Yesterday afternoon the hallway outside Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium was clogged with a crowd of students, faculty, and foreign policy aficionados waiting to hear Prof. Andrew Bacevich, history and international relations, Boston University, discuss America’s tenuous position in the world. Bacevich, who is also a bestselling author, expressed surprise at the packed auditorium.
“I don’t usually attract crowds of this size,” he said. “I thought I was going to be talking to about eight people here.”
But Bacevich’s work, made famous in his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, was clearly of great interest to many in the Cornell community.
According to Prof. Fred Logevall, history, who is director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, “Bacevich is one of the most important thinkers on contemporary U.S. foreign policy working today … A former military man himself, he understands well that America’s hard power … is ultimately limited. I think this is a very important message for today’s students and tomorrow’s leaders to hear.”
Bacevich discussed the trend of American expansionism –– both geographically and economically –– which up to the 1960s fueled the prosperity and materialism that Americans now take largely for granted.
“Material abundance … makes possible the pursuit of freedom and happiness, however defined,” he said.
While making a point of recognizing the decidedly amoral “warts” of American history –– citing slavery, ethnic cleansing and corruption –– Bacevich also described the benefits of America’s wealth in very personal terms, describing the new opportunities his grandfather found in the United States after he “bailed out of Lithuania.”
However, Bacevich’s narrative became disquieting as he approached the modern era. He described an America stuck in an outdated expansionist tradition, deluded into thinking that it will be an exalted global leader forever.
He described a “crisis of economic and cultural profligacy,” where people “refuse to live within their means,” and put their faith every four years into a new chief executive, relying on the “Cult of the Presidency” to solve all problems –– a futile hope. He told of two main parties that are “deeply corrupt” and of a mounting national debt.
“[Americans] avert their eyes to their peril,” Bacevich stated.
He discussed changing attitudes towards the military in the years after 9/11, including an “infatuation with military power” as a method of bringing “others into conformity with the American view of things.”
The consequences of such attitudes were evident as Bacevich detailed how hopes for “short, tidy, economical campaigns” in Iraq and Afghanistan were crushed, spawning a war that would span over a decade.
Bacevich argued that Americans should learn from the post-9/11 era that they are not a “providentially-chosen people,” but an ordinary nation. He advocated less-idealized views of war, and the recognition that the “Long War” in the Middle East has been a “deeply misguided proposition.”
Though Bacevich is a self-described conservative, he emphasized that much of the progress that has thus far been made in improving America’s situation has in fact resulted from “agitation from the left.”
His critical scrutiny and balanced view earned the approval of Prof. Robert Vanderlan, history.
“He comes from a very strong and distinctive political perspective but he is very open-minded,” Vanderlan said. “For me, he’s a model of what an engaged social and political critic should be.”
The lecture seemed to incite much discussion amongst the students in attendance, many of whom took advantage of the question-and-answer session to further probe Bacevich’s opinion on such issues as a military draft, with debates and discussions continuing even as students and faculty began leaving the auditorium.
“I didn’t agree with everything [he said],” noted Sarah Kopper, ’10,” But that made it all the more thought-provoking.”
Original Author: Eliza LaJoie