In This Review

American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy
American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy
By Andrew J. Bacevich
Harvard University Press, 2002, 320 pp

This systematic, well-argued work reprises the classic Jeffersonian approach to American foreign policy. The core Jeffersonian concerns are all here: America's activist global policy is primarily driven by corporate interests; it undercuts democracy at home and abroad; it involves ruinous expenditures; and it increases the risks to national security. These ideas, of course, are not new, having been brought forward at virtually every juncture in American foreign policy from the wars of the French Revolution in the 1790s to the aftermath of September 11. But Bacevich does more than just restate a venerable set of beliefs. By contrasting the foreign policies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton against the ideas of the "Jeffersonian" historians Charles Beard and William Appleton Williams, Bacevich subjects the records of Bush and Clinton to a scorching critique. At the same time, he examines the two historians' strengths and weaknesses to explain why they were both celebrated and frustrated in their respective eras -- and largely (if unjustly) forgotten soon after. As Bacevich notes, Beard and Williams were right about all kinds of things, but both were dead wrong about the central foreign policy questions of the day. Beard (like Pat Buchanan) thought World War II an unnecessary war, brought on by Franklin Roosevelt's imperial scheming. And neither Williams' revisionist history of the Cold War nor his sympathy for communism has held up well. Arguing that two drivers who ended up in such spectacular crashes had better road maps than anybody else is a tough but not impossible job, and Bacevich pulls it off reasonably well. He ends this thoughtful book by noting that the question is no longer whether the United States should become an imperial power, but what kind of empire it should be. Although Beard and Williams would resist being drawn into this debate, Bacevich is right to insist that their views will greatly enrich it.