To many cynics, a book like the "American Empire" might seem like an exercise in futility. Who could have trouble believing, after all, that America's primary strategic objective is to create a global marketplace without barriers to the movement of goods, capital, ideas and people? But what starts as an exposition of this argument soon branches into various themes of diverse interest yet equal importance.
Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, takes on conventional wisdom. For those who are baffled by the complexity of the post Cold War world and are dismayed by America's lack of a coherent strategy, Mr. Bacevich is reassuring: America's objective, now and in the past, has been to promote global openness; "this books finds continuity where others see discontinuity," he writes, parting ways with those who believe that globalization fundamentally reshaped American foreign policy priorities.
While this theme is ever-present, Mr. Bacevich covers a lot more ground. Perhaps his most telling contribution is the resurrection of Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams as trenchant observers of American foreign policy. Both Beard and Williams offer their own hypotheses about why America is driven to this ever increasing need for markets abroad. And, after this voyage into intellectual history comes Mr. Bacevich's own argument about why America is compelled to this strategy of openness.
All three reach the same conclusion: America's imperial quest is meant to overcome problems at home. Although Beard and Williams are polemic in their view that America's foreign adventures prologue the inevitable reckoning with domestic troubles, Mr. Bacevich adopts a more dispassionate view and offers merely a possible explanation: With America's national cohesiveness eroding, Mr. Bacevich writes, "an ever-expanding pie satisfying ever more expansive appetites was the only `crusade' likely to command widespread and durable popular enthusiasm."
With this in place, Mr. Bacevich moves on to a different point: American military assets, he contends, are increasingly used to promote global openness. This heightened willingness to use coercion has elevated the role of the military in American politics, perhaps even more so than ever before. And, this increased militarization of American politics is playing a central, if underappreciated, role in formulating as well as executing foreign policy.
For sure, all this is food for thought. Surprisingly enough, Mr. Bacevich has refrained as much as possible from judgments; in fact, writing a book on such a topic whilst remaining neutral is a feat in itself. All the same, Mr. Bacevich's military mind is evident throughout. A book whose aim is to show that America's chief purpose is promoting globalization would have done well to pay heed to dollar diplomacy as much as it has to gunboat diplomacy. Yet this minor objection could not abate the appeal of an otherwise outstanding book.