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HomeBlogAfter Exceptionalism: A Review of Andrew Bacevich’s After the Apocalypse

After Exceptionalism: A Review of Andrew Bacevich’s After the Apocalypse

By Christopher Mott

We often hear how 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic have changed everything, yet very rarely do we get to see this increasingly over-used talking point of a shifting paradigm applied to conceptions of foreign policy and grand strategy apropos of the world’s most powerful state, the United States of America. Prolific author and Quincy Institute President Andrew Bacevich, however, has sought to rectify this oversight with his new book After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. More importantly, Bacevich does not pin the decline of U.S. statecraft solely on the pandemic, but rather uses recent events as a foil for advocating the necessary re-examination of U.S. history and to unravel the many myths that uphold an increasingly crumbling liberal international order. 

After the Apocalypse is effectively an unofficial sequel to last year’s “Tomorrow the World” by Stephen Wertheim, then also part of the Quincy Institute. The latter made the historical case that what is now often derided as interwar isolationism was in practice anything but, and that the United States had made a conscious choice after the fall of France in 1940 to become a truly global hegemon. This choice meant denigrating all alternatives of grand strategy as quixotic and unviable. Bacevich begins his narrative on the heels of this era at the start of the Cold War, showing how anti-Soviet containment produced interventions of dubious strategic value which called into question the seemingly liberationist rhetoric of America’s foreign policy establishment. The Vietnam War, in which Bacevich had himself served, is presented as a particularly myth-shattering event, forcing a once exclusive and myopic class of foreign policy mandarins to make concessions and reformulate policy as the general American public turned hostile to that conflict. 

It is this long-serving class of imperial managers at the helm of U.S. foreign policy for whom Bacevich reserves much ire in After the Apocalypse. Specifically, he focuses on how these elites seem to become less effective with time. His analysis draws attention on the post-Cold War (and especially Post 9/11) American penchant for military interventionism, the overwhelming failure of these ventures, and the institutional failure to learn from past mistakes. Bacevich argues that one reason the foreign policy establishment (cf. the blob) is so hidebound is due to their belief in the civic religion of American Exceptionalism—the view that casts U.S. history as inherently a teleological, missionary struggle for the advancement of human liberty within the confines of a liberal political framework. 

This dominant ideology professes that a set of foundational principles inherent in American founding reserve a special role for the United States government in ensuring the progress of humanity toward equality and democracy. Bacevich, on the other hand, rejects such false narratives by critically examining the real-life consequences of this mindset and its failures. As the tragic fate of American’s regime change wars in the Middle East (such as the disaster in Afghanistan) have demonstrated, the massive toll of interventionism has only accelerated and increased through the decades. 

Despite the many historical examples of imperial overreach and the dangers that it presents to U.S. diplomacy, economic health, and domestic civil liberties, Bacevich’s systemic repudiation of American beneficence and exceptionalism are only the scaffolding to support his vision of the emergent world order. The world today is drastically different from both the Cold War and the brief unipolar moment that came after it. The Covid-19 pandemic is not the beginning stage in the end of unipolarity but the final nail in its coffin. China is now strong enough to carve its own path forward. The European states can defend themselves without American backing. should they be left on their own to do so. More and more countries around the world see the United States, not as a guarantor of their stability, but rather as a force that could undermine it through reckless action. Further expansion of imperial policies, therefore, decrease American security and influence rather than affirm it. 

Understanding that the U.S. ability to dictate the course of history on a truly global scale is narrowing, Bacevich wishes Washington would pivot to more sustainable policies that enable the country to keep a prime position in global affairs without stumbling into further disasters. His recommendations to do this are simple yet logical: refocus security on mutual defense with geographically continuous nations and hemispheric neighbors. As such, Canada and Mexico emerge as the true “special relationships” for the U.S. if policymakers use any remotely objective and sound strategic analysis.

This rebalancing of spending priorities from a bloated defense establishment back towards quality-of-life and technological innovations, Bacevich believes, would enable growth of sustainable energy and infrastructure. Such a vision could be realized by using the military and sanctions as a last resort rather than a reflexive first and by means of adopting a strategic posture which is nimbler and more capable of ad-hoc balancing rather than striving for total world domination. Put simply, Bacevich suggests that the U.S. should leverage its core advantages to become a much more normal, albeit still great, power. The reoriented United States would be a republic engaged in projects of self-improvement rather than running a messianic empire. One that will remain an important country in international affairs but would affirm its role as a guarantor of peace rather than an agent of upheaval. The civic example of the United States must first be strengthened at home: America stands as a model for voluntary emulation by foreign countries rather than a ‘Shining City on a Hill’ advancing a millenarian quest by force.

There is, perhaps, one argument Bacevich advances with which a realist reader could take issue. Bacevich cites America’s racial reckoning over police violence and counter-narratives to hegemonic and chauvinistic teachings of American history (such as the 1619 Project) as examples of people coming to question the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism. Though he hardly addresses the issue directly, it seems that he is sympathetic to such narratives that cast America and her founding as steeped in racism rather than liberty as a means of questioning old and outdated shibboleths. Of course, affirming such narratives only replaces one ideological straitjacket with another and retains the assumption of unique national insight as it does so. And, as we increasingly see from rhetoric advanced by many in the establishment, a narrative of contrition and guilt can become just as much a call to exceptionalism and even interventionism as former ascendant movements like Christian nationalism and neoconservatism once were.

If a governing establishment comes to identify with human rights and historical contrition as its raison d’etre, it could once more lead the state down the toxic path of militarized humanitarian interventionism such as that championed by figures like Samantha Power. Perhaps then, it would be prudent to refrain from positing overarching meta-narrative of statecraft that would impose a selective historiography of any kind—save that of survival, necessity, and sovereignty. Such a position would certainly be more in line with the rest of the arguments of After the Apocalypse

Bacevich has given those who advocate for a paradigm shift in U.S. foreign policy that would better reflect a multipolar world an excellent and accessible book with both lucid and passionate prose. It is a kind of introductory work that could be shared with people who know little about international affairs to increase their awareness of the ‘realism and restraint’ movement in North Atlantic foreign policy and makes a sound case for its pertinence and necessity. Considering the upheavals in the international system and the challenges they generate to old orthodoxies and idealisms of our world today, After the Apocalypse is a welcome addition to a new realist mode of thinking we desperately need.

Dr. Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. 


Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor