Andrew J. Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University and a retired Army colonel, discusses his new book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism. He argues that pragmatic realism has always been the core of American foreign policy, and current politicians would do well to remember that.
Excerpt: ‘The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism’
The Crisis of Profligacy
Today, no less than in 1776, a passion for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness remains at the center of America’s civic theology. The Jeffersonian trinity summarizes our common inheritance, defines our aspirations, and provides the touchstone for our influence abroad.
Yet if Americans still cherish the sentiments contained in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, they have, over time, radically revised their understanding of those “inalienable rights.” Today, individual Americans use their freedom to do many worthy things. Some read, write, paint, sculpt, compose, and play music. Others build, restore, and preserve. Still others attend plays, concerts, and sporting events, visit their local multiplexes, IM each other incessantly, and join “communities” of the like- minded in an ever- growing array of virtual worlds. They also pursue innumerable hobbies, worship, tithe, and, in commendably large numbers, attend to the needs of the less fortunate. Yet none of these in themselves define what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century.
If one were to choose a single word 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. A bumper sticker, a sardonic motto, and a charge dating from the Age of Woodstock have recast the Jeffersonian trinity in modern vernacular: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins”; “Shop till you drop”; “If it feels good, do it.”
It would be misleading to suggest that every American has surrendered to this ethic of self- gratification. Resistance to its demands persists and takes many forms. Yet dissenters, intent on curbing the American penchant for consumption and self- indulgence, are fighting a rear- guard action, valiant perhaps but unlikely to reverse the tide. The ethic of self- gratification has firmly entrenched itself as the defining feature of the American way of life. The point is neither to deplore nor to celebrate this fact, but simply to acknowledge it.
Others have described, dissected, and typically bemoaned the cultural—and even moral—implications of this development. Few, however, have considered how an American preoccupation with “more” has affected U.S. relations with rest of the world. Yet the foreign policy implications of our present- day penchant for consumption and self- indulgence are almost entirely negative. Over the past six decades, efforts to satisfy spiraling consumer demand have given birth to a condition of profound dependency. The United States may still remain the mightiest power the world has ever seen, but the fact is that Americans are no longer masters of their own fate.
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. MORE
Last week the federal government announced the takeover of mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in yet another attempt to rescue the housing finance industry. In his new book, “The Subprime Solution,” Yale economist ROBERT SHILLER calls for an aggressive response to the crisis. Shiller is the author of Irrational Exuberance in which he foretold the coming crash of the tech bubble. Listen to this show via Real Audio | mp3
In the seven years since 9/11 the U.S. has failed to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Marty talks with Amb. JAMES DOBBINS who served as the Bush Administration’s first special envoy for Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of that country. Dobbins’ new book is “After the Taliban: Nation-Building in Afghanistan.” Listen to this show via Real Audio | mp3
Friday September 12, 2008
World Cafe host David Dye meets up with Old 97’s, one of the best loved indie bands of the ’90s. Returning home to Dallas to record Blame It On Gravity, the group turns up the amps and taps their earlier alt country-meets-rock ‘n’ roll sound. Crackling guitar licks pepper their upbeat melodies, and Rhett Miller’s gut-wrenchingly honest lyrics reflect a renewed focus on his songwriting. After fifteen years and seven studio albums, Blame It On Gravity could be the Old 97’s’ definitive record.
THE OLD 97s: Dance With Me