The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory
by Andrew Bacevich (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2020), 236 pages.
Andrew Bacevich’s new book, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory, examines the period of time between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Before the Berlin Wall fell, America was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union and communism that began in the months following World War II. This Cold War enabled elites to create a consensus in the United States that purported to serve as a glue that held society together. “Except on the fringes of American politics, most citizens accepted the word from Washington that their way of life was under grave threat,” writes Bacevich.
Yes, there were crises and disagreements during the Cold War, but even then most disagreements were framed around the Cold War consensus. For instance, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. often portrayed his cause as being consistent with American values inside the Cold War struggle. Both liberal political thinkers such as Arthur Schlesinger of the Americans for Democratic Action and conservative figures such as Richard Nixon positioned themselves as leaders of a “vital center” in American politics. Starting in the 1950s, intellectuals such as Daniel Bell wrote of an overwhelming consensus in American society that would simply last forever.
According to Bacevich, only one event threatened this consensus — the Vietnam War. He notes that from 1965 to 1972, a big divide appeared between those who supported the war and those who did not. However, in hindsight he argues that “the real split — the lasting one — occurred between boomers who saw Vietnam as an event requiring them to take a forthright stand, whether for or against, and those who saw the war as no more than an annoyance, not worth attending to except as a potential impediment to the pursuit of their own ambitions.” One could argue that this trend of disengagement accelerated after the Cold War ended.
The turning point
Bacevich starts his book with a question from John Updike: “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” Once the Cold War ended in 1989, there was no massive “peace dividend.” The military-industrial complex continued on and, within a few years, America began its first war in Iraq. Then 9/11 came in 2001 and the financial markets and economy turned downward in 2008. In hindsight though, 9/11 was not the massive turning point that we were told it was at the time.
Instead, as Bacevich notes, elites created a new consensus to replace the glue of the Cold War once it ended. He argues this new Washington, D.C., “emerald city consensus” consisted of four pillars: globalization, global leadership, freedom, and presidential supremacy. However, much of that was based on delusional premises. “Binding this consensus together,” he writes, “and lending it some appearance of plausibility was technopoly — a worship of technology, the deification of technique, and the conviction that problems in any sphere of human existence will ultimately yield to a technological solution.” The consensus also assumed “material abundance on an unheralded scale” to fund this technology, do away with social inequality, and pay for the costs of the military and what would grow into endless wars.
By “globalization” Bacevich does not mean simply free trade or free markets. Globalization became a dominant meme by 1999 as the stock market turned into a bubble led by technology stocks. In that
decade, people such as Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama arose as thought leaders. Friedman linked globalization to technology causing “the compression of the world.” But in his view, it was brought by America’s Cold War victory, because “we Americans are the apostles of the Fast World, the prophets of the free market and the high priests of high tech.”
In my view, much of this discourse simply amounted to a cheerleading of the 1990s stock-market boom. Rising Internet stock prices made Friedman’s words seem credible, but when the stock market went bust the Federal Reserve lowered rates to near zero to bring another boom, this time linked to real-
estate prices that in turn came crashing down in 2008. Then the Federal Reserve had to lower interest rates to zero and create a quantitative bond-buying program to bail out Wall Street banks and create yet another boom in stocks. These stock market booms helped unite the material investments of middle- and upper-class Americans to the new consensus — one that simply replaced the Cold War, but kept all of the instruments of the Cold War intact, including those of empire.
With the Cold War over and the United States as seeming to be the only superpower, talk of the country as an “indispensable nation” became commonplace in the U.S. media. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 1992, Gen. Colin Powell, acting as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “No other nation on earth has the power we possess. More important, no other nation on earth has the trusted power that we possess. We are obligated to lead.”
In policy circles, talk of “shaping the world” became a common theme. As Bacevich writes, “Risks appeared manageable. In such circumstances, self-restraint seemed tantamount to timidity. So in national-security circles, the collective mindset began tilting toward activism. With minimal ceremony, the principal raison d’être of the American military establishment was thereby inverted.” Instead of simply national defense, the Pentagon became charged with changing the world, and technology promised it could be done with as little blood as possible. Starting with the first Iraq War, Americans saw a huge war fought with minimal American casualties. At briefings, officials were shown video clips of bombing strikes that seemed to cause damage only to surgically targeted enemies. It seemed to be a new type of wonderful warfare.
A new meme appeared inside the national-security state calling itself the Revolution in Military
Affairs or RMA. “The RMA stands in relation to war as globalization stood in relation to political economy: it purported to describe the culmination of a long evolutionary march to perfection,” writes Bacevich. So-called smart weapons promised to transform warfare so that it could be controlled and waged more effectively than ever before with American technology. It was all part of “the technology-hyped mood that characterized the post–Cold War era as a whole. By common consent, the defining characteristics of this new Information Age were speed, control, and choice,” he explains.
