All but lost amid the hullabaloo of the presidential campaign, the State Department recently dropped North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Kim Jong Il pocketed a concession that even a year ago would have seemed unimaginable. The American people -- feeling more threatened by Wall Street than by Pyongyang -- managed barely a shrug.
Seldom has a historic turning point received such little notice. By cutting a deal with a charter member of the “axis of evil,” President Bush has definitively abandoned the principles that he staked out in the wake of 9/11. The president who once defined America’s purpose as “ending tyranny” is now accommodating the world’s last authentically Stalinist regime. Although Bush still inhabits the White House, the Bush era has effectively ended.
Of greater significance, so too has the latest in a series of American psychodramas. In the last year or so, the nation’s collective mind-set has shifted, and with that shift have come dramatic changes in the way we see ourselves and the world beyond our borders.
The American preference for packaging history as a sequence of great events directed by great men tends to overlook the role played by mass psychology and by the powerful impulses contained within what we commonly call public opinion. The reality is that when it comes to statecraft, policies devised in Washington frequently express not so much the carefully calculated intentions of the nation’s leaders as the people’s frame of mind.
President James Polk, for instance, came into office in 1845 determined to separate California from Mexico. Yet what enabled Polk to convert ambition into action was the concept of Manifest Destiny -- the popular conviction that it had become incumbent on Americans to spread freedom westward to the Pacific Ocean. Polk didn’t invent Manifest Destiny and didn’t really control it, but he shrewdly offered this deeply felt urge an outlet, thereby transforming what might otherwise have seemed a naked land-grab into a righteous crusade. The result was the immensely successful Mexican War.
Similarly, in 1898, through war with Spain, the United States acquired an empire, annexing Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Hawaii. But it was popular fervor for liberating oppressed Cubans, not President William McKinley’s hankering for colonies, that convinced millions of Americans that Spain’s continued presence in the Caribbean was simply intolerable. Supplanting Spanish power with American power had become a moral imperative. All McKinley had to do was give his assent, neatly tapping into the prevailing zeitgeist to further his agenda.
The problem for policymakers is that the zeitgeist can change suddenly and without warning. President Woodrow Wilson discovered this shortly after World War I, when Americans who had enthusiastically enlisted in his campaign to “make the world safe for democracy” abruptly lost interest and yearned for a return to “normalcy.” Accurately gauging the shift in the popular mood, the Senate voted in 1919 not to join the League of Nations in which Wilson had invested such hopes. The president was left high and dry.
George W. Bush has experienced a similar fate. His presidency began with the Age of American Triumphalism at its zenith. When Bush entered office in 2001, America’s status as sole superpower was self-evident and seemingly irrefutable. As the indispensable nation, the United States presided over a unipolar order. The emery board of globalization was sanding away the world’s rough edges and gradually remaking it in America’s own image. Commentators vied to find the appropriate historical analogy. The consensus: America was the new Rome, only more so.
Bush’s response to 9/11 reflected this widespread sense of assurance and entitlement. The Bush doctrine of preventive war, the president’s impatient, with-us-or-against-us attitude, his disdain for international opinion and international law, his confidence that American military power, once unleashed, would quickly bring evildoers to justice or justice to evildoers -- and above all his conviction that the people of the Islamic world thirsted for freedom American-style -- all of these made explicit precepts that had been germinating during the post-Cold War decade of the 1990s. Bush was merely expressing in a crude vernacular -- “Bring ‘em on!” -- ideas and attitudes to which the majority of Americans already subscribed.
Today those ideas and attitudes have become the equivalent of an oversized SUV: They no longer sell. Not least among Bush’s errors in judgment has been his failure to appreciate just how ephemeral the Age of Triumphalism would prove to be.
Having discovered that being the new Rome entails burdens as well as privileges, Americans have opted out. Although Bush’s wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, Joe the Plumber’s interest in liberating the greater Middle East or courting a showdown even with a figure as vile as Kim Jong Il is close to zero. Americans are no longer in the mood to chase after distant evildoers. They care about jobs, affordable energy, decent healthcare and restoring their 401(k) accounts. Fix what’s broken abroad? No thanks; not until we’ve fixed what’s broken at home. This defines the new normalcy.
The central theme of the presidential election is change, with both John McCain and Barack Obama promising to radically overhaul the way Washington works. In a real sense, however, change has already occurred. Even before the people have voted, they have spoken. The Age of Triumphalism has ended. The Age of Salvaging What’s Left is upon us.
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of “The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.”