While this blog has looked at rising powers like China and India and established ones like Germany and Japan, it still hasn’t adequately addressed the country that lies at the heart of the global system, the country with by far the most political, military, economic, and cultural power and influence. It is a very famous country with a knack for bragging and showing off its strengths, but a survey of its role in the world could still be useful.
The United States of America originated as a collection of colonies on North America’s Atlantic coast in the 1600s. Despite attempts by the Netherlands, Sweden and Spain to get a foothold in the area, England dominated, and so the US is the foremost among Britain’s former colonies and an important vehicle for British thought, law, political and economic philosophy, language, and cultural practices around the world. Native peoples lived there too, of course, but a horrifying pandemic in the 1500s decimated their populations, and a concerted genocide against them later on ensured that they became a small minority in the nation that was founded on their land.
America won its independence from the British in 1783, setting a precedent for colonial revolt way in advance of other parts of the world. But back then, it was a small, weak country; it had only won its independence through French and Spanish intervention and military happenstance. It had no business, and really no interest, in getting involved overseas. Its founding father, George Washington, spelled it out in his famous Farewell Address of 1796: maintain neutrality at all costs and avoid the sort of endless bickering and power struggles that blighted the map of Europe. And for the most part, the Americans listened to his advice; they had a big ocean separating them from Europe and no formidable enemies in North America.
America’s ego first started to grow in the 1820s, when Latin America followed its example by kicking out the Spanish and Portuguese masters there. President James Monroe declared that the new countries would stay independent and the US would intervene if any foreigners tried to take them for themselves. The Latinos took this to mean that the US was now declaring both of the Americas as its special sphere of influence. (Its attitude towards the British colonies to the north, modern-day Canada, was obvious when it invaded them in the 1810s.) They were right, but for the most part Latin America stayed independent, and America was too busy in the 1800s with its internal development to worry much about foreign affairs.
That internal development eventually bore fruit. By the 1890s, America was an economic powerhouse. Its economy was the biggest in the world, and the northeast was one of the world’s main industrial heartlands. Navigable waterways, fertile farmland, an enterprising, optimistic culture, lots of ports and railways, advanced technology, a booming pop culture, and an ethos of “freedom” (both political and legal) propelled it way past Latin America — and the rest of the world for that matter. Its attitude was newly confident and ambitious, so it began to intervene overseas, replacing Spain as overlord of the Philippines and enforcing its claims over Latin America with a naval buildup in the Caribbean Sea and aggressive economic exploitation.
But for a long time America was an underrated country, especially in Europe. This was also the high tide of European imperialism, and America couldn’t compare with that. Its military was still puny in comparison. Plus it was too far away, too uncouth, and too inconsequential to warrant much attention from the British or French or Germans. World War I might have changed that: America intervened to save the British in that grueling war. President Woodrow Wilson was personally interested in Europe and insisted on reorganizing it along national lines; he also came up with the League of Nations (see my blog post “The Disunited Nations“) and hoped for America to take a more active international role. But Americans in general were unenthusiastic and uninterested in foreign affairs, and voted against joining the League. And yet during these years New York came to replace London as the financial center of gravity, with America’s booming economy overshadowing Europe’s war-damaged ones.
It was World War II that finally brought America firmly onto the world stage. Once again, Britain seemed in danger of falling. Once again, autocracy seemed in danger of taking over the world. Once again, the specter of Communism loomed in the background. With its huge population, abundant natural resources, industrial might, and distance from other imperialists*, America was in a natural position to save the day. By playing the decisive role in vanquishing Germany, Japan and Italy and thanks to Britain and France being exhausted by the war, America emerged as a superpower.
It was an incredible opportunity for America to shape the world in its image, and despite a strong isolationist tug, America decided not to pass it up. The Soviet Union had emerged as the other superpower, and America was pathologically anti-Communist. To bolster Western Europe’s and Japan’s defenses against it, America poured billions of dollars of aid. To counter Soviet maneuvers worldwide, America established military bases all over the world and engaged in diplomacy on a global scale it had never reached for before. It preached its gospel of democracy, equality, capitalism and opportunity to all and tried to sponsor governments that supported it.
And that’s pretty much where we’re at today. In the meantime, the Soviet Union has collapsed, leaving America as the sole superpower — or the “hyperpower” as some call it. In Communism’s place, radical Islam has emerged as the ideology America’s most concerned about, although it lacks a giant superpower backer. A huge industrial complex has grown up around the military, making it by far the world’s largest and most well-funded. America is involved to some extent with every region in the world and is a decisive player in Asia in particular despite being a North American country. The “Washington consensus” (democracy, free markets, and an open society) is still powerful. Washington, D.C. is still the hub of international politics and diplomacy; New York is still the hub of the world’s finance and its most economically crucial city. Students flock to American universities to get an education and soak up American ideology; many stay afterward or move to America for jobs, bolstering its vibrant immigrant dynamic. California’s technology and entertainment industries are titans in their field, while the oil “fracking” industry in the center of the country keeps it flush with fuel.
But there have been a few bumps in the road along the way. Although America generally tries to support countries with similar political and socioeconomic systems, it always puts its own interests and geopolitical necessity first. As a result, it sometimes aligns itself with dictatorial, religiously conservative, or outright socialist or Communist countries if it needs to, undermining its self-righteous rhetoric. It has also deployed its fearsome military since World War II, with sometimes disastrous results. The Vietnam War in the ’60s and ’70s was about fending off Communist North Vietnamese aggression, but that entailed saturation bombing and large-scale population displacement, turning the war into something more like blatant imperialist intervention. More recently, the Iraq War was supposed to be about getting rid of weapons of mass destruction and a dangerous tyrant, but quickly devolved into a protracted insurgency with wide support from the Iraqi population, further damaging America’s global image. Torture, unlawful detention and a few creepy prisoner abuse cases didn’t help.
