How Radical Is Your Critique?

So, I recently finished reading Empire as a Way of Life by William Appleman Williams. The book itself was just so-so – too heavily reliant on assertion rather than argument; too fond of the damning quote rather than a more comprehensive appraisal of an individual’s views; and, most surprising (to me), horribly edited, full of egregious typos and formatting problems.

But what I found most interesting about the book was the presence of the introduction by Andrew Bacevich, as well as the content of that introduction.

Here’s Bacevich’s own explanation for how he came to read, and read with sufficient sympathy, to add his own words to Williams’:

When as a graduate student I was introduced to [Williams’] work, the encounter was a disconcerting one. During that interval between the fall of Saigon and the Iran hostage crisis when I attended graduate school, history departments still reflected the divisions that had occurred during the prior decade. Ideological barricades remained much in evidence and the pressure to choose sides was great. Seeing myself as a conservative (of sorts), I instinctively aligned myself with the defenders of orthodoxy. From this perspective, Williams, the self-described radical who flirted with Marxism and appeared oblivious to the crimes of Stalin and Mao, became something of a personal nemesis.

But over time as my understanding of politics evolved so too did my appreciation of Williams. Eventually I came to understand that to label him a “Leftist” was too simplistic. To accuse Williams of being anti-American was flatly wrong. . .

Empire, Williams observes . . . “turns a culture away from its own life as a society or community.” This is precisely correct. Today, in the midst of what the Bush administration has labeled the “Long War,” the United States finds itself once again “transforming the realities of expansion, conquest, and intervention into pious rhetoric about virtue, wealth and democracy.” The effect is to divert attention from the fundamental issues confronting American society.

I have not seen what Bacevich has seen, nor suffered what he has suffered, but I have a small inkling of the intellectual process that leads one, rather suddenly, to reevaluate one’s fundamental principles, what the prophet Balaam experienced as having “fallen down with open eyes.”

The great difficulty, of course, is what to do then. The appeal of any radical critique is precisely that it appears to rip up by the roots the suddenly-perceived vines that have choked the true and venerable tree of the Republic. But in actual reality, roots cannot be pulled up in this fashion. The past cannot be re-run; we can only build on institutions that exist or, even if we choose to tear down our proud towers, that only lays down another layer of ruins; it does not restore the long-since-leveled houses and estates that filled the plot in years gone by.

Late in life, George Kennan speculated that the United States had simply got too big to be a functioning democracy and a responsible international actor. To preserve the Republic, the Republic would have to be destroyed, broken up into ten to twelve smaller states. Suppose Bacevich became convinced of something similar – what on earth would he do with such knowledge? No one would call Kennan “anti-American” – he was profoundly patriotic, greatly in love with and greatly loyal to his country. But his was not, ultimately, a critique of this or that policy of the American government – it was a radical critique of America itself. And once you are critiquing the very nature of your country, what’s the practical difference between an argument from love and an argument from hate if both arguments end in a similar conclusion?

Williams’ book paints a few sympathetic pictures of American statesmen – mostly moderate Republicans like Hoover and Eisenhower – who he felt recognized some portion of what he understands to be the fundamental reality of American relations with the outside world: that is to say, the reality of the American Empire. And who, recognizing that reality, sought to confine it, tame it, limit it, domesticate it; end the process of endless expansion and begin the process of transformation from an Empire into something more self-sustaining. Whether he’s right or not about any part of that analysis, what strikes me is that any such efforts, in Williams’ own reckoning, must be counted as extremely slight, and of almost negligible effect in the final analysis. In which case, what is the likelihood that some future statesman will set down the poisoned chalice?

America’s foreign policy since its founding has been premised on an asymmetry: we must be supreme in our sphere, and no worse than equal in every other. Since our entry into World War II, it has been premised on another asymmetry: we are the leader of the “free world” and the rest of the planet is dar al-Harb. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been premised on yet another asymmetry: that America is the exceptional nation, the single power with global reach and global responsibilities, the global metropole. None of these propositions is “crazy.” If we could get away with the first proposition, why not shoot for it? And why not satisfy ourselves that we are much different from European imperialists, being generally satisfied with much less than direct colonization? As for the second proposition: are there Europeans who are less than grateful that we made friends of former enemies, financed the reconstruction of a continent, and kept the forces of utter barbarism at bay for two generations? As for the third proposition: is it absurd to conclude from the experience of World War I that a multi-polar world of Great Power risks the ultimate calamity? Assuming it can be achieved, isn’t the world better off with a global hegemon – particularly one that seeks little in the way of outright tribute – than with a war of all against all? As I say, none of these propositions is crazy. And no doubt Britain saw things similarly before us.

The first question is whether such dreams are even possible realities. But the second, harder one is: assuming they aren’t, or that, even if they are, they are not the reality one wants, once you have taken this road, is it even possible to change direction? If Kennan and Williams – and other radicals like Daniel Larison, who I rather think agrees with them about the nature of the American state in its current form – are not wrong, why did previous leaders who, Williams thinks, saw the light, at least through one eye, prove so incapable of steering the land carrack as they listed? And what should give us any confidence that a new captain would prove more capable in such an endeavor?