Andrew J. Bacevich's The Limits of Power: the End of American Exceptionalism describes the causes and intoxicating impact of America's emergence as the one dominant world force in the last half of the 20th century. While the book speaks of foreign policy and elected political leaders, the seduction of presumed importance is equally possible in all sorts of leadership environments - business, education, arts and others.
Quoting Rheinhold Neibuhr's Beyond Tragedy (1937), "One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun." What a stunning statement and how tragic - Egypt, Rome, Austria, Britain ... The problem wasn't that these civilizations had lost their power but that their power had become so vast that their social fabric disintegrated from within as innovation, creativity, and outward-looking engagement declined. Each of these civilizations were still expanding at the time they began to die. The vulnerability was the presumption that other peoples, civilizations, and forms of life seemed not to add any value beyond what their own culture provided.
While Bacevich's book is a critique of America's current political and military role in the world, there are many other warnings that can be drawn from its pages. The danger of superiority is that it limits our ability to understand how others view us and it may even obscure our ability to see ourselves in a realistic light. A warning of the political predicament in which the U.S.A. now finds itself was foretold in 1979 by then President Jimmy Carter who, while addressing the energy crisis of the day, said, "In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption." Carter's words were countered by his political opponents who won the Whitehouse by promising that the U.S.A. had not yet reached its zenith and would go on to greater heights. The credit-based spending of the following two and one-half decades fulfilled the "greater heights" with the biggest Bull market of all time and the near collapse of the world economy in the Great Recession of 2007-08.
Carter's warning was avoided not only by his political detractors but by the American people themselves. And with the end of the Cold War and the shock of 9-11-01, asserting superiority over others through military and economic means seemed even logical. The only problem was that the domination allowed for ever-increasing military expenditures and a belief that the U.S.A. had a right and responsibility to protect its interests no matter how far from its own shores. Indeed, the Bush doctrine after 9-11-01 reflected an urgency that "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." While reflecting the frontier spirit of the U.S.A. in its founding, this view also encouraged an imperial agency around the world that we now know spread U.S.A. resources too thin and compromised its credibility around the globe. And as the resources dwindled, advocates such as Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld pushed to "Make American people realize they are surrounded in the world by violent extremists," (Washington Post, 2007) thus justifying even more expenditures.
While the critique of U.S.A. foreign policy is central in The Limits of Power, the most frightening assertion was that a nation's citizens can actually encourage their government to ignore fundamental social and economic issues by being obsessed with their own desires for comfort and luxury. The broader reality check then is if leaders, whether governmental or otherwise, might sometimes have to choose the more difficult path of challenging the wishes of peers and followers rather than perpetuating a notion of grandeur that is destructive to themselves and others.