American exceptionalism – an interview with Professor Andrew Bacevich

Photo of Andrew Bacevich

On 8 July, Phoenix Media Co-op spoke to Andrew Bacevich, a retired US Army Colonel and Professor of international relations. We talked about the role of the US in world affairs and the notion of American exceptionalism.

American Exceptionalism


If we are looking for an ultimate explanation for why the United States does what it does in the world, why we have the biggest military budget by far, why we have bases around the world, why we intervene in places like Iraq, I think an explanation is American exceptionalism, this idea of American chosen-ness.

I have to say that when I was growing up I probably unthinkingly embraced that notion, that somehow or other the United States is called upon to lead the world, to bring the world to some destination. I certainly don’t believe that any longer. And I think that the persistence of that belief, which is very widespread in American society, has pernicious effects. And only if we can shed this belief in our uniqueness, in our chosen-ness, only then will it become possible to come to a more realistic and reasoned and prudent approach to policy.

Sadly, I don’t see any evidence that’s going to happen anytime soon. But it’s my view that, if we could drive a stake through the concept of American exceptionalism, the United States would be better off and probably the rest of the world would be better off as well.

A question of US leadership?

Phoenix Media Co-op mentioned the recent violence in Afghanistan and in Haiti. How does Bacevich respond to calls for America to “lead”?

Well, I guess my response is we don’t live in the 1940s and the 1950s anymore, that the world has changed. It is – I think – a multipolar order. We don’t live in a unipolar order. The United States is not the sole superpower.

And I also… when people make that argument I just… I get confused because where we have demonstrated the leadership that they call for us to demonstrate, things have not worked out very well.

Iraq and Afghanistan

If George W Bush’s Iraq War, inaugurated in 2003, […] had produced a stable, democratic Iraq, then I might say: ‘Well. Yes, maybe that’s a good idea.’ If Afghanistan today were a stable, liberal, democratic country, almost twenty years after we intervened there, I guess I would say: ‘Well, it cost a lot. But, by golly, we got the job done.’ That’s simply not the case.


You and I are speaking when it appears that Haiti is on the verge of one of its periodic crises. Of course, we have a long history with Haiti. We occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. A succession of US Presidents in those days insisted that our presence in Haiti was going to have a positive effect. It didn’t. Haiti continues to be the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, continues to have this record of periodic instability.

And I suppose it’s possible to make an argument that we should once more intervene in Haiti, clean that place up, install a stable government, bring democracy, end corruption, promote economic development. But there is no reason for us to expect that we would actually achieve those admirable goals.

“The decision makers in Washington don’t know what they are doing.”

The argument that we have to lead is based on the premise that somebody has to lead. That at the end of day there has to be one country that exercises global primacy. I don’t know where that idea comes from. It seems to me to be something that some Americans want to claim because they have rather grandiose expectations of what decision makers in Washington can do. I tend to think the decision makers in Washington don’t know what they are doing. They are plunging into situations that they actually do not understand. And they sort of hope for the best. Sometimes it works out, a lot of times it doesn’t. “

About the interviewee

A retired US Army Colonel, Bacevich is President of the Quincy Institute and Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University. He is the author of several books, including The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory and After the Apocalypse. America’s Role in a World Transformed.

Main article image via Quincy Institute (supplied)

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