Rethinking Foreign Policy

Middlesex juniors studying U.S. history this year were in luck on October 10, for the School’s guest speaker that evening was noted American foreign policy expert Andrew Bacevich – author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War – which was assigned summer reading for the junior class.

Now a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, Professor Bacevich is a West Point graduate who was a career officer in the U.S. Army, serving in Vietnam and rising to the rank of Colonel before his retirement. Giving the juniors, in particular, a “40-minute synopsis” of his most recent book, he summarized its central points and described the underpinnings of post-WWII military decision-making in Washington, which he says are consistent no matter which political party occupies the Oval Office.

The “Washington Rules,” as he calls them, consist of two elements that he says are deeply embedded in American consciousness. First is “the Credo,” which he described as a series of assertions about how the international order ought to work; and second is “the Sacred Trinity,” or three assumptions that support and advocate the use of military power over the less aggressive path of diplomacy.

The four convictions that comprise “the Credo,” Professor Bacevich detailed, include the ideas that the world much be “shaped” to prevent a state of chaos; that only the U.S. possesses the capacity to carry out that necessary organization; that everyone understands these first two points, except for rogues and terrorists; and that the U.S. must specify the appropriate principles by which the world order should operate.

Washington’s preference for the use of military might in demonstrating its leadership, Professor Bacevich said, “obliges the U.S. to maintain a military that is beyond what is needed for self-defense.” This practice of maintaining a global presence for power projection, rather than defense, is not only too expensive but is also not effective in the modern world. “The shortcomings are evident,” he argued, “though those invested in these rules will deny it.” But creating an alternative, he recognized, is a daunting challenge. “When will we devise new rules according to American preferences, not Washington’s?” he asked in closing.

Prepared juniors were ready with questions, wondering whether or not military intervention is always bad and asking if the U.S. should revert to a foreign policy like the Monroe Doctrine. Adjourning to the Wood Theatre’s Green Room, Professor Bacevich answered questions for another half hour, giving students plenty to discuss in their history classes that week.

© 2011 Middlesex School