The Rot Beneath America’s Emerald City
We thought the Cold War vindicated our political system. Instead it only began an age of illusions.
Andrew Bacevich is an astute chronicler of our national dysfunctions and delusions. The author of 10 books and countless articles, the former Army officer turned college professor turned public intellectual has tried to limn the ever-expanding boundaries of the American empire, deplored the hypocrisy of the new American militarism, pointed to the post-Cold War limits of American power, and chronicled America’s increasingly irrevocable commitment to permanent war. In his most recent book, The Age of Illusions, he recounts how we have squandered our Cold War victory. Cassandra was a booster for Troy’s chamber of commerce compared to Bacevich’s jeremiad on contemporary America.
Indeed, the book’s subtitle obscures the depth of his dismay with not only the present, but also the last three quarters of a century of U.S. history. In his view, we did not actually squander our Cold War victory because even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the evil empire, America had scant grounds for the triumphalism that subsequently gripped the nation. Rather than representing a sea change, the end of the Cold War merely exposed a deep rot that had long been festering. As he colorfully puts it:
Winning the Cold War brought Americans face-to-face with a predicament comparable to that confronting the lucky fellow who wins the Mega Millions lottery: hidden with an apparent windfall is the potential for monumental disaster. Putting that windfall to good use, while avoiding the pitfalls inherent in suddenly acquired riches, calls for prudence and self-awareness—not easily demonstrated when the big house, luxury car, and vacation you’ve always wanted are yours for the asking.
We live now, in Bacevich’s view, in an age of illusions: the most pernicious of which is that our victory in the Cold War is a validation of the merits of our political and economic systems.
To the many Americans who take some comfort in the illusion that our contemporary misfortunes only began with President Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, Bacevich tells them they had better think again. “One of the most striking characteristics of the era,” in Bacevich’s view, is that “simply by getting elected, Donald Trump prompted a large swath of the nation’s most prominent gatekeepers to take leave of their senses.” Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, in their view, constitutes only a temporary deviation from our otherwise successful national run since the Second World War rather than the proverbial chickens coming home to roost on the contradictions buried beneath the outward splendor of our political and economic systems.
Moreover, Trump may have won the election (or at least the Electoral College vote), but Hillary Clinton and the rest of our business-as-usual political establishment also lost it. Doing some back of the envelope ballot counting, Bacevich calculates that 171 million Americans voted against Clinton, either by voting for Trump or staying home. “Her deepest problem,” in his view, “was that she made herself the chief exponent of an existing policy consensus that large numbers of Americans were keen to discard.” Instead of a break with a glorious past, Trump’s America constitutes its unfortunate telos.
Bacevich weaves his gloomy American allegory around two fictional cities. The America of our flawed but better past is Sherwood Anderson’s “Boone City,” the setting for his screenplay The Best Years of Our Lives. In it, returning World War II veterans like Al, Fred, and Homer returned home to enjoy a freedom denied to other Americans based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and a host of other categories of discrimination. But at least Boone City set limits on its denizens’ license and demanded of them some broader obligations in return for their rights.
Swamped by the urban sprawl that was the 1960s, Boone City was absorbed into a very different metropolitan area. Like L. Frank Baum’s Oz, America’s Emerald City was a glittery place. Behind its bright facades, however, lurked some dark and corrosive forces. Freedom remained the central ethos there and its blessings became more widely available. But as they did, freedom’s nature changed. Liberated from responsibility, freedom in the merry new land of Oz became synonymous with anything goes. Life in the Emerald City was like Las Vegas: open 24/7/365, drive-thru marriages and divorces, with no limit on your Bank of Beelzebub vice card.
In addition to the rejection of the old notion that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin, the “Emerald City consensus” included three other propositions. First, the miracle of globalization is that what is good for us is good for everyone else. Second, the world is eager for U.S. leadership. Finally, in place of an increasingly outdated republic, the modern United States should have a strong executive, indeed even an imperial presidency. In them, we clearly see the city plan of post-Cold War America.
Instead of offering a tidy narrative in which the virtuous Main Street of Boone City gives way to the Gomorrah-on-the-Boardwalk of Emerald City, Bacevich hints that today’s problems were already evident in our past. The most depressing part of this story is that there is no Golden Age to return to; just a less obviously flawed but still deeply compromised past. Both Bacevich, who still maintains a time-share in Boone City, and Donald Trump, the mayor of the Emerald City, are both products of high Cold War America.
Despite its dysthymic message, this book’s heavy dose of castor oil is sweetened with many tablespoons of sugar. Bacevich is a terrific writer with a keen eye for the incisive metaphor and well-turned phrase. His literary erudition is on full display on nearly every page, not for its own sake but because he finds in the canon enduring themes that map our road to Hell from Boone through the Emerald City. Finally, and despite his becoming modesty, he aspired to, and in fact has become, a public intellectual of some standing. Bacevich recounts a pleasant lunch at the White House with President Obama, but laments that he did not have any influence upon him; my take-away: even if the president does not take your advice, an invitation to the White House indicates some wasta! Whenever I read one of Bacevich’s books, I learn a lot, enjoy the read, and admire the civic virtue that constitutes his muse.
I don’t always completely agree with him, though. A small dissent: Bacevich canonizes Reagan-era foreign policy blobster Frank Fukuyama as the Emerald City’s “John the Baptist.” Fukuyama’s famous 1989 National Interest article, “The End of History?”, which argued that with the end of the Cold War there remained no credible alternative to democracy and free markets, certainly captured the triumphalist zeitgeist of the 1990s in much the same way that Alfred Thayer Mahan, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Rudyard Kipling defined their times. However, Fukuyama was a dyspeptic “triumphalist” who grumbled that life in the Emerald City would prove boring and lead restless citizens to get out of Dodge to restart history. There are lots of problems with Fukuyama’s diagnosis, but unqualified boosterism on behalf of the Emerald City is not among them.
