A week after the entry of the Russian army into Ukraineformer Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote, “Vladimir Putin’s invasion…ended Americans’ 30-year vacation away from history. According to Gates, the Russian-Ukrainian war should serve as a wake-up call, prompting the United States to get off the couch and get back to work. Other proponents of a global Pax Americana agree. But the argument is both erroneous and dangerous.
In fact, over the past 30 years, America has taken history by its snare, demanding its respect for the dictates issued by Washington. But time and time again, history has refused to oblige.
In December 1989, at the very beginning of the so-called holiday in America’s history, US forces invaded Panama to overthrow the existing government and replace it with something nicer in Washington. For then-President George HW Bush, regime change in Panama was a first step in creating what he later called a “new world order.”
Bill Clinton, who succeeded Bush in 1993, agreed. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly the same year, he announced that “a turning point in the history of mankind” was at hand. This turning point offered the United States the opportunity to serve as “a fulcrum for change and a fulcrum for peace.”
Clinton’s own successor was even more blunt in spelling out America’s purpose. Speaking after 9/11 – another event meant to disrupt a “historical holiday” – and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush cited “the advance of freedom [as] the call of our time. Waging a global war on terrorism would allow the United States to fulfill that call. Freedom sets “the direction of history,” Bush said, with American-style freedom “the right and ability of all mankind.”
It was not the language of a nation embarking on an extended vacation. Nor was it idle rhetoric.
For the US military, the post-Cold War era was not a pause, but a period of intense activism and armed intervention. Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria. American troops have also fought against various terrorist groups, usually with inconclusive results. Besides Al-Qaeda and its various “franchises”, adversaries included the Islamic State, Al Shabab, Abu Sayyaf and Boko Haram.
The cumulative financial costs of policing in post-Cold War Pax Americana currently exceed $8 trillion, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project. The scale of the overall US military effort has been extraordinary. A survey by the non-profit organization Airwars concluded that since 2001, for example, US forces have carried out more than 91,000 airstrikes resulting in the deaths of 22,000 to 48,000 civilians. American casualties were also not without consequence, with more than 7,000 American military dead and more than 53,000 American soldiers wounded, many of them seriously. Veteran suicides and the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder have reached troubling levels.
So if the United States took a sabbatical after the Cold War, the troops never got the word.
Meanwhile, the national security apparatus continues on autopilot. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen rotate between hundreds of U.S. military bases in more than 80 countries around the world each year, even as NATO expansion has increased the number of countries it serves by 14. they are supposed to defend. Pentagon spending is still on the rise. This year, Congress appropriated billions more than the White House asked for.
As the world’s largest arms dealer, the United States continues to sell or donate billions of advanced weapons every year, much to the delight of arms manufacturers. Ongoing efforts to upgrade the US nuclear strike force, to the tune of around $2 trillion, offer further proof that the United States has not gone on an extended vacation.
Why has the history of the past few decades proved impervious to the forceful efforts of Washington? Rather than inaction or passivity, this problem reflects a pattern of American arrogance and madness. With a recklessness that has at times rivaled that of Putin, policymakers in Washington have misread the signs of the times, wasting American power while overlooking domestic and international issues – the climate crisis being one example – that demand attention. urgent. The evidence is overwhelming: Gates and other members of the political elite have massively misinterpreted the purposes of history and American capabilities.
In his captivating presentation to Congress last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remarked that “to be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.” Becoming a leader of peace will require the United States to audit the errors to which the Pax Americana gave birth. A different course is called for, one centered on caution, restraint, and modesty about what freedom entails or demands.
Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.