31 March 2011
As the bombs began falling in Libya, the newest issue of Reviews in American History reached my mailbox. The quarterly collection of critiques of current scholarly works isn't usually where I find timely commentary, but the March issue includes Andrew Bacevich's review of a new study of "the cultural foundations of American internationalism" in the late 19th century. The author, Frank Ninkovich, traces our internationalist, interventionist impulse to a "liberal" culture that emerged during the Gilded Age. From readings of elite opinion-making journals of the period, Ninkovich retrieves a prescient theory of egalitarian globalization that overcame a prior isolationism. As befits a scholarly journal, Bacevich, who is often found denouncing American foreign policy in the pages of The Nation and The American Conservative, is gently merciless toward Ninkovich's thesis. The author's indiscriminate use of the "liberal" label, Bacevich writes, "leads him down a path in which liberalism itself becomes increasingly devoid of content. To classify everything as liberal is to reduce liberalism to a sort of ornament, attached to views to endow them with respectability, but signifying little of substance." Worse, to call the Gilded Age "liberal" is flat out inaccurate if the word means what we think it does. Gilded Age America, Bacevich reminds his readers, "was a fundamentally racist society," and that racism extended beyond American borders to endorse imperialism rather than any equality of nations. For Bacevich, "liberalism" is a virtually useless historical term. In the realm of foreign-policy historiography, it's used as the alternative to what Bacevich calls "the fiction of American isolationism" in order to "sustain the increasingly implausible notion that liberal internationalism provides the interpretive key to understanding modern American statecraft." Liberalism, according to this mythology, was what motivated Americans to "shoulder the burdens of global leadership" beginning with the Spanish-American War in 1898. Ninkovich's book is apparently designed to support this worldview, but Bacevich puts the book down "more than ever persuaded that liberalism explains next to nothing about the evolution of American diplomacy." This is a relevant observation at a moment when we're supposed to be seeing a truly liberal internationalism in practice in the skies over Libya. Militant liberalism as practised by the current President is concerned only with humanity, with preventing a massacre of civilians, not with mere national interests. It cultivates a more egalitarian internationalism in which the U.S. is but one and not the first among equals. And at least some Americans really do seem to believe that there is something qualitatively different and superior about Obama's Libyan adventure, despite the obvious opportunism and arbitrariness of the project. It is not a principled intervention if the principle asserted or implied is not applied consistently, and there are too many variables of convenience involved this time. But as Bacevich writes, the "liberal" label -- applied here to the President if not to his handiwork -- "merely covers over contradictions, smooths off the rough edges, and justifies the otherwise unjustifiable. When it comes to power and the purposes to which it is put, liberalism is the lipstick that we apply to make things look pretty." Referring to the period studied by Ninkovich, Bacevich says that "those interested in the real deal will want to give commercial acquisitiveness, empire and exceptionalism-run-amok a second look." These might not be the exact objects before us now in Libya, but today as in the past those interested in the real deal need to give the whole thing a second look.