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Imperial Detritus

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Message Andrew Bacevich

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The American Century Is Over. So claims the July 2022 cover of Harper's Magazine, adding an all-too-pertinent question - "What's Next?"

What, indeed? Eighty years after the United States embarked upon the Great Crusade of World War II, a generation after it laid claim to the status of sole superpower, following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and two decades after the Global War on Terror, was to remove any lingering doubts about who calls the shots on Planet Earth, the question could hardly be more timely.

"Empire Burlesque," Daniel Bessner's Harper's cover story, provides a useful, if preliminary, answer to a question most members of our political class, preoccupied with other matters, would prefer to ignore. Yet the title of the essay contains a touch of genius, capturing as it does in a single concise phrase the essence of the American Century in its waning days.

On the one hand, given Washington's freewheeling penchant for using force to impose its claimed prerogatives abroad, the imperial nature of the American project has become self-evident. When the U.S. invades and occupies distant lands or subjects them to punishment, concepts like freedom, democracy, and human rights rarely figure as more than afterthoughts. Submission, not liberation defines the underlying, if rarely acknowledged, motivation behind Washington's military actions, actual or threatened, direct or through proxies.

On the other hand, the reckless squandering of American power in recent decades suggests that those who preside over the American imperium are either stunningly incompetent or simply mad as hatters. Intent on perpetuating some form of global hegemony, they have accelerated trends toward national decline, while seemingly oblivious to the actual results of their handiwork.

Consider the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol. It has rightly prompted a thorough congressional investigation aimed at establishing accountability. All of us should be grateful for the conscientious efforts of the House Select Committee to expose the criminality of the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, however, the trillions of dollars wasted and the hundreds of thousands of lives lost during our post-9/11 wars have been essentially written off as the cost of doing business. Here we glimpse the essence of 21st-century bipartisanship, both parties colluding to ignore disasters for which they share joint responsibility, while effectively consigning the vast majority of ordinary citizens to the status of passive accomplices.

Bessner, who teaches at the University of Washington, is appropriately tough on the (mis)managers of the contemporary American empire. And he does a good job of tracing the ideological underpinnings of that empire back to their point of origin. On that score, the key date is not 1776, but 1941. That was the year when the case for American global primacy swept into the marketplace of ideas, making a mark that persists to the present day.

God on Our Side

The marketing began with the Feb. 17, 1941, issue of Life magazine, which contained a simply and elegantly titled essay by Henry Luce, its founder and publisher. With the American public then sharply divided over the question of whether to intervene on behalf of Great Britain in its war against Nazi Germany - this was 10 months before Pearl Harbor - Luce weighed in with a definitive answer - he was all in for war. Through war, he believed, the United States would not only overcome evil, but inaugurate a golden age of American global dominion.

Life was then, in the heyday of the print media, the most influential mass-circulation publication in the United States. As the impresario who presided over the rapidly expanding Time-Life publishing empire, Luce himself was perhaps the most influential press baron of his age. Less colorful than his flamboyant contemporary William Randolph Hearst, he was politically more astute. And yet nothing Luce would say or do over the course of a long career promoting causes (mostly conservative) and candidates (mostly Republican) would come close to matching the legacy left by that one perfectly timed editorial in Life's pages.

When it hit the newsstands, "The American Century" did nothing to resolve public ambivalence about how to deal with Adolf Hitler. Events did that, above all Japan's Dec. 7th attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet once the United States did enter the war, the evocative title of Luce's essay formed the basis for expectations destined to transcend World War II and become a fixture in American political discourse.

During the war years, government propaganda offered copious instruction on "Why We Fight." So, too, did a torrent of posters, books, radio programs, hit songs, and Hollywood movies, not to speak of publications produced by Luce's fellow press moguls. Yet when it came to crispness, durability, and poignancy, none held a candle to "The American Century." Before the age was fully launched, Luce had named it.

Even today, in attenuated form, expectations Luce articulated in 1941 persist. Peel back the cliched phrases that senior officials in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon routinely utter in the Biden years - "American global leadership" and "the rules-based international order" - are favorites, and you encounter their unspoken purpose - to perpetuate unchallengeable American global primacy until the end of time.

To put it another way, whatever the "rules" of global life, the United States will devise them. And if ensuring compliance with those rules should entail a resort to violence, justifications articulated in Washington will suffice to legitimize the use of force.

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Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.
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