More than a century has passed since American hearts were first seized by the grand debate about overseas expansion. During that period, much of what anti-imperialists predicted has come to pass. The United States has become an actively interventionist power. It has projected military or covert power into dozens of countries on every continent except Antarctica. In many places, these interventions have set off anti-American resistance movements, insurgencies, rebellions, or terror campaigns. George Frisbie Hoar, U.S. senator from Massachusetts, was right when he warned that intervening in distant lands would turn the United States into “a vulgar, commonplace empire founded upon physical force.”
Anti-imperialists also predicted that an aggressive foreign policy would have pernicious effects at home. In this, too, history has vindicated them. Military budgets have soared to levels that would have seemed unbelievable to even the most fervent expansionists of 1898. The weapons industry wields inordinate power. Government is highly centralized. A wealthy elite dominate politics. Martial values are exalted over peaceful ones. Earth-shaking decisions to wage distant wars are made in private by a handful of people. Anti-interventionist minister Charles Ames was right when he warned that militarism would lead to “trampling on the principles of free government.” …
A truism holds that any story can be happy or sad depending on where you end it. That perfectly describes the history of American intervention. Overwhelming power has allowed the United States to impose its will on many peoples. Often, however, these successes have been short-lived. Americans have been forced to learn an ancient lesson: nations dominated by foreign power eventually seek to throw it off.
The expansionists of 1898 understood that rebellions had shaken and destroyed past empires, but they dared to believe the United States was immune to this pattern of history. America’s inherent benevolence, they insisted, made it unlike every previous great power. From this illusion they leaped to another: that America’s benevolence would quickly become clear to people in subject nations and would lead them to welcome American power. The opposite happened. Teaching half-free people the value of freedom made them want more of it. Carl Schurz, who had been the first German-born cabinet secretary and was among the most articulate anti-imperialists, was right when he warned that dominating foreigners would ultimately force Americans to “shoot them down because they stand up for their independence.”
One reason for this backlash, paradoxically, is the idealism that lies near the heart of America’s expansionist impulse. Convinced that we have been granted providential access to secrets that can produce free and prosperous societies anywhere, Americans seek to share those secrets with others. Sometimes we take on the mission of fundamentally changing foreign societies — “destroying barbarism,” as Theodore Roosevelt put it. People in those societies, though, often see such projects as efforts to rip them away from their deepest social and cultural roots. Yale professor William Graham Sumner was wise to observe that although Americans presume their rule over foreigners is “a welcome blessing,” many foreigners “like their own ways, and if we appear amongst them as rulers, there will be social discord.”
In the face of profound new challenges, Americans are once again debating the role of the United States in the world. Should it intervene violently in other countries? This remains what Senator William V. Allen called it in 1899: “The greatest question that has ever been presented to the American people.” …
History’s great counsel to the United States is that it should more carefully weigh the long-term effects of its foreign interventions.
The United States has not discovered a magic formula that can produce happiness and prosperity everywhere. It cannot implant its ideals or values in vastly different social and political environments. Preemptive war and “regime change” operations reflect the quintessentially American view that the world is not a situation to be understood, but a problem to be solved.
Most American interventions are planned to achieve short-term objectives. They are not soberly conceived, with realistic goals and clear exit strategies. Many ultimately harm the target country while weakening the security of the United States.
Violent intervention always leaves a trail of “collateral damage” in the form of families killed, towns destroyed, and lives ruined. Usually these consequences are called mistaken or unavoidable. That does nothing to reduce the damage — or the anger that survivors pass down through generations.
The argument that the United States intervenes to defend freedom rarely matches facts on the ground. Many interventions have been designed to prop up predatory regimes. Their goal is to increase American power — often economic power — rather than to liberate the suffering.
Interventions aimed at “peacekeeping” often degenerate as well, because intervening forces naturally lean toward one side or another. Fighters on non-favored sides consider the peacekeepers their enemies and attack them. This is why the United States Marine barracks in Lebanon were blown up in 1983, and why American soldiers were killed in Somalia during the “Black Hawk Down” debacle a decade later. Americans may still cling to the fantasy that our soldiers are neutrals, fighting only for the good of humanity. Few others see them that way.
Interventions multiply our enemies. They lead people who once bore no ill will toward the United States to begin cursing its name. Every village raid, every drone strike, every shot fired in anger on foreign soil produces anti-American passion. Americans are shocked and incensed when that passion leads to violent counterattacks. They should not be. The instinct to protect one’s own and to strike back against attackers is older than humanity itself.
American intervention overseas is hugely expensive. The United States spends more on its military than the next seven countries combined, including trillions of dollars to fight foreign wars. Meanwhile, American communities decay, infrastructure ages and withers, schoolchildren fall behind their counterparts in other countries, and millions go without housing, jobs, or health care. Even worse, at least symbolically, are the lifelong plagues that haunt many combat veterans. War brings “collateral damage” to Americans as well as foreigners.
Interventions are often imagined as discrete in-and-out operations. Once we impose a servile regime in a foreign country, however, we must remain indefinitely or return regularly to defend it against popular uprisings. Interventions rarely end quickly. Many never end at all. The “surgical” intervention that resolves an immediate problem without long-term effects is like a unicorn: an alluring fantasy that never becomes real.
Foreign intervention has weakened the moral authority that was once the foundation of America’s political identity. The United States was once admired for its refusal to fight imperial wars or impose its will on distant nations. Today, many people around the world see it as a bully, recklessly invading foreign lands, blowing up entire societies, and leaving trails of destruction and conflict. They associate the name “United States” with bombing, invasion, occupation, night raids, covert action, torture, kidnapping, and secret prisons. History gives them the right to fear that their country may be “saved” the way the United States saved Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya.
Some American leaders realized that these foreign interventions might set off upheaval in target countries. All presumed, however, that there would be no serious effects within the United States. For years this seemed reasonable. In the modern age, though, people with roots in countries whose history has been twisted by foreign intervention find ways to take revenge. It comes in forms from mass migration to terror attacks. These are bad results of assaults that we believed would have no bad results. We were foolish to presume that no matter how awful American or European interventions were, their effects would not reach the United States or Europe. The developed world — the invading world — is not an island or an impregnable fortress. Intervention takes a toll at home as well as abroad.
The distance between what the United States was and what it has become is nowhere more painfully clear than in the words of our noble patriarch. The advice George Washington left to posterity in his Farewell Address is now considered antique, quaint, a relic from bygone times. In fact, it is even more apt today than when he offered it in 1796. Future generations of Americans, Washington warned, would live in peace only if they avoided the traps that bring proud nations down:
- permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world;
- frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests;
- overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty;
- the mischiefs of foreign intrigue;
- love of power and proneness to abuse it;
- excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another;
- the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists;
- projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.
Washington sensed that his warnings would one day be forgotten. “I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish,” he wrote. Yet he insisted on declaring the principle that he believed would “prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations.” “Give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence,” Washington advised. “Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?” Nations lose their virtue when they repeatedly attack other nations. That loss, as Washington predicted, has cost the United States its felicity. We can regain it only by understanding our own national interests more clearly. It is late for the United States to change its course in the world — but not too late.
This is a modified excerpt from the concluding chapter of Stephen Kinzer’s book The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire. Copyright 2017 by Stephen Kinzer. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.