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World-Saving: A Disastrous Policy


We must act in time — ahead of time — to stamp the smoldering beginnings of any conflict that may threaten to spread. — George W. Bush

As a public policy, world-saving on the part of the U.S. government may be vulnerable to substantial criticism on the 2008 election trail. Given the debacle in Iraq, world-saving may even have reached its zenith.

In the middle of yet still another ill-conceived, unjustified war, it’s difficult to believe that the next president’s world-saving policy can be any worse or that there won’t be a reaction against such policy that will temporarily curb its excesses. For example, after the Vietnam War fiasco of the 1960s and 1970s, many Americans for a time became disgusted with the U.S. government’s world-saving foreign interventions around the globe.

There was a similar reaction in the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower, campaigning for president during the Korean War in 1952, promised to bring it to an end. Two years later, with the Korean War over but with some calling for U.S. intervention to save the French in Vietnam, Eisenhower would have none of it, despite pressure from his vice president and secretary of state to save the French. Was it because Eisenhower, despite his world-saving credentials, had common sense or because he had correctly read public opinion?

Possibly it was both. But after the disillusionment of American participation in the Korean War, the tide was, for a short period, running against world-saving, just as it had for a while after World War I, a war Woodrow Wilson described as a “war to make the world safe for democracy.” This world-saving backlash usually happens after a disastrous war and after the pictures of crippled young people are shown in major media outlets.

Even Richard Nixon, running for president in 1968, had to pay lip service to pulling back from the Vietnam War, saying he had “a secret plan” to end it. Once in office, he followed a contradictory policy of slowly pulling American troops out while expanding the use of bombing. But even Republican Nixon, an admirer of Democrat Wilson, had to concede that America was overcommitted.

There are times when Americans start to question the premises of world-saving. We might well be approaching such a time. But first, let us examine the policy.

The concept of world-saving

World-saving is actually a bipartisan foreign policy. It is the belief that the American version of democracy must be spread throughout the world, by force if necessary. It is the vain belief that Americans have unique values that everyone, no matter their cultural, political, or economic differences, must also have.

In his book American Diplomacy, George Kennan, one of the architects of U.S. foreign policy in the post–World War II era but who later had his doubts about it, warned Americans that world-saving could be a dangerous delusion:

Above all, it behooves us Americans … to repress, and to extinguish once and for all, our inveterate tendency to judge others by the extent to which they contrive to be like ourselves.

American policymakers at times disagree on some of the nuances of world-saving. Democrats and Republicans can even have faux debates once in a while about the execution of the policy. Unfortunately, however, most American leaders have not repressed the world-saving tendency.

World-saving is contrary to the principles of classical liberalism — principles that were challenged by the Spanish-American War in 1898 and its terrible aftermath, especially in the Philippines.

Woodrow Wilson embraced world-saving even before he came to the White House in 1913. He commended what was called “a large policy.” In his History of the American People, which was published in 1902, he said the policy would give Americans “a unified will.” He actually called the Spanish-American war “wholesome”:

The impulse of expansion is the natural and wholesome impulse which comes with a consciousness of material strength.

Wilson’s great hopes would be realized with the eventual triumph of world-saving. Although he died a broken man, he would be proud of America’s imperial bipartisan foreign policy today.

Harry Truman was one of the key players in creating the national security state that put U.S. troops in places such as Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Writes Geoffrey Perret in his new book, Commander in Chief, Truman’s belief in “sometimes massive American intervention created the intellectual framework for waging unwinnable wars.”

Yet the National Security Act of 1947 went so far that even one of its authors, Truman himself, later expressed some doubts. In a 1964 letter to the editor of Look magazine, he wrote,

The CIA was set up by me for the sole purpose of getting all the available information to the president. It was not intended to operate as an international agency engaged in strange activities.

Truman was writing about the CIA’s toppling of governments in Guatemala and Iran. This was years before the Congressional revelations of the CIA’s engaging in domestic spying, which its charter prohibited.

Permanent war through world-saving

Of course, supporters of world-saving would very likely not accept the term, just as Americans who oppose it do not accept the term “isolationist,” preferring the term “noninterventionist.” But “world-saving” is an appropriate term. World-savers believe that the United States must live up to its foreign-policy responsibility of saving the world, despite the high probability of perpetual war.

