“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations;
cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
—George Washington, Farewell Address
For its first 125 years, America lived a very internally focused life. Memories of continual wars for empires in Europe and the Middle East were still fresh in American minds. America instead concentrated its energies on becoming a legitimate country, creating its new democratically elected government, establishing its laws and institutions, and expanding its reach across the continent with new member states. Foreign wars intruded on occasion: we successfully fought the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Given the geographical isolation provided by the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, we minded our own business and avoided the destructive entrapments of other countries.
That began to change around 1900 when big businesses saw new opportunities for profit by gaining control over foreign resources and markets. It would be an economic conquest, principally into South & Central American nations and the Pacific islands. Sugar, rubber, and produce were among the bounty; buying up local businesses and properties were the weapons. When America defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War, America gained new resource-rich colonies principally in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. A new “American Empire” had begun, in spite of vigorous objection and debate by many concerned Americans. Businessmen held the power; they brought several presidents on to their side; the U.S. Army subdued and controlled the foreign territories – often brutally – against local insurgents and revolutionaries seeking freedom from our domination. President Theodore Roosevelt’s Panama Canal epitomized the whole adventure.
We continued to avoid entanglements with European conflicts until near the end of WW1, when Germany attacked U.S. ships and threatened war against us. We reluctantly entered the fray; our presence turned the tide to victory with our allies. Then we packed up and went home, disillusioned by the whole adventure. President Woodrow Wilson tried to use the occasion through his “14 Points” to create a new League of Nations for peace, but Americans wanted no part of it. They had done the job that needed to be done, and went back to their isolationist views.
Unfortunately, the “war to end all wars” did not. “America First” isolationists held the day through the 1930s Great Depression amid new rounds of wars breaking out across the globe. That changed with Pearl Harbor and a total commitment to defeat the Axis forces. A year before WW2 ended, President Franklin Roosevelt began to look ahead and plan for a post-war world that would begin to end the centuries of misery and desolation from constant conflict. Further, America – which had led the way militarily – would now lead the way toward peace. The deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians – many suffering horribly cruel fates – demanded a new direction. And a new leader.
First came rebuilding the rubble and devastation of Europe to remove a principal motivation for war. Japan’s government was reconstituted to forbid future warring. Standing military alliances were created to ensure permanent protection for diverse member states. Democratic governments replaced despots and returned power to the citizenry. Global colonies of Europe and America became independent nations. International trade and financial structures were expanded; nationalist barriers were reduced. Poverty as a principle cause of war was recognized. America – the wealthiest and strongest post-war country – supported these noble efforts financially through gifts of foreign aid, and militarily by strategically distributing its troops across the globe. “The America Century” began.
As with most noble causes, it was not all smooth sailing. The “cold war” with Russia dominated many foreign strategy decisions for 40 years. We aligned ourselves with too many minor despots who played us for money vis-à-vis Russia. We occasionally threw our weight around and acted as the “bad big brother,” too often telling other nations what to do instead of working with them. Clandestine operations against governments we did not like (e.g. Iran, Chile) put us at odds with our promises. A “draw” war in Korea, then Viet Nam, and now Afghanistan and the Middle East, have left many Americans exhausted with our international role.
In spite of our failures and continuing problems yet to be solved, there have been many successes. There has been no breakout of a major land war except in the volatile but contained Middle East arena. Health, education, and income statistics globally are all to the better, though much still needs to be done. The European Union has transcended a thousand years of conflicts. The Berlin Wall came down; the USSR broke up into separate independent nations; Northern Ireland is finally at peace. Notwithstanding their birth pangs, new nations have come onto the scene asserting their distinctive identities. We see many other success stories – both big and small – happening alongside the steps backwards. Whatever relationship strains continue to arise, we are still talking more than we are shooting at each other.
The key to these and future international successes is contained in three words: Stability, Cooperation, and Leadership. World security and international finance hate surprises. Stability calms people’s concerns, allows them to reasonably forecast the future, and permits plans made to become plans accomplished. Stability requires Cooperation, the majority of people heading towards the same general destination, helping one another out, even if moving separately. Cooperation requires at least one standout leader: pointing the direction; marshalling the effort; offering a plan or method; inspiring by example. 12 post-war U.S. Presidents in sequence made that commitment to Leadership, however flawed some of their detailed plans. On balance, the world is in a better place thanks to each of their collective efforts. It is against this backdrop of consistency that our international role must be measured.
Thus came Donald Trump, our 13th President in this sequence. In his first year in office, under the mantle once again of “America First,” American Leadership in the world has been pulled back. State Department positions and foreign embassies are unfilled. Cooperation has been replaced by “go it alone,” leaving Stability hopelessly mangled. Donald Trump has turned the established world framework upside down. He prefers 1:1 deal-making rather than multi-lateral coordinated actions. We are scraping multi-national trade agreements (e.g. NAFTA; TPP); as a result, other nations are going it alone, signing agreements among themselves without American participation. We abruptly recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital after 70 years of consistently not doing so, a move condemned by most of the world and damaging negotiations for the elusive Middle East peace. We are the only nation among 200 not participating in the Paris Climate Accord, even though America led drafting the initiative and no nation is forced to accept climate mandates. We have threatened to unilaterally cancel military commitments (NATO; SEATO; various Russian missile agreements; Iran nuclear limitations).We are instituting new trade tariffs “to protect American jobs,” even though they will ultimately make foreign goods more expensive for American consumers and will protect virtually no net American jobs. We were once the welcoming beacon of hope for refugees and immigrants looking for a better life for themselves and their families. Now we are shutting our door to their creative talents based upon their racial background, falsely accusing them of all being “terrorists.” We treat Russia with kid gloves even as we pull the rug out from under our principal allies. In the void of our Leadership departure, China and Russia are happily positioning themselves to fill the gap we are leaving behind.
It may all play well with the American home audience for now. But nervous world leaders are already quietly writing us off, ignoring us, going their own way. We have traded Stability for chaos, and given up Leadership to be a follower. The full ramifications of our abrogation of Leadership will not be clear for a while. When they are clear, it will likely be too late to recover.
Each nation is at its own unique position with respect to its development and maturation. Therefore progress in our global civilization is inevitably erratic. But for the last 75 years, America has been able to reasonably articulate and embody where we all need to go together. 50 years from now when historians review the American Story, they will likely point to 2017 as the beginning of the end to America’s preeminence. No country’s prominence in the world lasts forever, as the forgotten empires of Greece, Rome, and England demonstrate. It seems quite surprising to see America’s time for world Leadership come to such a deliberate but early end.
© 2018 Randy Bell www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com