One of the great dramas of the twentieth century involved the redefinition of the United States’ role in the world. The US had isolated itself from European quarrels from 1815 to 1915—although the Northern victory in the civil war had an enormous influence upon the advent of democracy in Britain in 1867, and probably in Germany and France as well. In 1898 the US joined the imperialist scramble after the war with Spain, acquiring the Philippines and proclaiming influence over Cuba and new, special rights in Latin America. But as late as 1915, when the sinking of the Lusitania first threatened to draw the US into war with Germany, the issue remained violently controversial. When President Wilson announced that he would hold the Germans to a “strict accountability” for any further such outrages, his Secretary of State, three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, resigned. Wilson’s stance, he said, would inevitably draw America into the war, and the government should instead simply tell American citizens that henceforth they could travel to Europe at their own risk.
Already, however, as Charles A. Beard pointed out during the 1930s, some American politicians—mostly Republicans—had laid out new principles that would give the United States a kind of dominion over the entire globe, based on our economic needs. One such was Senator Albert Beveridge, a famous Progressive, who essentially adopted approvingly the same thesis that the liberal J. A. Hobson and the Bolshevik Lenin were developing from a critical perspective—that the demands of capitalism required economic expansion. Around the turn of the century Beveridge stated the case thusly:
“American factories are making more than the American people can use; American soil is producing more than they can consume. Fate has written our policy for us; the trade of the world must and shall be ours. And we will get it as our mother [England] has told us how. We will establish trading-posts throughout the world as distributing-points for American products. We will cover the ocean with our merchant marine. We will build a navy to the measure of our greatness. Great colonies governing themselves, flying our flag and trading with us, will grow about our posts of trade. Our institutions will follow our flag on the wings of our commerce. And American law, American order, American civilization, and the American flag will plant themselves on shores hitherto bloody and benighted, but by those agencies of God henceforth to be made beautiful and bright.”
Interestingly enough, the idea that the spread of our economy can spread our values survives today in the belief that free markets and democracy go together. In other ways, however, our economic needs have changed. We no longer produce surpluses—indeed, we make, and grow, less and less of what we consume every year. Our trade deficit is enormous and unprecedented. Our corporations require free access to the rest of the world—and especially its poorer parts—not to sell goods, but to invest capital where wages are low, hours are long, and environmental regulations hardly exist. And meanwhile, we depend on imported oil, a dependency which has gradually led us deeper and deeper into the affairs of the Middle East, where so much of the world’s oil is located. Indeed, one could easily argue that since the 1973 embargo and the accompanying price rise, much of our foreign policy has been devoted to making sure that Middle Eastern states spent their oil revenues in ways we found congenial, such as construction contracts with American firms, investments in American debt, and weapons that they would use only to further American interests. Our long quarrel with Saddam Hussein, one might suggest, began in 1990 when he proved that we could no longer trust him, and the Bush Administration decided to overthrow him because it was becoming harder and harder to maintain sanctions and they did not believe they could prevent him from spending his revenues on support for terrorism (as he was in Palestine) and potentially on new weapons of mass destruction.
When President Wilson did decide to enter the First World War, he made the promotion of democracy his most important war aim, and endorsed the idea that a democracy in Germany would be more pacific than its existing constitutional monarchy. Not only were those hopes dashed when the Nazis eventually took power largely through democratic means, but Beveridge’s vision of an open international order collapsed during the 1920s and 1930s as well.
When the Second World War began, Franklin Roosevelt quickly identified the Axis as a worldwide threat to American values and interests. In a political master stroke, he defined American and British war aims before the United States had even entered the war, in the Atlantic Charter he issued with Winston Churchill in August, 1941.
“The President of the United States of America and the Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, representing His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world.
“First, their countries seek no aggrandizement, territorial or other;
“Second, they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned;
“Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;
“Fourth, they will endeavor, with due respect for their existing obligations, to further the enjoyment by all States, great or small, victor or vanquished, of access, on equal terms, to the trade and to the raw materials of the world which are needed for their economic prosperity;
“Fifth, they desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security;
“Sixth, after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny, they hope to see established a peace which will afford to all nations the means of dwelling in safety within their own boundaries, and which will afford assurance that all the men in all the lands may live out their lives in freedom from fear and want;
“Seventh, such a peace should enable all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance;
“Eighth, they believe that all of the nations of the world, for realistic as well as spiritual reasons must come to the abandonment of the use of force. Since no future peace can be maintained if land, sea or air armaments continue to be employed by nations which threaten, or may threaten, aggression outside of their frontiers, they believe, pending the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security, that the disarmament of such nations is essential. They will likewise aid and encourage all other practicable measures which will lighten for peace-loving peoples the crushing burden of armaments.”
