Q&A: How America Went From Cold War Victor To Being Led by a Con-Man Reality TV Show Host

Andrew Bacevich, President of the Quincy Institute, released his latest book this week, “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.” Harper’s Magazine will host the official launch event to Tuesday evening in New York (see details here) and we sat down with Andrew to discuss the book’s raison d’être: 

RESPONSIBLE STATECRAFT:  You’ve got a new book out.  Tell us about it.

ANDREW BACEVICH:  Happy too. It’s called “The Age of Illusions,” with the subtitle, “How America Squandered Its Cold Victory.” In a narrow sense, the book gives my answer to the how-we-got-Trump question. More broadly, it describes how the United States went from “We’re number one!” euphoria when the Berlin Wall fell to a deeply divided nation installing in the White House someone manifestly unqualified to serve as president – all in just a bit more than a quarter-century.  Something had obviously gone wrong and I try to identify that something.

RS:  So the overarching theme is one of decline?

AB:  Decline, rashness, folly, hubris. All of the above. I trace for readers the arc of the post-Cold Era, which in my telling began in 1989 and came to a crashing halt in 2016. Historians will spend decades trying to make sense of this brief interval, which stands apart from the Cold War and certainly stands apart from whatever it is our pissed-off fellow citizens find themselves obliged to endure today.Age of Illusions” weighs in with a succinct and necessarily provisional interpretation of how we got from there to here.

RS:  So what’s the essence of the story you tell?

AB:  Put simply, it’s about a set of dumb ideas foisted on an unsuspecting nation by members of an arrogant elite. Pressed into service as a basis for basic policy, those ideas produced a host of negative consequences and set the stage for the massive repudiation that occurred in November 2016.

RS:  Can you expound a little bit on those ideas? 

AB:  I focus on four in particular. One: the pursuit of globalization that was going to make everyone rich, or at least better off. Two: faith in American military supremacy, which was expected to ensure that the world at large would henceforth play by our rules – or else. Three: a radically redefined conception of individual freedom, heavy on rights and privileges, exceedingly light on duties and obligations. Four: a truly bizarre conviction that from the White House comes salvation. The end of the Cold War elicited all sorts of over-the-top claims about an “indispensable nation” presiding over a “unipolar order” that would enable Americans to enjoy perfect freedom and spread it around the globe.

RS:   It didn’t work out that way did it … 

AB:  No. The three post-Cold War presidents – Clinton, Bush 2, and Obama – each in different ways tried to implement this agenda – I call it the Emerald City agenda, recalling Dorothy’s journey through Oz in search of the wizard who would fix everything. Clinton, Bush, and Obama were de facto collaborators in promoting globalized neoliberalism, in embarking upon an unprecedented bout of armed interventionism, and in presiding on a radical reinterpretation of what individual freedom allowed (plenty) and prohibited (not much). And during this period the White House became a sort of planetary headquarters where decisions relating to the fate and future of humankind were ostensibly made, with the president as demigod.

RS:  With what results?

AB:  Globalization worked nicely for some, but left behind tens of millions of Americans, with an unprecedented gap between the rich and the not rich one result. This period also gave us the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, bringing ruin to millions of families – although not to the bankers and hedge fund managers whose greed destabilized the economy. Post-Cold War militarism found expression in a host of interventions, large and small, few of them successful, more than a few badly botched. Those who conceived these wars were largely spared the consequences since it wasn’t their kids who signed up to serve in our misnamed all-volunteer force. Apart from casualties, the principal result of our post-Cold War wars was red ink – trillions added to the national debt. The military-industrial complex also made out okay, as it invariably does.

RS:  And the radical redefinition of freedom?

AB:  Again, it worked for some and left many others adrift. Americans today enjoy unprecedented freedom. Since the end of the Cold War, groups long subjected to discrimination, notably women, people of color, and gays have substantially improved their situation. I am not suggesting that we have become a society in which all citizens enjoy perfect equality and tolerance, but we have made notable progress. And yet in this time of unprecedented freedom, American society is afflicted with an astonishing array of pathologies: an epidemic of morbid obesity, eating disorders, mass shootings, drug abuse, porn addiction, children raised without fathers, and so on. Apparently something more than freedom is required to foster a healthy society. 

RS:  And the presidency?

AB:  Presidents turned out to have a quite limited ability to understand the present or to manage the future. I guess my favorite example is George W. Bush after 9/11, proclaiming his “Freedom Agenda” as he plunged the nation into a global war against terrorism or against his “Axis of Evil” or both. The result was a costly fiasco that is still playing out in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Congress opted to give presidents a free hand on the use of force, while routinely appropriating billions to sustain wars that were obviously going nowhere. 

RS:  So how does Trump fit into the story?

AB:  I see the presidential election of 2016 as a de facto plebiscite. In effect, Trump invited citizens to cast their ballot on a single question: Do you approve of the direction in which the U.S. has been headed since 1989? Vote yes or no. Enough voted no – or couldn’t be bothered to vote at all – to install in the White House a dishonest anti-establishment blowhard who promised to “drain the swamp.” Not incidentally, Hillary Clinton embodied that swamp and promised to wade into it more deeply – more neoliberal economic policies, more throwing around U.S. military muscle needless wars, and yet further efforts to discard whatever remained of individual self-restraint derived from traditional moral values.

RS:  So you are not a fan of Senator Clinton.

AB:  How could you tell?  She lost me when she voted for the Iraq War, for motives that were transparently political. That said, if I didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, I sure didn’t vote for Trump. I voted “anyone but those two.”

RS:  So how do you assess the Trump presidency thus far?

AB:  Well, he is self-evidently ill-equipped for the job by any measure: temperament, character, intellect. Yet unlike many observers, I refuse to succumb to Trump Derangement Syndrome. Little of the damage he has done is irreversible, in my judgment. I am also continually struck by the gap between what Trump says and what actually ensues. That gap is enormous. Recall the hysteria heard in many establishment quarters when he embraced “America First” as the organizing theme of his foreign policy. “Isolationism!” So critics predicted. Well, it didn’t happen. The problem with Trump’s approach to foreign policy is not that he wants the U.S. to pull up the drawbridge. It’s that there is no Trump foreign policy — none.  There’s just a random set of impulses that may or may not make it through the next news cycle before he contradicts himself. An interim verdict on Trump as statesman would be this: For all his crudeness and vulgarity, he hasn’t made things much worse than they already were.

RS:  So if things are as bad as you think they are, how do we get out of this mess?

AB:  Stop looking to Washington and especially to whoever happens to occupy the White House to fix things. Things went south after the Cold War because the American people allowed a smug and inbred elite to take the country down the road to perdition. A variety of factors led to Trump becoming president in 2017, but among the biggest in my judgment was that large numbers of voters found his promise to overturn the establishment applecart to be compelling. That Trump had not a clue about how actually to govern was beside the point.

RS:  Going into the 2020 election cycle the country remains deeply divided. 

AB:  Yes, it’s that division that should trouble us more than Trump himself. He is merely a symptom. He’s not really the problem, even if many in the media and in the Democratic Party seem to believe that ousting Trump will make everything hunky-dory. 

RS:  So it’s time for citizens to start acting like citizens again?

AB:  Yes, and that means accepting duties and obligations in every aspect of American life. I argue that climate change offers a place to start – common recognition of a common problem of pressing concern could provide a basis for healing our divisions.  But we dare not delay. Time is short. 

RS:  Does the Quincy Institute have a part to play in this?

AB:  You bet. The QI can play a major role in re-educating members of the public and members of the foreign policy elite with regard to the potential benefits of restraint as an alternative to the catastrophic militarism of recent decades.

More from