Economically, America benefited greatly from the collapse of Communism in the ’90s. Capitalism had triumphed; America had showed that capitalism could deliver both “guns” (a strong military) and “butter” (prosperity and a thriving consumer economy). America is still the linchpin of the global economy, and the dollar is still the world’s reserve currency. But the mess of 2008 (when a real estate bubble caused a bunch of important American banks and financial firms to crash) reminded everyone of how erratic capitalism can be. Even though swift action in 2008 and 2009 prevented another Great Depression, America still bears the brunt of the blame for the global economic slowdown at the beginning of this decade, and was told off for it by some leftist Latino leaders.
The current president, Barack Obama, is a lot different than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was reviled worldwide by the end of his term for his arrogance, ignorance, and imperialism. Obama is careful to seek other countries’ opinions (and preferably approval) and leans towards acting in coalitions whenever possible. (The current war against the Islamic State is a good example; so was the war against Libya in 2011.) He has made a concerted effort to earn goodwill overseas, most of all in the Muslim world, which for the most part deeply hates America for its support of Israel, various dictatorships and kings, and for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. He prefers peace and conflict resolution to aggression, and has healed relations with Myanmar and Cuba and is in the process of negotiating with Iran.
But in other ways America still looks the same. It remains preoccupied with terrorism and stamping out radical Islamic movements in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, and uses drone strikes to wipe out terrorist bases with relatively little effort. Guantánamo Bay, the notorious American prison for terrorists in Cuba (itself a relic of old American imperialism in the Caribbean), remains open and in a legal gray zone. Despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama sent more troops to Afghanistan in 2010 (to relatively little effect), bombed Libya in 2011, and has sent its military back to Iraq to deal with the Islamic State. A rogue spy named Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 that America’s National Security Agency was spying on not only its own citizens, but various foreigners, including Angela Merkel (chancellor of Germany) and Dilma Rousseff (president of Brazil) — reminding everyone of the long reach of the American espionage apparatus.
All in all, we seem to be left with a mixed picture. America is obviously still a hyperpower with no real challengers yet. (China is rising and seems determined to rival America, but it’s not there yet.) But after the bank crash, a sense of decline and fatigue with international conflicts has set in. As I described in the blog post “The Iraq Hangover,” Americans are tired of always having to deal with whatever fire breaks out halfway around the world and then get hectored for it even by its supposed allies (like Europe). While increasingly diverse immigration has made America more multiethnic and multiracial than ever (it’s got Europeans, Africans, Mexicans, Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Arabs, Persians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cubans and more), the majority of Americans are parochial and self-centered and generally uninterested in international affairs. Many, especially on the left, call for increasing attention to domestic problems, like income distribution, education, infrastructure, and crime, and letting other places deal with wars and crimes against humanity.
So American foreign policy is a pretty complex topic. It’s hard to summarize neatly in one blog post, which is why it tends to come up again and again in other ones. Foreign impressions of America are also hard to nail down. In general, there is widespread discontent with it. For the most part, this is simple resentment or even jealousy at its superpower; it seems to be omnipresent yet cavalier and disregardful of foreign sensitivities. Many Muslims sadly continue to see it as a force of evil and an infidel menace. But for the most part, this discontent doesn’t cross the line to outright hatred. Europe, Japan and South Korea are still grateful with the US for intervening to rebuild them after their wars and fend off the Communists. Study abroad, emigration, and tourism in the US continue to be strong pulls. American aid, whether through organizations like the Peace Corps or various charities, is invaluable to poor countries. Aside from the most staunchly conservative places, American music, TV and movies are wildly popular worldwide (even in Russia, which is now hardcore anti-American), and have been since the early 1900s.
One thing is for sure: like it or not, America is the only superpower, and it will remain the linchpin of global affairs until that’s no longer the case. Whether it will endure as a powerful empire or decline over the coming decades is a question up for debate.
No empire lasts forever. If there’s one thing history tells us, it’s that. America may have a lot of advantages other empires never had, but the decline and fall of empire is a law of human nature. Therefore I predict that this century will be the story of America’s gradual decline and the rise of a jumble of other newly ambitious countries. The Iraq War showed that America can’t have its way just because it can pound other countries’ armies into dust; Americans are internalizing that lesson and will be more timid in the future. Besides, America’s massive defense budget is unsustainable. The American political system has also fallen into an abyss of partisan rancor and petty bickering lately, but it’s hard to say whether that will last for a long time.
In the meantime, America is still the go-to country for international problem-solving. (China is pretty clear it doesn’t even want to play this role even if it could.) America’s militaristic culture, high-tech gizmos, and well-trained army make it the decisive factor in any conflict, and even though doves cry, there are plenty of hawks and tough guys around willing to act as the world’s policemen. The UN, while a useful forum, is usually paralyzed by indecision in moments of crisis; America is more dependable as an occupation force, or a naval patrol, or a peacebroker.
And despite all the whining about double standards, torture, and abuse of power, American society is still attractive across the world. It’s still a flourishing democracy, it’s still a resilient economy, it’s still a cauldron of innovation and determination, and it’s still an upholder of human rights despite renewed attention on police brutality and racial injustice. The Western model in general remains the global standard, whether in politics, business or society. English has become an international language. Hollywood superhero flicks and Lady Gaga songs are internationally recognized. On a sentimental level, Americans’ optimistic, cheerful and good-humored attitudes are infectious. So all in all, while it’s easy to see why foreigners gripe about the US and resent it, fundamentally its “soft power” carries the day.
Hawai’i, some Pacific islands it had annexed in the 1890s, was attacked by Japan, but the American mainland suffered no damage.