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The Role of the United States in World Affairs

Updated April 26, 2022
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The Role of the United States in World Affairs essay

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“Historians (looking at you, Walter Russell Mead!) make American foreign policy too complicated and overstate its uniqueness. Hamiltonians, Jacksonians, Wilsonians, and Jeffersonians have their counterparts in many countries—big business interests, prickly nationalists, do-gooding crusaders, and anti-military isolationists show up everywhere. What drives U.S. diplomacy is the determination to strengthen and sustain its global power position. Over the course of the last century and more, this goal explains America’s role in the world better than any other single factor.”

Do you agree? Evaluate this interpretation with reference to two major episodes that we have studied this semester. The cases you select must be from different sections of the syllabus; they must include one Republican and one Democratic president, and at least one who served before 2001.

America’s role in the world is largely explained by its determination to strengthen and sustain its global power position. Throughout various incidents and moments in US foreign policy we see how the US prioritizes either creation or maintenance of its global position. This could be either through economic dominance or geopolitical strategy and expansion. The American dominance strategy is deeply engrained in US diplomacy and it goes back from the turn of the twentieth century continuing throughout to the Cold war and beyond. A closer look at the Spanish American war of 1898, the rise of the US dollar and formation of the Bretton Woods institutions of 1944, reveals how there have always been multiple factors at play for how the US chooses to act in its foreign policy. However, at the end of the day, self-interest for geopolitical and economic dominance have been at the forefront of the decision making and the ultimate response and policies.

The Spanish-American war of 1898 is of great importance when looking at the role of the United States in the world for many reasons. Robert Kagan argues that the Spanish American war was a vastly popular war in the country’s history because it was a combination of American ideals such trade, geopolitical and economic power, and intervening to help others (Kagan, 407). According to Zimmerman “The Imperial America was inaugurated in 1898 by Roosevelt” (Zimmerman, 500). Though, an overstatement as to who was responsible for the decision to go to war, Zimmerman is right to mark 1898 and the Spanish-American war as a significant beginning of the expansion of America into a great power through imperialist tendencies. Zimmerman’s work in essence acknowledges the role of defense intellectuals and five key Republicans (Theodore Roosevelt, Henry C. Lodge, John Hay, Elihu Root and naval strategist Admiral Alfred T. Mahan), into moving forward an agenda that put American geopolitical and economic dominance and the sole goal of its foreign policy. The events and conversations leading up to the war itself, are of importance in what solidified as American character and ideals throughout the following century and beyond (Zimmerman, 14).

The Cuban rebellion against Spanish rule started in 1895, while the US was under President Cleveland. The Cuban economy was being destroyed by both the rebels who were fighting for Cuba by attacking the colonial economy (ceasing work, burning the wealthy people’s property) and the Spanish who launched the policy of reconcentration (Kagan, 316) which resulted in many women, children and elderly being sent out to camps where they were not allowed to farm or do any economic activity. They began to starve, fell ill and many died and suffered. Though European countries were shocked by the atrocities in Cuba, they did not do anything because it was a time of peak imperialism.

American trade with Cuba was lucrative and beneficial to both countries. Eighty-seven percent of Cuba’s exports were to the US, and Cuba was the lead Latin American source of imports to the US in 1894 (Zimmerman, 250). American investments in Cuba were substantial (approximately 50 million), but under President Cleveland they did not consider it enough for the US to involve itself. Under Cleveland, US had taken a stance of neutrality and inaction primarily because Cleveland and Olney also disapproved of the methods being used by the Cuban rebels against the Spanish. During that time there was a lingering threat of an economic depression which made businesses weary of war. (Kagan, 381). Cleveland received backlash and heat for his conservative approach in favor of business interests. Afterwards, because of this and economic struggles, the 1896 election saw a change with Republicans winning.

When McKinley stepped into office, the situation in Cuba had taken a turn for the worst and thousands more were dying. McKinley himself, was not pro-war and did not see war as beneficial to US (Kagan, 387). The Republican party however, was delighted to have a majority and be able to go back to its aggressive domestic and foreign policy before Cleveland (Kagan, 387). On the foreign policy front this included, annexation of Hawaii, purchase of the Danish West Indies, continuation of a naval build up in Cuba, and the use of “influence and good offices to restore peace and give independence to the island(Cuba)”. This was what then became McKinley’s foreign policy plan, though not truly his but that expressed by his party.

Looking at the republican priorities there is one common thread, a clear motive for expansion of the US territory and strengthen its military and economic influence beyond its current territory. This motive therefore did not go away as conversations and discussion were being had in Congress later on whether or not the US should go to war. Though the American people had been accepting of Cleveland’s inaction, they expected more from McKinley. Furthermore, the Republican party at the time had been open about its pro-Cuban stance so McKinley’s hands were almost tied to act as such.

