The Age of illusions: How America squandered its cold war victory

USAWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: Jun 01, 2020, 06:15 PM IST

US President Donald Trump (File photo) Photograph:(Reuters)

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This American idea and conception of modernity was to be transplanted across the world in the service of American interests

The  ‘Boone City bargain’ and the ‘ Emerald City consensus’- allegorical and metaphorical references to post-Cold War frameworks or bargains-  were the defining features of American political life, according to the American scholar of scholars and the writer of writers,  Professor Andrew Bacevich in his lucid, eminently readable and very engaging book, ‘ The Age of Illusions: How America  Squandered its Post-Cold War Victory’. The former, emerging out of the context of the Second World War, defined by certain sobriety, was where freedom had a moral foundation and the latter, incubated in the post-Cold War context was characterized by four intersecting ideas: neoliberal globalization and its spread and advancement, a militarized quest for leadership or hegemony, akin to a post-colonial form of an empire, a presidency that was quasi monarchical and a conception of ‘freedom, an ancient word now drastically revised. The new conception of freedom emphasized autonomy, with traditional moral prohibitions declared obsolete and the removal of constraints maximizing choice. Order and abundance together would underwrite freedom relieving Americans of existential concerns about safety and survival’.

This American idea and conception of modernity was to be transplanted across the world in the service of American interests, holds Professor Bacevich. Each of the elements undergirding the ‘Emerald City Consensus’ was encouraged by academics and journalists – aka Francis Fukuyamas and Thomas Friedman’s of the world- connected to Washington, the former by way of ‘boosterism’- that is intellectual and philosophical gloss referred to as ‘The End of History’, where American inspired democracy and capitalism were the only game in town- and the latter by giving the ‘Emerald City Consensus’ the simulated sheen and framework of coherence. This consensus was validated and reinforced by each of the Post-Cold War presidents, ranging from Bill Clinton, to George Bush Jr and finally Barack Obama, in varying contexts, permutations ad combinations.

While these bargains were riven by contradictions, which inhered in them, and the subsurface anxieties that these generated were pointed out by intellectuals and writers but because they lacked clout, these alarm bells were ignored. Incubating under the cover or patina of the post-Cold War ‘ Emerald City Consensus’ was massive inequality and an assault to democracy, whose early portents were insurgent presidential candidates, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and even Hillary Clinton( not a presidential candidate then but an aspirant to power through her husband, Bill Clinton). These inchoate trends were obscured by the seeming transfer of the baton of power to a younger, new generation of politicians.

Beneath the surface, America was changing and had changed, a fact that became painfully evident in 2016 and emblematized by-elections that year. This had to do with the paradoxes of privilege and inequality that undercut democracy. As Professor Bacevich posits, ‘ in a nation that had once prided itself on being immune to class distinctions- simply being American sufficed as identity-such distinctions were becoming omnipresent. ‘On a daily basis, tens of millions of Americans were enduring what one writer called “financial impotence” according to Professor Bacevich. ‘ In the 2016 election, financial impotence was to turn into political outrage , bringing the post-Cold war era to an abrupt end’.

The implication here is that the elements undergirding the Emerald city consensus created conditions propitious for Donald Trump’s rise to US presidency who turned the election into a plebiscite. 

Trump’ ascendancy, a metaphor for the malaises identified by Professor Bacevich, was greeted with howls of protest and continues to be done so by mainstream American media. But, according to the good professor, ‘obsessing about Trump, impeded efforts to understand what his election actually signified, diverting attention from matters of far greater relevance to the wellbeing of the United States and the planet as a whole. It was Obama mania turned inside out and magnified’. ‘ What the president’s most prominent opponents have yet to appreciate, according to Professor Bacevich, is that the Emerald City consensus is as defunct as the Boone City consensus that preceded it. They confuse cause for effect. They charge him with dividing America when, in fact, it was a pervasive division that vaulted him to the centre of American politics in the first place’.  Assessing this in a grim tone, Professor Bacevich adds, ‘Trump did not create this cleavage. He merely turned it to his advantage. So regardless of the date or terms of Trump’s departure from office, the schism that allowed him to become president is likely to persist after he is gone. It’s that schism […] that merits more attention than it has received’. All in all, asserts Professor Bacevich, ‘Trump’s America did not differ appreciably from pre-Trump America. While a noxious and venal die-hard, the president turned out not to be the disruptive force that his critics have charged him with being’.

Amidst all this, the hat has accrued, according to Professor Bacevich, is that that the West has lost its claim to primacy and, ‘no less important is the fact that belief in the inherent superiority of Western civilization has now become politically and morally unacceptable’.

Calling attention to the American political establishment’s aversion or inability to brook dissent, Professor Bacevich points out to the need of enlarging the discussion now and developing a new consensus and even social contact around issues like Climate change. ‘Around this’ new conception of citizenship can emerge and also an enlightened notion of leadership’. Implying that this potential change will not be top-down, Professor Bacevich leaves the proverbial ball for this to crystallize in the court of the American people. The alternative, too bleak to countenance, can lead to ‘ even something worse than Trump’

All in all, Professor Andrew Bacevich’s book is a lucid and brilliant exposition of what ails America and the deeper, underlying sources of Trump’s ascent to power.  The good professor articulates a trenchant critique of the post-war American establishment and what in his schema are and have been its warped preferences-conceptually and in policy terms. While his overall assessment is suggestive or reflective of his political preference-that of conservativism, laced with religious beliefs, these instead of detracting from his core arguments add weight to his overall thesis. But the analysis is more or less monofocal, at times, devolving into mere polemic. Moreover, Professor Bacevich, while delineating the core elements of the ‘ Emerald City consensus’ elides over the context of some foreign policy goals of the United States. For example, the bombings in Yugoslavia were not motivated by some fetish over militarism by the grid lock at the UN Security council and other structural and contextual factors. Similarly, globalization, in its pure form may not be an unalloyed good but surely it has lifted millions out of poverty worldwide.

The rise of China, in some senses, accrues from globalization. Last but not the least, while rallying around climate change is a laudable and noble objective, and a clarion but it implies the United States retreating into itself. The world of states is a ruthless one defined by the quest for power and its maximization. Where would a retreat leave the United States and its allies? While professor Bacevich alludes to ‘enlightened leadership’, he is curiously silent on its nature and content. However,  by its very nature, ‘The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered its Cold War Victory’ constitutes essential reading for all those who seek to understand the trajectory of this peculiar nation after the second world war, during and after the Cold War. While it should be of immense interest to policymakers, policy intellectuals, and anyone interested in a fairer, just world, its ultimate readership should be the American people, upon who may rest the future of their nation and by extension that of the world. It is then time a real and robust conversation inspired by the eminent Professor Bacevich should begin!

 (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)