Delusional Exceptionalism: How the US Lost Its Global Pre-Eminence

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When the Berlin Wall fell on a cold November night in 1989 and the people of Eastern Europe threw out their Kremlin-backed dictators by year’s end, the United States emerged as Cold War victor and a model of freedom and democracy for the world to emulate.

Or such was the conventional wisdom when the Communist empire’s ideological North Star was extinguished two years later with collapse of the Soviet Union.

Two insightful new books on America’s diminished role in the world chronicle the demise of U.S. authority against the chaotic backdrop of 2020.

In “After the Apocalypse,” military historian Andrew Bacevich attributes the U.S. loss of global influence to a sense of superiority that emerged after its Cold War victory over the communism and military and diplomatic blunders that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The delusion of “American exceptionalism” and misuse of U.S. military power are also cast as the culprits in the decline of U.S. authority in “After the Fall,” a similarly critical account of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era by former Obama administration national security advisor Ben Rhodes.

Bacevich, a Boston University professor of history and international relations, knows of what he writes. He served 23 years in the Army, retiring with the rank of colonel and a PhD from Princeton. He lost a son to the Iraq War in 2007. As founder and president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a bipartisan Washington think tank, he has tracked the failures and missteps of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the rival superpower’s disintegration.

“Incompetence at the highest levels, compounded by hubris, negligence, and an inability to learn” from recurring ill-conceived foreign adventures have cost the United States its once-dominant position in global affairs, Bacevich argues in a concise (172 pages) and persuasive assessment of U.S. standing in the world.

While U.S. leadership has been eroding for decades, Bacevich presents 2020 as the year that America’s own Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse stormed in to expose the accumulated institutional rot with “Rancor, Pestilence, Want and Fury.”

Political rancor infected an election year that ended with President Donald Trump’s defeat and destabilizing claims of a crooked vote count. COVID-19 killed half a million Americans by the end of Trump’s term, many deaths due to his denial of the severity of the virus and political denigration of health experts’ advice for containing its spread. Millions of Americans lost their paychecks when lockdowns halted most travel and shuttered restaurants, retail shops, gyms, hotels and in-class education. Fury poured out on the streets over racial injustice and the rise of white supremacy, hate and intolerance.

America’s posture of model democracy took self-inflicted wounds long before the hellish year of 2020. From the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government in 1953 to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba to the Global War on Terror against the fugitive perpetrators of 9/11, Bacevich chronicles the discrediting actions of a national security strategy based on militancy. His detailed and unvarnished presentation is thorough and sobering and concludes with prescriptions for reforming U.S. foreign policy and debunking the notion of American superiority:

  • Leave NATO within 10 years after a managed handover of responsibility for European defense to the Europeans, who are not the poor and vulnerable states of the alliance birth in 1949.
  • Stop fighting terrorists with U.S. armed forces. Classify terrorism as criminal matters.
  • Retain an Indo-Pacific presence to avert a new Cold War with China while showing support for allies in the volatile South China Sea.
  • Cut the Pentagon budget and invest instead in the North American Security Zone, to bolster Canada’s territorial sovereignty in the Arctic and assist Mexico in shoring up its borders against drug gangs and human trafficking.

“To escape from our era of ideological fantasy requires taking stock of the dismal consequences that American arrogance and misjudgment have yielded since we thought the world was ours,” Bacevich concludes. “Then, perhaps, we can save our country.”

Rhodes, a foreign policy aide and speechwriter during the eight years of President Barack Obama’s administration, has written a similarly critical history of America’s lost status as leader of the free world in “After the Fall.

“Once there was a nation that ascended to a position of pre-eminence unparalleled in history,” Rhodes opens his analysis in a tone of fairy tale gone wrong. “This nation held within its hands the capacity to destroy, shape and enlighten all human life on earth.”

Rhodes’ book takes the reader on a personal journey through the countries where democracy is stumbling, if it ever had firm footing. He tells the stories of reversion to authoritarian rule in Hungary, Russia and Hong Kong through the experiences of abused dissidents and corruption fighters. 

More than 30 years Bacevich’s junior, the 43-year-old Rhodes’ view of lost U.S. clout and endangered democracy is framed by his years working with Obama on his signature achievements: The Iran nuclear deal, commitment to climate protection in the Paris Accord, the promising trade alliance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, all achievements torpedoed by Trump’s single-minded campaign to erase Obama’s legacy.

“After the Fall” recounts how once-promising new democracies traveled full circle to be ruled by autocrats. It is a more contemporary view of how America lost its influence and the challenges to post-Trump Washington to regain the trust of traditional allies. 

Rhodes laments the loss of U.S. stature but provides little vision of how it could or should be restored, in contrast to Bacevich’s advice that the U.S. government redirect its focus to fixing the domestic crises threatening our own democratic institutions.

Both authors decry the rise of nationalism and conspiracy theories dividing Americans and undermining trust in the rule of law and the security of elections. They question whether more could or should have been done to prevent the humiliation felt by Russians after the loss of their superpower status and allegiance with most of the other 14 Soviet republics. Only Belarus, ruled by a holdover autocrat from the Soviet era, remains firmly aligned with the Kremlin.

In interviews with Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny before his near-death poisoning a year ago, Rhodes quotes the ardent Putin critic as casting American Ivy League academics like Jeffrey Sachs and Larry Summers sent to advise Boris Yeltsin in the first years of Russian independence as “unwitting co-conspirators in screwing the Russian people.”

Rhodes muses on what might have been done differently with Russia to prevent the palpable resentment felt by Kremlin leaders over the loss of their superpower status with the defection of the entire Warsaw Pact, most to the NATO defense alliance.

“Historians will debate how much America might have instigated some of this retribution, or might have done things differently to forestall it,” he writes, questioning whether the United States was “too triumphalist in our foreign policy, lording it over the defeated Russians through the expansion of NATO, the push to include former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine, which Putin subsequently invaded.”

All worthy questions for debate, Rhodes concludes, as U.S. diplomats and strategists weigh the importance of global leadership against defusing tensions with Russia and China to keep the peace in preference of raw power.

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Carol J. Williams is a retired foreign correspondent with 30 years' reporting abroad for the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Wonderful article about two note-worthy books. I have watched during my 74 years the long slow road to a diminished status on the world stage. Our 20th century and 21st Century history is riddled with blown opportunities and misuse of our power for something other than international good. We have lost so much in our national hubris. It is time we open our eyes to what we have done and what we have missed and how much we could learn from other nations on the world stage.

  2. From 1990 to 2020 a generation of political and media leaders trumpeted “Seattle Exceptionalism.” The factors cited above (“Incompetence at the highest levels, compounded by hubris, negligence, and an inability to learn”) likewise led to what Seattle became: a downtown core that is irrelevant to the employers that used to demand daily commutes of hundreds of thousands of desk-jockeys and an environment hostile to its remaining residents who have the means to leave it.

  3. In the same vein, you might look at George Packer’s new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal. It’s a bit long on analysis and vague on solutions but a good read when we need good minds working on righting the ship.

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