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Waking up in the 21st century

American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy, Andrew J. Bacevich, Harvard University Press: 320 pp., $29.95 The End of the American Era: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Geopolitics of the Twenty-First Century, Charles A. Kupchan, Alfred A. Knopf: 372 pp, $27.50 The Ideas That Conquered the World: Peace, Democracy, and Free Markets in the Twenty-First Century, Michael Mandelbaum, Public Affairs: 496 pp, $30

January 19, 2003|Jacob Heilbrunn | Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for The Times.

Before Sept. 11, the United States entertained itself with the Clinton scandals and an affluence that proved as illusory as America's invincibility to attack. It was the Gilded Age all over again. Then overnight, terrorists forced President Bush to change American foreign policy from nascent isolationism to stouthearted interventionism. The attacks in New York and Washington turned the world upside down ... or did they?

Welcome to the real world, argue Andrew J. Bacevich, Charles A. Kupchan and Michael Mandelbaum. Though each author has a radically different view of America's international role, they all agree on one thing: Sept. 11 did nothing to change the global realpolitik. Professors all, they take the long view, focusing on the sweeping historical forces at work over decades. Bacevich believes that there is seamless continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations in their enunciations about the importance of American responsibilities around the globe. Kupchan, for his part, dismisses the notion that Islam poses a threat. The real story, he maintains, is that the economic influence of the United States is destined to be surpassed by Europe, and Mandelbaum takes the high road, suggesting that all is well in the republic and liberal American ideas are triumphing wherever you look.

Of the three, Bacevich has what is surely the boldest take, as he seeks to rehabilitate two maverick professors, Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, both of whom hovered on the murky border between far left and far right. Beard, a progressive historian, became a laughingstock because of his opposition to American entry into World War II, which he saw as a capitalist plot to divert the New Deal from true reform into militarism, and Williams was the godfather of American revisionism, claiming that American economic imperialism frightened Stalin and pushed him to clamp down on Eastern Europe. Bacevich claims that, "whereas Beard first identified the underlying logic of expansionism, Williams went a step further, urging Americans to contemplate the implications of their imperium."

A vigorous writer, a traditional conservative and a former officer in the military, Bacevich is evidence of the cross-pollination of left and right that can currently be found in Pat Buchanan's new magazine, The American Conservative. But ultimately, his reliance on Beard and Williams, coupled with his contempt for American culture, leads to some rather extravagant claims. By examining American foreign policy in isolation from the rest of the world, Bacevich endows presidents and their subordinates with an omniscience they never possessed, arguing that the United States has pursued a consistent strategy of economic expansion with the military waiting in the wings to crush recalcitrant small powers. But the United States has not always been so confident about its rights and prerogatives. Far from being convinced that America was on the road to becoming the world's preeminent power, Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, for instance, believed they had to manage its decline. Most presidents simply leap from one crisis to the next, as we've seen of late with North Korea.

There is also something disingenuous about Bacevich's contention that he neither celebrates nor deplores the new American empire but simply wishes to examine it dispassionately. When he denounces the "moral relativism" and "conspicuous consumption" that were at the center of the 1960s, it becomes clear that, while exploring the dissemination of American culture aboard, he passionately opposes it.

Where Bacevich detects moral decay, Kupchan sees a corrupt political system and a flabby economy as America's real vulnerabilities. America doesn't have the economic base to support a vast military establishment capable of imposing order abroad, Kupchan believes. The knockout punch will be administered by the European Union: Amass the collective wealth of Britain, France and Germany, "add the resources of over a dozen other European countries -- perhaps including before too long a recovered Russia -- and an economic behemoth is on the horizon."

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