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What does America owe the world?
The continuing debate
What does America owe the world?
(b) A good example
(c) Diplomatic and military support
If you chose (a), you would be in a small minority of Americans historically. For reasons of national pride, of ambition and of political calculation, American leaders and presumably the voters who elected them have consistently held that America matters to other people and therefore has an obligation to the world.
The nature of that obligation, however, has been hotly debated. John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, kicked things off in 1630 by proclaiming the English settlement there to be “a city upon a hill,” a beacon to the world. Other peoples would be watching to see if the experiment succeeded or failed, and would be guided accordingly. America owed the world a good example—answer (b).
Until independence, America could offer little more, being subject to the policies of the British government. Yet once America developed a foreign policy of its own, demands arose for that policy to be directed to the betterment of other peoples. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, nationalist revolutionaries in Latin America and Greece called upon the United States for aid in their struggles against Spain and the Ottoman empire respectively. Their appeals resonated in Congress, where Henry Clay contended that America owed at least diplomatic support to those who were following America’s lead in trying to cast off their colonial masters.
John Quincy Adams, secretary of state, rebuffed the appeals. America was not a crusading nation, he said. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be,” he declared on July 4, 1821. “But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” To do more would imperil America’s very essence. “She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
Adams’s dictum—an emphatic (b)—guided American foreign policy until the end of the nineteenth century. But as American power grew, so did the temptation to employ that power. And the temptation gave rise to explanations of how American power could be used to benefit others. Popular support for the American war against Spain in 1898 was fanned by concern over atrocities committed by Spanish colonial authorities in Cuba. And when Woodrow Wilson led the United States into World War I, he did so declaring America’s unselfish ideals. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” said Wilson. “Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make.”
Wilson’s armed idealism—answer (c)—helped the Allied Powers win the war, but it suffered a setback after the war when the U.S. Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and an American role in the League of Nations. Yet the notion that the world required America’s armed leadership returned with the onset of World War II. In his State of the Union address in January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt spoke of a renewed commitment to employing American power in the service of the world. “In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms,” Roosevelt said. “The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”
Roosevelt’s interventionist vision—an expansion of Wilson’s (c)—guided America through World War II and into the Cold War. Harry Truman adapted the view for the struggle against communism. In the 1947 speech unveiling what became known as the Truman Doctrine, Truman declared, “It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”
The Truman Doctrine provided the keystone of containment, the policy that propelled U.S. armed forces into Korea in the 1950s and Vietnam in the 1960s. The American defeat in Vietnam dented American confidence, but enough remained for Ronald Reagan to double down on containment by ramping up the pressure on the Soviet Union and its allies and proxies. Reagan armed anti-leftist contras in Nicaragua and anti-Russian mujahideen in Afghanistan. And he stood at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and bellowed to his Soviet counterpart, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
The American victory in the Cold War in the early 1990s appeared a vindication of the policy of forcibly assisting freedom abroad. That policy underwrote America’s ouster of Iraq from Kuwait in the Gulf War of 1991. Answer (c) appeared to have carried all before it.
Things changed, however, after the beginning of the twenty-first century. The threats and challenges to America grew more diffuse, and American policy lost focus. Combating terrorism was as much a job for police as for soldiers. And the economic competition with an emerging China didn’t lend itself to the strategies that had carried the United States to victory in the two world wars and the Cold War.
The election of Donald Trump restored a certain focus to American policy, but in doing so suggested that for the first time in the country’s history, the official answer to the question about America’s obligation to the world might be (a): Nothing. Trump’s campaign slogan “America First” and his actions as president revealed a belief that America’s policy should be based on nothing besides American self-interest, materially defined and measured in the short term. Trump cast doubt on America’s commitment to NATO and other multilateral organizations; he spurned suggestions of American responsibility for tackling climate change; he overturned decades of support for free trade; he punished allies for not toeing his novel new line; he cozied up to dictators. To top things off, he gravely undermined America’s good example by attacking the fundamental democratic principle of accepting the results of honest elections.
And millions of Americans approved. What this meant for the future was hard to say. Joe Biden attempted to put America back in the (c) camp. But Trump hovered on the sidelines. And four centuries of thinking about America’s obligation to the world remained at risk.