The Reckoning That Wasn’t – Why America Remains Trapped by False Dreams of Hegemony


By Andrew J. Bacevich

Over the course of many evenings in 1952 and 1953, when I was a kindergartner, my family gathered around a hand-me-down TV in the Chicago housing project where we lived to watch Victory at Sea. With stirring music and solemn narration, this 26-part documentary produced by NBC offered an inspiring account of World War II as a righteous conflict in which freedom had triumphed over evil, in large part thanks to the exertions of the United States. The country had waged a people’s war, fought by millions of ordinary citizens who had answered the call of duty. The war’s outcome testified to the strength of American democracy.
Here was history in all its seductive and terrible magnificence. Here, too, was truth: immediate, relevant, and compelling, albeit from a strictly American point of view. If the series had an overarching message, it was this: the outcome of this appalling conflict had inaugurated a new age in which the United States was destined to reign supreme.
The series had a profound effect on me, reinforced by the fact that both of my parents had served in the war. For them and for others of their generation, the great crusade against Germany and Japan was to remain the defining event of their lives and seemed destined to define the lives of future generations, as well.
Yet Victory at Sea hinted at difficulties ahead. The concluding episode was titled “Design for Peace” but offered nothing of the sort. Instead, it conveyed something more akin to a warning. “One bomb from one plane and 78,000 human beings perish,” the narrator intoned, as a camera panned across images of a devastated Hiroshima. “Two bombs, and World War II is over.” Grainy footage of liberated concentration camps and scenes of homeward-bound troops flickered across the screen. Then, with a cryptic reference to “the free world on its march to tomorrow” and a quote from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill extolling the importance of resolution, defiance, magnanimity, and goodwill, the series simply ended. To discern what the most devastating conflict of all time signified politically or morally, viewers would have to look elsewhere.
The abrupt ending made a certain amount of sense. After all, by the time Victory at Sea aired, certain wartime U.S. allies had become bitter adversaries, a race was underway to build nuclear weapons even more lethal than those the United States had dropped on Japan, and American troops were once more engaged in combat, this time in Korea, in a conflict that would not end in even the approximation of victory. If anyone had a design for peace, it had been shelved. This much appeared certain: American global supremacy would not be uncontested.
Even so, for most Americans, World War II remained the authoritative source of relevant memory, with the Cold War a sequel of sorts. Just as U.S. leadership in World War II had defeated the Third Reich and imperial Japan, so, too, would Washington turn back the Soviet threat and ensure the survival of freedom. As the two events merged in the country’s collective imagination, they yielded a canonical lesson: U.S. global leadership backed by superior military power had become a categorical imperative.
In fact, the hard-won victory of 1945 would turn out to be neither validation nor harbinger. It proved instead to be a source of illusions. In the 1960s, the costly and divisive war in Vietnam seemed to demolish those illusions; the collapse of communism at the end of the 1980s momentarily revived them. The post-9/11 misadventures Washington undertook in pursuing its global “war on terror” once again exposed the claims of U.S. military supremacy as specious.
The disappointing outcomes of the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should have sounded a wake-up call akin to the one experienced by the United Kingdom in 1956, after the British government orchestrated an intervention to reassert its control of the Suez Canal and, more broadly, put Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in his place. The ensuing debacle resulted in a singular humiliation that cost British Prime Minister Anthony Eden his job. Eden’s rival, British Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, described the Suez operation as “an act of disastrous folly” that did “irreparable harm to the prestige and reputation of our country.” Few observers disputed that judgment. The crisis obliged the British to acknowledge that their imperial project had reached a dead end. The old way of doing things—whipping weaker peoples into line—was no longer going to work.
The past two decades might have functioned as an extended “Suez moment” for the United States. But the U.S. foreign policy establishment has refused to move on, clinging to the myth that what the world needs is more American military power. The failure in Iraq did not prevent Washington from doubling down on its “good war” in Afghanistan—an act of rashness that culminated in a chaotic, humiliating withdrawal in 2021.
That spectacle could have served as an occasion to declare an end to the era defined by World War II, the Cold War, and the aspirations to which they gave rise. But thanks in no small part to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the moment soon passed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revived the postwar tradition of American muscle flexing. The Afghan war, the longest in U.S. history, has all but vanished from memory, as has the disastrous war of choice that Washington launched 20 years ago in Iraq. Partly as a result, the country seems poised to continue making the same mistakes that led to those debacles, all justified by the ostensible obligations of global leadership.
The war in Ukraine might offer one last chance for Washington to learn a Suez-style lesson—and without even suffering a defeat. So far, U.S. policy on Ukraine has been pragmatic and arguably restrained. But President Joe Biden and his team routinely talk about the war in ways that suggest an outmoded, moralistic, and recklessly grandiose vision of American power. Aligning his administration’s rhetorical posture with a sober assessment of the true stakes involved in Ukraine might allow Biden to wean the establishment from its obsession with hegemony. Demonstrating that Americans do not need their country’s role in the world explained to them in the style of a children’s bedtime story would be a bonus.
The danger is that the opposite could happen: Biden’s framing of Ukraine as a crucible for a new era of military-backed American dominance might lock him in, and his administration’s carefully calibrated policy could come to more closely resemble his soaring, ill-considered rhetoric. That, in turn, would lead to an altogether different and more disastrous reckoning.
