Why Does the United States Care About the Rest of the World?
When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations in September 2017, he spoke about America’s role in the world in a way that no president had done in more than a century. He told the UN that he wouldn’t urge other countries to follow the American way. Rather, every nation had different values and as president he would respect them.
Since the Second World War American presidents have consistently said that they are committed to the spread of American values across the world—especially free speech, democracy, and capitalism. At his inauguration, John F. Kennedy declared that the US would “pay any price, bear any burden… to assure the survival and success of liberty” in the world.
The idea that America had a responsibility to help the rest of the world was standard in Washington for decades. Where did this belief come from? And why does Trump want to ditch it?
John Winthrop, a pastor in one of England’s North American colonies, said that their society was to be “a city on a hill.” “The eyes of all people,” he said, “are upon us.” Thus began the idea that America was to be an example to others, and the Founding Fathers of the USA adopted it enthusiastically.
The picture of America as a shining city on a hill would inspire Americans throughout the 1800’s. They had the luxury of geographical isolation, which allowed them to construct an idealistic foreign policy based on their values. By contrast, countries in Europe and Asia faced regular threats to their existence and had to find practical solutions to survive.
As the US became stronger, it had the chance to put its ideals into practice. The record was mixed. When Mexico fought for freedom from Spain in the 1820’s, the American government stood by and watched. But seventy years later, the US sent troops to help Cuba in its struggle for liberation. America’s relationship with the rest of the world was changing from, “Watch us and learn,” to “We’ll interevene to help you become free and democratic, just like us.”
President Woodrow Wilson was an early herald of America’s ambition to change the world. Once the United States joined the First World War, it wasn’t enough that they win—Wilson wanted the nations of the world to create an international organization to prevent future conflicts. He was the architect of the League of Nations—the precursor of the United Nations—but most of America’s politicians didn’t want the US to join. So after the First World War America retreated to their more peaceful continent, far from Europe’s quarrels.
That worked for two decades, but after the Second World War there was widespread agreement in the US that isolation was impossible. Long-range bombers and rockets put an end to America’s geographical invulnerability. And after two world wars most in Washington agreed that it would be a disaster if a hostile power dominated Europe—which is just what Communist Russia seemed poised to do.
Thus, in 1945 American values, American self-interest, and American ambition all pointed in the same direction. America took up the role of global guarantor of freedom. First and foremost, this meant stopping the spread of Communism.
Building more nuclear bombs was part of that. So was helping to rebuild Europe’s devastated economies. The US also took the lead in the creation of a network of organizations designed to support international co-operation and prosperity, including the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. America, the most powerful and most wealthy country in the world in 1945, became the leader in all these organizations.
America’s people were supportive of their country’s enlarged role. Most of them hated Communism and they liked the idea of America guiding and helping the world. Millions were eager participants, becoming Marines and missionaries or giving generously to help feed the hungry.
However, there were problems. Helping other countries become free and prosperous turned out to be much harder than it looked. In Latin America, Africa, and Asia, America’s attempts to kick start development were a disappointment. In Vietnam, the US could probably have won the war if they had not wanted to turn the country into a democracy at the same time.
The idea that America would help the world thrive also invited charges of hypocrisy. America gave money and sent troops to places it cared about because its own interests were at stake. So America liberated Kuwait in the First Gulf War in part because of its long-term commitment to ensuring a reliable flow of oil from the Middle East. But America refused to send help to Rwanda during its genocide. America’s lofty ideals made it an easy target for foreign critics.
But there have been successes, too, for the American world order. The biggest has been globalization. All those new, global organizations created a body of international law that benefited America but also gave a boost to other countries. The total value of international trade has increased more than fifteen-fold since 1945. This has helped make the world much more prosperous: it is twenty times wealthier than it was in 1950. Hundreds of millions have escaped poverty. The US can’t take all the credit for this, but it certainly deserves some.
In the last thirty years, however, many American citizens have grown tired of bearing the world’s burdens. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant there was no longer an evil rival to help justify their expensive global role. Then the War on Terror produced many American casualties and few clear-cut results. And while people in China cheered for globalization it led to anger in American towns where factories closed and good jobs disappeared.
So it wasn’t surprising that millions voted for Donald Trump, who promised to put Americans first. If that turned out to be bad for other countries, that was their problem.
Will Trump turn out to be an aberration? Or will hindsight tell us that the seventy years of American global leadership were the exception. It’s hard to say. But in the decades after the Second World War, the USA presided over a remarkable era of global prosperity and relative peace.
The needs of regions harmed by globalization require creative political solutions. But a world where leaders choose confrontation rather than co-operation is unlikely to stay peaceful for long. The start of the twenty-first century is looking uncomfortably like the beginning of the twentieth, when Europe’s great powers nurtured nationalistic rivalries then stumbled into the First World War. Surely there’s a better way. But it will be much harder to find if America doesn’t play a constructive role.