as a defensive posture, but as a humanitarian issue. I would argue that the key discriminant is not the amount of self-interest but, rather, it is the time scale. We should work to change others in the short term only for the most pressing issues for us (e.g., national defense) or for the most pressing issues for other people (e.g., murders by governments). We can want to raise the bar (e.g., gay marriage in Saudi Arabia??) but to attempt such in the short term would be unwise, if for no reason other than that we do not have the resources to accomplish everything in a short time frame. That is why we instead focus on the most pressing needs.

    It’s hard to believe that there are people out there who think that trying to make things better is futile — thank you for exposing this madness.

    FSR COMMENT: Thanks. I agree with both your quibbles. Though it’s not a fashionable view today, I do defend our Iraq action, lamenting only how deeply flawed was its execution. (Heck, speaking of fashionable, I must be the last guy in America who thinks we tried to do the right thing in Vietnam.) And self-interest is most certainly not all that motivates American policy. (Take that, Noam Chomsky, you flaming asshole.)

  2. Pos baru Iraq’s Tragedy: “Nothing Is Written” | Says:

    […] kembali Irak menjadi lebih baik pada tahun 2003 sangat membabi buta dari get-pergi. Ini adalah Andrew Bacevich "Batas Power" sekolah yang mengatakanbahkan tidak mencoba. (Mereka mencintai keangkuhan kata.) Namun manusia […]

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