The United States of America: World’s Richest Country; Leader of he Free World; Land of the Free; etc. Who would dare meddle with it? Yet it does have enemies: Iran; Russia; North Korea; Venezuela. China is a rival, but more of a trade partner than an enemy. But the most persistent and baleful challenge to its hegemony and future prosperity is America itself.
This was not always so. In its first century as a new nation, it was brashly aggressive, acquiring vast territories from Spain, France, Britain, Mexico and Russia, as well as the natives, by stealth bribery and outright warfare. As those countries all had similar empire-building ambition, hostility was short-lived. The threat of Spain trying to reassert control of its former colonies led President Monroe to issue his Doctrine in 1823, that:
“The United States will not tolerate a European nation colonizing an independent nation in North or South America. The United States wull consider any such intervention in the Western Hemisphere to be a hostile act.”
This anti-colonial stance stemmed not only from their own experience, but also from an early sense of destiny that the USA was the natural leader of both the Americas and emerging democracies. In the 1895 Cuban rebellion against Spain’s harsh rule, the US sent the battleship USS Maine to Havana to protect American citizens threatened by rioters but the ship was sunk by a still-unexplained explosion while at anchor. Spain’s brutally repressive measures to halt the rebellion were graphically portrayed for the U.S. public by several sensational newspapers engaging in “yellow journalism”—the original “fake news”.
Spain announced an armistice and a new program to grant Cuba limited powers of self-government. But public outrage against Spain persuaded the U.S. Congress to issue resolutions that declared Cuba’s right to independence, and demanded the withdrawal of Spain’s armed forces from the island, In addition to Cuba, the US had a long interest in China—initially economic but then spiritual as churches sought converts among China’s millions. The Spanish colony of the Philippines were eyed as a potential base. This is when ambition and economic gain subsumed better intentions.
As well as an American fleet sinking the Spanish Caribbean squadron and Teddy Roosevelt storming San Juan Hill, a fleet to do the same to the Philippines first required a coaling station and the independent kingdom of Hawaii was first taken over by US commercial interests there. The Philippines were duly conquered. But, instead of handing over to the rebels, as public interest forced then to do in Cuba, the US seized the islands as a coliny, trigggrting a brutal continuation of the rebellion that cost many lives on both sides before it was repressed.
It also signaled an end to America’s idealism and coming of age as a colonial power, like the Europeans it had so long derided. Hawaii did become a state in 1957, but Puerto Rico and Guam continue as colonies to this day. The hiving-off of Panama from Colombia as a supine host so the Panama Canal could be built reinforced this new, assertive posture.
The next cycle of self-delusion came in WW1 when America, now grown into a major power, made a decisive entry into the war and influenced the subsequent peace through Wilson’s pet project of the League of Nations. But the mindset that it was Europeans who were always at war and that America should not pull their chestnuts out of the fire led to an isolationist stance that the Great Depression and recovery though the New Deal only reinforced. But America remained expansionist, with companies like United Fruit making the Caribbean an economic colony. In 1935, top Marine, Major General Smedley Butler wrote a book titled “War Is A Racket“, in which he described and criticized the workings of the US in its foreign actions
But, isolationist or no, the US objected when Japan invaded China, which it now felt fell into its own spheee of interest. Mounting economic pressure culminated in an oil embargo on oil-poor Japan, effectively giving them the stark choice of a humiliating withdrawal from China or seizing the oil assets of the Dutch East Indies for themselves.
The direct result was the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, for which American indignation was barely justified, given the scale of provocation and Japanese fetish about ‘face’.
Brave and copious though America’s contribution to WW2 was, at the Yalta conference towards its end, Churchill was unable to convince Roosevelt of Stalin’s iron will and Machiavellian ambition post-war. The result was a sense of betrayal and hostility to Communism as a new enemy among Americans, fanned by Senator McCarthy and witch-hunts against “un-American activities”. The Chinese revolution, the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and the French debacle in Indochina only served to underscore the urgency and rectitude of this stance.
This led to lost opportunities, such as a refusal to support the Viet Minh who had cleared the Japanese out of Indochina, were moderate in their Communism and looked to the US as an anti-colonial power. Instead, the French were given copious arms and support to defeat them, the toughest and most effective guerilla force the world has ever seen wa created and all the lessons learned by the French studiously ignored in subsequent debacle on an even gander scale called the Vietnam War.
But propping up the corrupt regime in South Vietnam was not the only way America squandered its moral capital. Covert CIA operations propping up similar regimes from Nicaragua to Chile to Iran all failed. Muscular support for NATO ensured friends across Western Europe. But an unbending support for Israel lost it a similar number across the muslim world. Though leading the First Gulf War did much to repair such hostility, the over-reaction to 9/11 that resulted in a costly and unsuccessful occupation of Iaq, followed by a costly and unsuccessful occupation of Afghanistan, has frittered much of the resulting status and good will away.
The net result is that—even before Trump and his erratically blowhard foreign policy came on the scene, America’s fiends wee largely limited to prosperous Western democracies, while the bulk of the Third World saw their influence somewhere between overweening and insensitive and prefers the less didactically intrusive approach taken for decades by an ever more influential China.
But why should this be so? Why should the greatest economic powerhouse the world has ever seen keep “punching under its weight” in the world? The answer is two-fold.
- Bidness. The US became an economic powerhouse through untrammeled free markets—and persuading others to do the same. Much American foreign policy is diven by business, whether it was Dole in seizing Hawaii, United Fruit in the Caribbean, Kaiser Steel in supporting the UK in early WW2 or Haliburton in rebuilding post-war Iraq. This is all made possible by:
- Congress. Although technically a representative democracy, there was typically more turnover in the Soviet Politburo than in Congress. America elects no-one to the House (and certainly not the Senate) without serious funding. Much of this comes from Political Action Committees (PACs). These are largely driven by business interests—insurance companies promote private health; auto manufacturers oppose emission regulation; arms manufacturers oppose defence cuts. As if this were not enough, most Congressmen and Senators have little foreign experience and little incentive to acquire any as they must focus on their domestic support and the funding to cultivate it.
While these two factors are too simplistic to provide all the reasons why America is consistently less well thought of in the world than it deserves to be, addressing both would go a long way to rectify the shortfall.
The root cause of both is the American electoral system, which gives money too much influence, giving incumbents too much job security (see previous blog “Constitutional Constipation). It is these self-same people in Congress, who would have to approve any such change, that puts this firmly into the category of “turkeys voting for Christmas“.
So, don’t hold your breath.