In 1945 these principles became, in essence, the founding principles of the United Nations. Perhaps their most striking emphasis is the independence of various states and their right to choose their own form of government. They include economic liberalization, but they specifically link it to improved labor conditions and social security. And they propose the disarmament of the aggressors and the gradual disarmament of other states as well as the long-term solution to the problem of war and peace. Because Europe has never abandoned these principles, Europe and the United States are now on different paths. This is especially true in the economic field. The American business press routinely criticizes the European nations for failing to get with the program and use international competition to force European labor to give up the gains it has made over the last 50 years. Indeed, the expansion of the European Union into Eastern Europe now threatens to have that impact.
It seems to me possible that a Democratic presidential candidate might take the Atlantic Charter as a starting point for a more reasonable foreign policy of his own, but meanwhile, we have moved in quite a different direction. A tolerant world based on mutual respect is no long enough. Here, once again, is the opening of the new National Security Strategy that the Bush Administration adopted in 2002.
“The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise. In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity. People everywhere want to be able to speak freely; choose who will govern them; worship as they please; educate their children—male and female; own property; and enjoy the benefits of their labor. These values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society—and the duty of protecting these values against their enemies is the common calling of freedom-loving people across the globe and across the ages.
“Today, the United States enjoys a position of unparalleled military strength and great economic and political influence. In keeping with our heritage and principles, we do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage. We seek instead to create a balance of power that favors human freedom: conditions in which all nations and all societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty. In a world that is safe, people will be able to make their own lives better. We will defend the peace by fighting terrorists and tyrants. We will preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers. We will extend the peace by encouraging free and open societies on every continent.”
Instead of respecting “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live,” we now proclaim that we know what form of government that should be. Instead of increasing social security and pushing for “improved labor standards,” we now simply endorse peoples’ right “to enjoy the benefits of their labor”—especially, if the Administration’s tax policies are any guide, better-off people. And instead of looking forward to disarmament around the world, we boast of our military superiority and the benefits it should bring, and announce that we shall simply disarm any nation that seeks weapons we do not think it should have. The phrase, “a balance of power that favors human freedom,” seems somewhat anomalous within the broader document, and probably represented a concession to the Department of State. Balance implies opposition, and the basic documents of this Administration leave little room for opposition.
In his inaugural address last January the President laid out even more sweeping goals.
“The great objective of ending tyranny is the concentrated work of generations. The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause.
“My most solemn duty is to protect this nation and its people against further attacks and emerging threats. Some have unwisely chosen to test America's resolve, and have found it firm.
“We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: The moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right. America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.
“We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America's belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.”
This was not simply idle rhetoric. Led by the new Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice, Administration officials now travel the globe lecturing other states for failing to live up to our standards. This does not seem to be improving our standing worldwide very much. The Secretary suffered a setback this weekend, when the Egyptian government prevented a conference of Arab states from adopting a joint declaration on democracy and a plan for subsidizing democratic groups. And the President found on his trip to Latin America that anti-Americanism apparently has more resonance to the South than his own plan for extending NAFTA across the entire hemisphere. The rhetoric seems more idle, or empty, when compared to what is happening here in the United States, where the President refuses to allow anyone who might disagree with him into his public appearances and the government releases less public information than any Administration in history.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, the introduction of democracy—or at least, elections—has had some paradoxical effects. The elections have allowed the Kurds and Shi’ites to take giant steps towards setting up at least semi-independent states in the north and south of Iraq—but they have done nothing to convince the Sunnis, who ruled a united Iraq for 80 years, that the country should dissolve. Civil war and ethnic cleansing have already begun. The influence of fundamentalist Islam is increasing, rather than decreasing.
In continually attempting to extend its power further and further, the United States is following in the path of nearly every great empire, including Athens, Rome, Napoleonic France, and Imperial Germany. (Britain was somewhat exceptional because of its lack of a large army—and Britain did not entertain the fantasy that it could extend its power by extending British institutions all over the world.) Each of those nations also entertained some version of the idea embodied in the National Security Strategy, that it was destined to continue expanding because it had discovered some fundamental secret of life. But each one (and here again Britain was the exception) eventually came to grief as a result of diplomatic and military catastrophe. Our own need to adjust our goals to more reasonable levels before we encounter something similar is among the greatest challenges of our entire history.
P.S. Next weekend I shall be attending a conference in Dallas on the Kennedy Assassination, the subject of my next book, and will not have an opportunity to post. Happy Thanksgiving to all!