The most authoritative expression of the postwar worldview—the Rosetta stone of American statecraft in the Cold War—is NSC-68, a highly classified document drafted in 1950 by the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, led at the time by Paul Nitze. Testifying to “the marvelous diversity, the deep tolerance, the lawfulness of the free society,” this ideologically charged document established the parameters of U.S. policy throughout the Cold War. Juxtaposed against that free society was “the slave society” of the Soviet Union, which demanded “total power over all men within the Soviet state without a single exception” along with “total power over all Communist Parties and all states under Soviet domination.”
With compelling clarity, NSC-68 made a case for American hegemony. It drew bright lines and erased ambiguities. “In a shrinking world,” the document asserted, “the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable.” This fact imposed on the United States “the responsibility of world leadership” along with an obligation “to bring about order and justice by means consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.” Merely containing the Soviet threat would not suffice. Nor would feeding the world’s hungry or succoring the afflicted. What the United States needed was the capacity and willingness to coerce. With that in mind, Washington committed itself to establishing a dominant military configured as a global police force. Statecraft became an adjunct of military might.
Undiminished by the passage of time, the Manichaean outlook woven into NSC-68 persists today, decades after the Cold War that inspired it. Biden’s frequent insistence that the fate of humankind hinges on the outcome of a cosmic struggle between democracy and autocracy updates Nitze’s central theme. The necessity of U.S. military supremacy—whether measured by Pentagon spending, the number of bases abroad, or a propensity to use force—has become an article of faith. As the world continues to “shrink” thanks to globalization and technological progress (and also to expand into space and cyberspace), the reach of U.S. military forces grows accordingly, a process that stirs little controversy.
But if the aim of U.S. hegemony has been to establish global order and justice through the prudent use of hard power, the results have been mixed at best. Since 1950, people in the English-speaking world and those living in some proximity to Paris and Tokyo have fared relatively well. By comparison, the benefits accruing to the billions living in the global South have been spotty; only occasionally has the opportunity to live longer and healthier lives translated into personal freedom and security. Government respect for individual rights and adherence to the rule of law remains more hope than reality.
Things could have been worse, of course. Imagine, for example, if during the Cold War, the United States had used any of the thousands of nuclear weapons it had acquired at enormous cost. Yet what actually did occur was bad enough. To reflect on the conduct and the consequences of American wars (and sundry covert interventions) since 1950 is to confront an appalling record of recklessness, malfeasance, and waste.
The Iraq war, which began 20 years ago, represents the acme of American military folly—second only to the Vietnam War. Launched with expectations of unleashing a tidal wave of liberation that would transform the Middle East, Operation Iraqi Freedom instead produced a mournful legacy of death and destruction that destabilized the region. For a time, supporters of the war consoled themselves with the thought that the removal from power of the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein had made the world a better place. Today, no amount of sophistry can sustain that claim.
Many ordinary Americans might consider it too harsh to declare that all the sacrifices made by U.S. troops since World War II have been for naught. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the result in Iraq was more akin to a rule than to an exception. President Harry Truman’s decision to send U.S. troops north of the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula in 1950 was an epic blunder, albeit one eclipsed 15 years later by President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to commit U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Beginning in 2001, the war in Afghanistan gave new meaning to the term “quagmire.” As for Iraq, it remains impossible to refute Barack Obama’s 2002 denunciation, delivered when he was a state senator in Illinois, of the approaching U.S. invasion as a “dumb,” “rash,” “cynical attempt” by “weekend warriors” to “shove their own ideological agendas down our throats.”
Yet in each case, those choices served as concrete expressions of what American global leadership seemed to require in the moment. According to the logic embedded in NSC-68, to pass by the opportunity to liberate and unify the two Koreas or to allow the Republic of Vietnam to fall to communism would have been the height of irresponsibility. So, too, would allowing the Taliban to retain power in Kabul. Take seriously the claim that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction (and was intent on developing more), and his removal could be seen as a political and moral imperative.
In each instance, however, egregiously faulty judgment squandered—there is no other word—vast troves of American wealth and thousands of American lives (not to mention hundreds of thousands of non-American lives). Brown University’s Costs of War project has estimated that U.S. military actions since the 9/11 attacks have cost around $8 trillion, a sum several dozen times greater than that approved for the Biden administration’s highly touted “Building a Better America” infrastructure initiative. And it is hard to see how the benefits of those military operations outweighed the costs.
Yet the basic logic that favored intervention in all those cases remains intact. Even Biden, who as vice president opposed a major surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and who as president ultimately withdrew the troops, has not forsaken a fundamental belief in the enduring efficacy of American military power. His response to defeat in Afghanistan was to propose an increase in Pentagon spending. Congress not only agreed but chipped in a bonus.
The clout wielded by the sprawling U.S. national security apparatus partially explains why this mindset has persisted. On that score, the famous admonition conveyed in President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address in January 1961 has lost none of its relevance. In that speech, Eisenhower warned against “the disastrous rise of misplaced power” in the hands of “the military-industrial complex.” He also proposed a solution: “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to keep the country’s “huge industrial and military machinery of defense” in check “so that security and liberty may prosper together.” But his hope was misplaced. On matters related to national security, Americans have proven to be more indifferent than watchful. Many Americans still revere Eisenhower. But it is not the president of 1961 to whom they tend to look for inspiration but the general of 1945, who secured the unconditional surrender of the Third Reich.

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