U.S. World Involvement: Motivations, Cultural Baggage, Concerns, and a Goal
What follows is a brief overview of United States foreign relations from the late nineteenth century to the present day. There were three main topics of interest pursued in the paper. First were the reasons behind sending United States companies and soldiers overseas: To spread American culture, to protect the world for freedom and equality, and out of sympathy. Second was the cultural baggage that we brought with us, primarily racial and sexual inequality. The inconsistency of between the U.S.’s internal and external policies was then pointed out. This led to the third topic in the paper; a discussion of what should be the goal of the U.S. with regards to the rest of the world.
Officially, the United States became a nation in 1783 when the United Kingdom recognized our independence. Over the next century, the country was involved in a number of wars but these were strictly self-interested conflicts; a war to preserve our independence, a war to preserve our existence as a single nation, and many wars that brought us new territories. That all ended in 1898 with the Spanish-American War. In that year, the citizens of the U.S. became so enraged with Spanish cruelties in Cuba that the population forced Congress to declare war.
The immediate results were self-apparent; Cuba won its freedom and the United States acquired several Spanish colonies in the Pacific. However, there were many not-so-obvious results from the war. As the possessors of territories not settled outside of the continental United States, we had come upon a larger stage. In a way, 1898 marks our awakening as a member of an international community. Since that day, the way we have looked at the world has slowly changed; after 1898, we have had three main motivations for sending our citizens into foreign countries – the spread of American culture, the protection of freedom and equality, and sympathy.
Our first reason seems extremely egotistical at first, and at times it has been. However, when the Founding Fathers first wrote out the Declaration of Independence and much later the Constitution they were laying the foundations for an entire system of government based on the political writings of the day’s greatest philosophers. Not since the Roman Republic had the world seen a true democracy. As a result, when the South American colonies won their freedom their independence and looked for inspiration in their own governments they imitated the U.S.
We have felt pride in that and have been guided by it. When the U.S. won the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico after the Spanish-American War U.S. forces occupied them (U.S. History, 2008). When U.S. companies and soldiers have come to foreign countries, it is with the belief that they represent something innately superior to the native government.
Our attitude was a little different with Europe, but we still hoped to make a strong impression there. Before World War I, many U.S. citizens studied in Germany for graduate work (Walton, 2005, p. 259) and afterward France became the focal point of undergraduate study abroad. By having students study abroad, it was hoped that they would make other countries more aware of the United States’ culture (Walton, 2005, p. 255-257). Since the 1920s, studying abroad has become an accepted part of the U.S. educational experience.
During World War II a new motivation for leaving the country emerged; protecting the world from dictators. Both Germany and Japan threatened to take over the world at that time. Speeches, especially from President Roosevelt, had been informing U.S. citizens of the threat and emotionally preparing them to fight against both countries (Roosevelt, 1940). Once the U.S. did declare and won, all of Germany, Japan, and their ally Italy’s conquests were given their freedom back. Even more impressive, the offending countries were eventually allowed complete independence again.
After the war a third motivation developed, a real sympathy for other countries we saw as our technological equals. George C. Marshall’s “The Marshall Plan Speech” laid out his idea about giving aid to our former allies and enemies by presenting the problem faced by families in Europe; their industries were destroyed and they were growing fewer crops than their populations needed (Marshall, 1947). He argued that giving them food and the supplies they needed to rebuild their economies was simply the right thing to do. The American public agreed with him.
Communism became the next major obstacle of freedom and equality. The Korean War, the Vietnam War (Johnson, 1965), and the Cuban Missile Crisis were all a part of that policy. However, President Kennedy introduced other nonmilitary ways of combatting the threat. The Peace Corps came into being to help less developed nations. Kennedy also hoped that receiving food and education, as well as a taste of American culture, at the hands of a democratic nation might make these politically unstable countries less likely to accept Communism (U.S. History, 2008).
In its place, radical Muslim groups have emerged as the leading worldwide threat, and because of that the main reason for sending U.S. troops abroad (U.S. History, 2008). Since 1990, we have had two wars against Iraq and occupied several Arab countries in our efforts to stabilize the region and gain some measure of control over Muslim terrorism.
As a student, what strikes me as duplicitous is the cultural baggage we have brought to the countries we were “protecting” since we first walked onto the world stage. The United States first went to war to protect freedom and equality in 1898. The Cold War started in 1945 and effectively ended in 1989. The “War on Terror” really began around 1990 and seems to be going strong yet.
While at home what has been happening? In 1898 we were angry that Cubans were being mistreated so at the end of the war Cuba received its freedom. In our own country, Blacks of the same era had been given their freedom nearly forty years ago, but they still were not full citizens. The Ku Klux Klan and southern politics would keep them from even voting until the 1960s. Without even a say in government it should come as no surprise that even restaurants were segregated (Belmonte, 2008, p. 159), with Whites receiving the best foods and Blacks the least wants. The offerings don’t mention it exactly, but the Native Americans were in the same situation as the Cubans and they have never been given their true independence.
Equality was something no minorities had during the nineteenth century either. Blacks, Chinese, and Native Americans were all treated like second-class citizens and given pay that was far inferior to their White counterparts because they were deemed less intelligent (Belmonte, 2008, p. 161; Fitzhugh, 1857). Women were perhaps the worst victims of this treatment because they had always been a part of American and before that European culture. In all their long history they had never been considered equals to men even by the most advanced thinkers (Carey, 1830). Though their movement toward voting rights would start in the nineteenth century with Truth, Anthony, and Stanton (Truth, 1851; Stanton, 1848), they would be the last minority to be given the right to vote by law. It is a well-known fact that women’s salaries are consistently lower than men’s, suggesting a continuation of that philosophy even into the contemporary world.
Kennedy’s initiative during the early 1960’s involved educating the people of less developed countries. At the same time, the U.S. was dealing with an learning deficit in our own country. As citizens, Blacks were guaranteed public education but they never received the same opportunities as their White counterparts. Blacks received secondhand books, funding was significantly less, and expectations were significantly lower (U.S. History, 2008). Women of the same era were educated, but only so that they would make suitable wives, or only until they found a man to marry (U.S. History, 2008).
The United States is not the moral or ethical model of the world. We never have been, we probably never will be. However, we have been put in a unique position twice in our short history. The first time was because the writers of the Constitution had read the philosophers of their time and chose to create a government based on their thoughts. Our simple existence eventually allowed the South American countries to use us as a model for their own governments.
The second time is now, but we must be active to make use of the opportunity. When the Cold War ended there was no longer a Balance of Power in the World. The U.S., alone, became the dominant power in the world at that time. We can use that power to effect some real change if we are willing to mature a little bit. The first thing that must happen is that we need to finish the process we started in the nineteenth century, of educating our population that regardless of race or sex a person needs to be given responsibilities according to their abilities and work ethic, and paid accordingly.
Second, we need to accept that our government/culture/economic system is not the best one; it is the best system for us. A change of attitude there would do much to diffuse Muslim hostility toward us. Finally, most of the world’s conflicts have been over religion, ethnic groups, or political beliefs. The best thing that we can do for the world is to work toward winning freedom for every group that wants it on that basis. And once every group had won their independence we could not take it from them. They would have to be free to make their own choices.
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