A larger complaint: There are some ambiguities in Bacevich’s tale of two cities. Just how much of the Emerald City was immanent in Boone City from the get go? At times, Bacevich’s narrative arc seems conventionally conservative: Boone City was swamped by Vietnam and Woodstock leaving only the Emerald City above water. At other times, however, Bacevich raises the possibility that Boone City itself was not all it was cracked up to be. His take on the end of the Cold War is striking on this score: it should have been the occasion not for triumph, or even relief, but rather for collective Lenten penance for all of our sins in waging it. So much for a heroic past!
Bacevich’s own politics have grown blurry as well. He confesses to a continuing inclination toward the conservative persuasion, with “one foot still stuck in Boone City.” But he also admits that his polemics over the last quarter of a century have increasingly resonated more on the Left than the Right, save for a few important exceptions like this magazine. He notes that his minuscule fan base consisted largely of well-educated and well-informed baby-boomers, many of them had cut their political eyeteeth opposing the [Vietnam] war in which I had participated. My interaction with these progressives was invariably pleasant and even touching. They were genuine idealists. In their ranks the hopes and aspirations of the 1960s lived on.
That his other foot is planted outside Boone City—perhaps in science fiction writer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia?—is clear from his choice of combating climate change as the new issue to re-instill our lost sense of national purpose. Combating it constitutes a possible answer to novelist John Updike’s character Rabbit Angstrom’s question, “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” In Bacevich’s view, global warming, like the Great Depression, is “a morally grounded cause [which may lay] the basis for a new consensus with transformative implications.” He hopes that it will usher in a new American economic model that privileges “fairness and equity” over profit, push the U.S. to a “more enlightened approach to global leadership” than military hegemony, and recraft a new notion of citizenship that encompasses both rights and responsibilities. The war against climate change is, in other words, our ticket out of the Emerald City.
Few, in my view, should disagree with Bacevich’s conviction that human induced changes in our environment constitute a serious challenge to the human race nor dissent from Pope Francis’s exhortation in his encyclical Laudato Si that environmental degradation raises not only pressing policy challenges but also larger moral issues that people of conscience ought to address. I doubt, however, that global warming will attend to Rabbit’s question or relieve Fukuyama’s boredom.
To begin with, global warming is a problem more akin to the Great Depression than it is to the danger of global nuclear holocaust during the Cold War. The Great Depression, which Bacevich points to as an example of a crisis which sparked an effective collective response, actually illustrates the limits of any but the most pressing national or international crises in forging a national sense of shared purpose. FDR tried to employ martial rhetoric to mobilize the country in support of his New Deal. But it was only the outbreak of the Second World War and Pearl Harbor that provided the necessary spark that kindled the flames of national action. Finally, while Bacevich is surely right that it is in all of our interests to think about how to deal with global warming, framing the problem this way, ironically, reinforces the self-interested mindset of the Emerald City.
To his credit, Bacevich recognizes that our inability to address climate change is merely a symptom of a larger national malaise. Our short-sighted and self-interested culture in the Emerald City is the root of our inability to address this and so many other pressing national problems. Our politics is hopelessly gridlocked, producing only polarization and flawed politicians. Our churches—especially Bacevich’s and my Catholic Church—have through recent scandals and, more importantly, through responses to them driven more by lawyers and insurance companies than vicars of Christ, driven increasing numbers of Americans from their pews. Today we have a military consisting of a bare fraction of our society, not so much the poor and brown, but instead the middle-class and Southern. We are in the grip of a new American militarism where affection for the troops is a mile wide but less than an inch deep. We salute their service at the drop of a hat but few of us or our children actually serve, and we give the children of others little thought when we send them out of the gates of the Emerald City because, after all, they are all volunteers. The list of our flawed institutions seems almost endless.
But rather than just chronicling them, admittedly a useful exercise, what if we were to recreate our national purpose through finding what is good in otherwise flawed institutions? Bacevich is no doubt right that Boone City was flawed and may even have sowed the seeds of whirlwind that landed us in his dystopian Oz. But recognizing the virtues in even admittedly flawed institutions could provide the basis for the national renovation that he so eloquently calls for. In his American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, the Harvard professor Samuel Huntington highlighted the paradox that our country’s most lofty ideals were likely to fail to live up to their great promise, and in doing so conceal their real virtues behind a curtain of disappointment.
Here is where Bacevich himself constitutes an exemplar of informed and realistic citizenship. In the face of the terrible scandals of the Catholic Church, he remains a man of faith. Beginning his military career in the Vietnam war, and losing his son in the Iraq war, Bacevich’s time at the colors made him rightly skeptical of the “Emerald City consensus.” Unlike many of the lotus eaters in the Ivory Tower, he never lost his commitment to the broader purpose of the public intellectual. Even in retirement, he continues to model the virtues of an older America that may not have been perfect, but was good enough to produce solid Boone City citizens like him, even if it also gave us ruthless developers of the Emerald City like Donald Trump. Celebrating the former while acknowledging the latter strikes me as the best way to bring to a close America’s age of illusions.
Michael C. Desch is Packey J. Dee Professor of International Affairs and Briand and Jeannelle Brady Director of the Notre Dame International Security Center.