Andrew J. Bacevich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Military and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Andrew J. Bacevich, Professor and Director, Center for International Relations Boston University; May 9, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Studying Foreign Policy

I'm curious about your intellectual evolution and to what extent, and in what ways, was the Princeton education, the focus on diplomatic history, an eye opener in terms of putting the military in a larger context. Did that happen to you? Clearly, as we look at what you've written, your thinking has evolved and your understanding of the military is embedded in a broader historical context.

Right. Going to Princeton and studying at Princeton and doing this dissertation set me on a trajectory in which I became interested in the military's role in foreign policy or how thinking about military power formed a component of our foreign policy. Having said that, I think that the journey has taken me quite far from where I began. Let me reference Arthur Link again. Link is the great biographer of Woodrow Wilson and was a titanically important scholar, and when I was with Link or very much under his influence, I have to say that I probably adhered to a "great man" view of history, that it was the Woodrow Wilsons of the world and the Henry Stimsons, and then when you slip down a couple of ranks, the Frank Ross McCoys, who were the movers and shakers who made things happen. As I got older I moved away from that and I no longer think that it's the George W. Bushes or the Condoleezza Rices or the Paul Wolfowitzes ...

Or the Bill Clintons ...

... or the Bill Clintons who are determining our fate. I have come to believe that they are themselves shaped by all kinds of other factors that they represent, that they manifest. If you want the answer [to] "how did this happen, how did we get here?" I don't think you begin by saying, "Well, what did George Bush mean, what did he do?" Rather, you have to say, "Where did he come from and what were the influences that shaped him?" That gets us closer to the truth.

Before we talk about your new book, I want to pursue the shaping forces with regard to your intellectual odyssey. I'm curious about how your ideas about the military evolved as you were getting this broader education. Did you come to see things about the military that you had not perceived when you were just a soldier?

I began to see the military in a more critical way even when I still was a soldier. My first book -- it appeared before my dissertation was published -- was a little volume that I did back in the mid-1980s called The Pentomic Era, a little, tiny monograph, and The Pentomic Era was an examination of the U.S. Army and how it had changed between the Korean War and the Vietnam War, mid-to-late fifties into the early 1960s. This was a time when the military's fascination, not just the air force's fascination, all the services' fascination, with nuclear weapons was at a very high level, and in many respects the study was about how the U.S. Army grappled with the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I don't mean international proliferation, but proliferation throughout the U.S. military -- and the development of all kinds of small nuclear weapons.

What I came to see is that the army's fascination with nuclear weapons and the army's vociferous opposition to President Eisenhower's policy of massive retaliation, which meant that all the bucks were going to go to the air force, that the army's resistance to that could only be explained in part by institutional rivalries, that the army was staking oppositions at least in part not because this was what the officer corps felt was in the best interest of the country, but it was "us against them" where "them" was the air force.

So, I began to have a more sophisticated view of what really motivated our defense institutions. When I got out of the army in 1992 -- the Cold War's over, Soviet Union's gone, Desert Storm is now recent history -- I was especially struck by the extent to which the United States, and in particular the Department of Defense, did not respond to what seemed to be a brand new set of facts in terms of what the international environment looked like. Rather, [it] seemed to be committed to maintaining a course of action and, to put it bluntly, to sustaining what had begun to be a position of American global supremacy in the military sense, indefinitely into the future, regardless of what the international environment looked like. I began to scratch my head and say, "There's an explanation for this, and the explanation is not simply that the United States stands for peace and freedom."

This is a theme we'll pick up in a minute when we talk about your book, but I'm curious, because there was an evolution in your political writing during the period that you're talking about. Originally did you write for some of the conservative [publications]?

I didn't do any political writing when I was a serving officer.

No, right. I understand. But after?

I began to in the 1990s when I got out of the army. I knew I wanted to find a career somewhere in teaching or writing. I didn't know I was going to end up teaching at Boston University, but I wanted to be somewhere in that world. And so, I began to write for mostly conservative magazines. In the nineties I wrote for National Review, for the Weekly Standard when it opened up, a couple of things for Commentary magazine, a fairly frequent contributor to First Things, which is a sort of right-leaning magazine that is concerned with religion and politics. So, very seldom did I appear in anything that leaned left.

So, in a way, there was a perturbation in the world in terms of where you thought the military should be going or the way it should be thinking at the end of the Cold War versus the way it was really responding, and then more broadly, the way the U.S. was responding to this new world that opened up after the end of the Cold War.

The reason that I defined myself as a conservative when I became politically conscious was probably more related to cultural issues than to foreign policy issues. I'm probably on the traditionalist side in the so-called culture war and I probably remain there today, if we were going to talk about those sorts of issues. I assumed that my allies in the culture war would also be my allies in terms of thinking about U.S. foreign policy, but that turned out to be quite wrong. Quite wrong, because foreign policy thinking on the right came to be imbued with a sense of hubris and confidence and a belief that we possess the power to transform the world and probably needed to transform the world for our own well-being and that of all of humankind. It was that type of thinking and the way it manifested itself in real policies that set me off in a different direction in terms of foreign policy.

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