Waking up in the 21st century

Jacob Heilbrunn is an editorial writer for The Times.

Before Sept. 11, the United States entertained itself with the Clinton scandals and an affluence that proved as illusory as America's invincibility to attack. It was the Gilded Age all over again. Then overnight, terrorists forced President Bush to change American foreign policy from nascent isolationism to stouthearted interventionism. The attacks in New York and Washington turned the world upside down ... or did they?

Welcome to the real world, argue Andrew J. Bacevich, Charles A. Kupchan and Michael Mandelbaum. Though each author has a radically different view of America's international role, they all agree on one thing: Sept. 11 did nothing to change the global realpolitik. Professors all, they take the long view, focusing on the sweeping historical forces at work over decades. Bacevich believes that there is seamless continuity between the Clinton and Bush administrations in their enunciations about the importance of American responsibilities around the globe. Kupchan, for his part, dismisses the notion that Islam poses a threat. The real story, he maintains, is that the economic influence of the United States is destined to be surpassed by Europe, and Mandelbaum takes the high road, suggesting that all is well in the republic and liberal American ideas are triumphing wherever you look.

Of the three, Bacevich has what is surely the boldest take, as he seeks to rehabilitate two maverick professors, Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams, both of whom hovered on the murky border between far left and far right. Beard, a progressive historian, became a laughingstock because of his opposition to American entry into World War II, which he saw as a capitalist plot to divert the New Deal from true reform into militarism, and Williams was the godfather of American revisionism, claiming that American economic imperialism frightened Stalin and pushed him to clamp down on Eastern Europe. Bacevich claims that, "whereas Beard first identified the underlying logic of expansionism, Williams went a step further, urging Americans to contemplate the implications of their imperium."

A vigorous writer, a traditional conservative and a former officer in the military, Bacevich is evidence of the cross-pollination of left and right that can currently be found in Pat Buchanan's new magazine, The American Conservative. But ultimately, his reliance on Beard and Williams, coupled with his contempt for American culture, leads to some rather extravagant claims. By examining American foreign policy in isolation from the rest of the world, Bacevich endows presidents and their subordinates with an omniscience they never possessed, arguing that the United States has pursued a consistent strategy of economic expansion with the military waiting in the wings to crush recalcitrant small powers. But the United States has not always been so confident about its rights and prerogatives. Far from being convinced that America was on the road to becoming the world's preeminent power, Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger, for instance, believed they had to manage its decline. Most presidents simply leap from one crisis to the next, as we've seen of late with North Korea.

There is also something disingenuous about Bacevich's contention that he neither celebrates nor deplores the new American empire but simply wishes to examine it dispassionately. When he denounces the "moral relativism" and "conspicuous consumption" that were at the center of the 1960s, it becomes clear that, while exploring the dissemination of American culture aboard, he passionately opposes it.

Where Bacevich detects moral decay, Kupchan sees a corrupt political system and a flabby economy as America's real vulnerabilities. America doesn't have the economic base to support a vast military establishment capable of imposing order abroad, Kupchan believes. The knockout punch will be administered by the European Union: Amass the collective wealth of Britain, France and Germany, "add the resources of over a dozen other European countries -- perhaps including before too long a recovered Russia -- and an economic behemoth is on the horizon."

But is it? Kupchan provides no persuasive reasons to support the assertion that Europe is about to become an economic heavyweight. Germany is in a frightful state, mired in debt and facing enormous social welfare burdens as its population ages. Russia seems creeping toward its own economic grave, and the United States isn't much better off. Kupchan sees a return to full-fledged isolationism: "Should the costs of global engagement rise and continue to result in attacks against the homeland, calls for the country to distance itself from the troubles of the Middle East may intensify. Even if on some level defeatist, there is logical appeal to the notion that the best way to avoid terrorism is to avoid the behavior that might invite it to begin with." Like Bacevich, Kupchan seeks to present himself as a cold-eyed realist, but does he, in fact, welcome the prospect of retrenchment and believe that the United States is culpable for its woes?

If Bacevich and Kupchan view America's championing of free markets and democracy with a skeptical eye, Mandelbaum adores it. He is, in short, everything that foes of globalization love to hate. A liberal internationalist, he is convinced that Woodrow Wilson -- and by association, the liberal imperialists of the day -- had it right. Trade follows the flag; trade and intercourse between nations inevitably have a beneficent effect upon their relations, a belief that was bitterly shattered by World War I, when once close economic ties between nations were severed.

At his best -- and Mandelbaum is very good -- he offers a highbrow version of the nostrums that Thomas L. Friedman championed in his bestselling "The Lexus and the Olive Tree." There are, he argues, three ideas that dominate the world. The first is peace between countries; the second, democracy; and the third, free markets. He hopscotches from Russia to China, from Europe to the United States, to argue that conflict could become a relic of the past. Does Islamic fundamentalism pose a severe threat? Not to worry: "Terrorists could knock down the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but they could not dislodge the system that these buildings embodied, deeply rooted, and based on ideas and experiences that terrorism could not eradicate."

Perhaps. But in his eagerness to proclaim another end to history, Mandelbaum skirts the possibility that democracy is a rather unusual state of affairs, condemned to exist somewhere between warfare and tyranny. Mandelbaum applies postwar Europe's experience of rebuilding itself to the entire world today, but he has a blind spot for how rickety civil society is in such places as Indonesia and Africa. In lauding globalization, Mandelbaum confirms the delusions that Bacevich and Kupchan so eagerly pillory.

Yet for all the rhetorical firepower brought to bear on foreign affairs by this trio of authors, it's hard to avoid the feeling that there is something a little fantastic about the easy and sovereign manner with which they dismiss the political significance of Sept. 11. As President Bush prepares for an invasion -- and protracted occupation -- of Iraq, his doctrine of preemptive war amounts to the most revolutionary change in American strategy since the onset of the Cold War, one that's stirred up anti-Americanism abroad, prompted North Korea to confront the United States and threatens to sink the faltering American economy. Bush's mixture of diplomacy and truculence may turn out to be reckless or it may be visionary, but had the dreadful events of Sept. 11 never occurred, it is inconceivable that his crusade to construct an American empire -- backed by a gallery of conservative hawks and liberal imperialists -- would be taking place.

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