Of course NSA spying and mass surveillance grew out of that. And yet all of the promises of easy victory fell apart in the second Iraq War and in Afghanistan. In the end, Bacevich concludes that that was all “to the art of war what credit default swaps became to the business of banking: the means to perpetuate a breathtakingly impudent fraud.”
NSA spying, though, did not conflict with the new meaning of freedom that was part of the new consensus. Instead of freedom’s being thought of as liberty from government authority or domination by corporations or other organized groups, freedom simply meant the elimination of all cultural restraints in society against individual choices. “Leading lights of the American intelligentsia had determined that preserving abortion rights, redefining marriage, ending anti-gay
discrimination, dismantling the
patriarchy, and promoting multiculturalism now held the keys to creating a ‘more perfect Union,’” writes Bacevich. In sum it was the culture war.
Holding the consensus together
And the final pillar of presidential supremacy holding the consensus together was turning the figure of the American president into a 24/7 media star that sucked all of the oxygen out of the political culture. The wars on terror of the Bush administration had as their precursor Bill Clinton’s now-forgotten constant bombing campaigns in Yugoslavia and Iraq. Americans got so used to constant bombing during his term in office that they learned not to be afraid or even to notice war anymore. That made it easy for them to accept and even for some to crave more military action after the 9/11 attacks.
During the Bush administration that followed, Vice President Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfield, and legal advisors such as David Addington promoted the theory of the “unitary executive,” while the current attorney general, William Barr, is now its leading architect. As for Obama, in Bacevich’s view he mostly brought more of the same — helping to keep the consensus of endless wars going and keeping things intact after the 2008 financial crash.
Problems with the pillars of that consensus, though, began to crack. The promises of technology, war, and globalization turned into hubris. Donald Trump was able to win the Republican nomination as a result, portraying himself as one of the most important figures in American history, while those past leaders of the consensus, such as Thomas Friedman, who despised him, agreed and wrote against him nonstop. However, as Bacevich writes, “History is likely to judge Trump as somewhat less disruptive than he now appears (and wishes to appear) and as more of a transitory figure who simultaneously embodied and laid bare the accumulating contradictions of American life.”
There is a lot to Bacevich’s book. I have touched on only some of his insights, but one important point he makes is that the period after the Cold War through the presidency of Donald Trump has been one of continuity, thanks to the four elements of the “emerald city consensus” that all of the presidents shared.
In that light, the terrorist attacks of 2001 were not a moment of transformation. But now as we enter the final months of the first term of Trump’s presidency, we are beginning a true moment of change that is likely to last for several years. The United States is going through a triple crisis involving a global pandemic, economic slowdown with unemployment rates not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and a financial crisis all intertwined together starting in March 2020. This crisis will knock apart two pillars of the consensus that replaced the Cold War consensus.
The first consensus being knocked down is the one of financial globalization. I am not speaking simply of the economic shutdown of economies around the world and the halt of trade and movement of people by various governments in response to the pandemic, but the start of a disruptive instability in the financial markets about which investors such as Ray Dalio have been warning us for the past few years. In short, a government funding crisis. The Federal Reserve is now engaging in unlimited quantitative-easing bond-buying operations that represent what is essentially the start of the monetization of the U.S. debt. The government deficit is poised to grow to more than 10 percent of GDP, a level not seen since World War II, while unemployment levels higher than 7.9 percent add social stress to society.
While 2008 and 2000 brought with them bear markets in the stock market, almost certainly we will see inflation begin in the next few years that will cause almost everyone’s living standards to decline. The middle and upper classes that have benefited from the financial markets during the time of the “age of illusions” now will be its victims. As long as they have benefited from the markets, they were content to focus on themselves and accept all of the premises of the other pillars.
A collapse in faith in the Federal Reserve and the financial markets could lead to the collapse of the second consensus pillar of “freedom” as defined by the “emerald city consensus” — meaning that the culture wars of the past few decades would come to be seen as meaningless and superfluous. The “me only” focus would out of necessity go away.
That would end up being a good thing, because a return to fundamentals can bring a more meaningful idea of what “freedom” actually means so that we can hope for a better consensus and return to liberty thinking before the end of this decade. But for that to happen the pillars of “global leadership” and “presidential supremacy” will also have to be knocked down. Then the time could come when people finally ask themselves the fundamental question: What is freedom?
This article was originally published in the November 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.