World-saving has been a significant force in America for more than a century, but it has had many setbacks. For those who love liberty, for those who want America to return to the original principles of limited government and nonintervention, world-saving is both brutal and illogical.

It is illogical to believe that everyone in the world yearns for democracy or the early 21st-century American version of it. It is brutal in that world-savers, although they will rarely say so in plain English, believe that those who do not accept what Americans call democracy must have it imposed through “shock and awe,” which means through bullets, bombs, and missiles. Those who don’t accept such a “gift” are considered uncivilized and ungrateful.

Friedrich Hayek pointed out,

The more a person dislikes the strange and thinks his own ways superior, the more he regards it as his mission to civilize others.

In his book The Constitution of Liberty, he warned that those holding these intolerant views don’t believe in “voluntary and unhampered intercourse — which the liberal favors.” Ernest Renan cautioned that “good imposed from outside is ultimately the supreme evil.”

A brutal and deadly legacy

“The iron fist” was the term once used by commentator Thomas Friedman of the New York Times. For years he was a fan of U.S. nation-building in Iraq, believing, as some Americans still do, that American values would be readily accepted and that “victory” was just around the corner.

Indeed, with the military victory of American forces in Iraq in 2003, Dick Cheney, in a typical world-saving sentiment, told a television audience that Iraq was all but pacified. “To suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, I don’t think is accurate. I think that’s an overstatement,” he said on Meet the Press on March 16, 2003. Some four years later, the illogic of that statement is now apparent to the bereaved families of thousands of American military men and women.

World-saving is one way Americans turned away from their heritage of limited government and embraced the principles of empire. World-saving has been a hallmark of mainstream Democrats as well as Republicans for more than a century. This imperial policy goes back at least to the Spanish-American War in 1898. The war was described by one of Theodore Roosevelt’s secretaries of state, John Hay, as a “splendid little war.” But like Cheney’s analysis of Iraq, Hay confused victory in war with success in nation-building.

That war included a tragic aftermath, the brutal and deadly subjugation of the Philippines. That terrible war, which followed “the splendid little war,” resulted in Americans’ killing Filipinos — hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. These were men who had formerly been American allies. They had previously fought alongside the Americans against the Spanish. Once the Spanish were expelled from the Philippines, they became enemies of the United States. Their crime? They thought the Americans actually believed the principles they preached. Even though the Filipinos were promised that they would be running their country once the Spanish were defeated, a dirty war followed the broken promise. The Philippine rebellion of 1899–1902 was one in which both sides used torture and resorted to terribly brutal tactics, which produced massive death and destruction.

World-saving in retreat?

World-saving is a 21st-century American imperialism, a kind of informal empire that produces “blowback” against the United States and the American people. The responsibility for this rests with both major parties. Members of both parties praise the foreign-policy achievements of Woodrow Wilson.

The fault rests also with those who praise Harry Truman’s open checkbook at the outset of the Cold War for a national security state that would intervene anywhere and often secretly, so Americans had no chance to evaluate the actions of their government at the time they were occurring.

The responsibility also rests with the American people, many of whom have never heard of the term “blowback.” They don’t seem to understand that many rational, noncommunistic, people, once friends of the United States, rightly detest world-saving. An Italian friend of mine, upset about the world-saving policies of the U.S. government, summed it up: “I love Americans. I hate your government.”

Fortunately, there is a strand of noninterventionism that still lives in American society. Granted, it is not extremely strong today, but it is much stronger than it was three or four years ago when American elites acted as though the Iraqi incursion was another “splendid little war.”

The time has come for Americans to rediscover their heritage. World-saving is still a relatively recent occurrence in U.S. history. There is still time to return to founding principles. To those who continually say, with each additional grant of new power to various government entities, that one “can’t turn back the clock,” there is a logical question: You mean it is impossible to learn from mistakes? One can never learn from history?

Americans should reject the concept of world-saving and embrace the principles of nonintervention advocated by Washington, Adams, and other Founding Fathers. That requires a serious debate about American foreign policy. The problem of world-saving must be confronted directly by all Americans. World-saving constitutes a grave betrayal of the American heritage. Let us junk world-saving and the empire and militarism it has produced. Let us restore our nation’s founding ideal of noninterventionism and a limited-government republic.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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  • This post was written by:

    Gregory Bresiger, an independent business journalist who works for the Sunday New York Post business section and Financial Advisor Magazine, is the author of the book Personal Finance for People Who Hate Personal Finance.