Using information from a report by trusted colleague Calhoun, McKinley saw how the

US’s options were therefore limited. Not intervening would have been a bad choice given the state of humanitarian crises and potential backlash from the American people, including businessmen with investments in Cuba (Kagan 393). Spain was now a weak power at this time and had been losing territory and influence. It was therefore holding on to Cuba for honor. Intervention, to a certain extent, inevitably meant war.

The administration started making preparations for war. Beginning of March, 1898, it took Congress only a day to pass legislation to allocate 50 million to national defense, showing McKinley again that he has unanimous domestic support for the war. Inevitably fearing that Congress would go on without him, and with no hope that Spain would give in on Cuban independence, the US went to war with Spain.

After the Spanish American war, the US emerged with an expansive military and navy (Zimmerman, 312) and new territories: the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam and Hawaii. Philippines and Hawaii became the first pure colonies in American history (Zimmerman, 11). Even though Cuba was not annexed as a territory, Cuba remained under American influence as the Platt amendment allowed the US to intervene with their military when necessary, thus allowing them to have a base at Guantanamo Bay. The US also economically benefited from the outcomes of this war because gaining control Hawaii, Guam and Philippines gave the US access to East Asian markets such as China (Zimmerman, 8). This shows that the Spanish-American war was more than just a war of humanitarian intervention but about furthering US interests of trade and territorial expansion.

The US engaging in the Spanish American war was not purely or primarily motivated by the need to help out Cuba. The humanitarian aspect was used as a reason to validate and justify US intervention in Cuba, a country which the US had always thought would eventually fall under American rule, due to its proximity and how it would benefit trade and the economy through sugar(Zimmerman,8). More importantly, there were individuals like Roosevelt and Mahan who strongly believed in American expansion who took the Cuban rebellion as an opportunity to convince McKinley and others to act (Zimmerman, 225-228).

This is not to say, the US should have not intervened, or that there no Americans either in government or in the general public who had humanitarian motives to go help the Cuban people get their independence from Spain. It is to highlight that of the many motivators to either stay neutral or do something, the larger underground motivation was that of nation bolstering both economically and geopolitically. If that were not the case, the US would have then not proceeded to conquer the Philippines and getting into another war that killed more people nor would it have set up at Guantanamo Bay.

Even a humanitarian justification of the war came from an underpinned understanding that the US had the right and moral obligation to intervene and thus should, not only for the Cuban people, but because that was what came with being a great nation (Kagan, 407) Americans wanted to intervene because they thought they could and therefore should do something about it. This is something which we continue to see throughout the century and beyond.

The rise of the US dollar and the formation of the Bretton Woods institutions in 1944 is another period in US history where we see the American government act in a way that would strengthen and sustain its global power position. We see that post world war II, the formation of the Bretton woods institutions solidified the US’ s. global position as many economies relied on its currency, and being prime currency came with benefits to the American people and its economy. Furthermore, we see that the way the US negotiated the articles of the International Monetary fund(IMF) agreement showed thought and realization, that the US needed to stay with an upper hand and remain the prime currency.

The emergence of the US as the prime currency during that time period was based of the US’s strong post world War II economy. America’s strong economy, combined with other factors such as the weakening of the British pound at the time gave the US an upper hand in the negotiations which allowed it to emerge as an economic power with a dominant currency used internationally. This dollar dominance allows the US certain privileges in how it navigates its foreign policy be it through trade or in the tools it can use in diplomacy such as sanctions.

In the introduction of his book Eichengreen states that “The economic health of a country issuing the currency is critical for its acquisition and retention of an international role” (6). At the end of the world war, US came out with a booming economy (Eichengreen 39). More than half of the economic output of the great powers at the time was from America (Eichengreen 2). The US was the largest importer and main source of trade credit. America then was the main source of foreign capital so business on the international level was conducted in American dollars. It was the source of nearly 85% of foreign direct investment (Eichengreen 39). This according to Eichengreen, meant that the imports and exports were denominated in US dollars (2). It only followed that central banks chose to stabilize their currencies and hold their reserves in the same currency.

Eichengreen states that in order for a currency to be attractive as prime currency, the country issuing it has to have a large economy that is growing (39). The US had this and this shows with its many exports and through its foreign direct investments. In addition, the economy was also stable. The US was pegged to the dollar so financial institutions considered the Dollar “as good as gold” given that the US was willing and ready to see gold at a fixed price (39).

While the US economy was flourishing post World war, Britain needed some financial assistance to undergo some reconstruction. This is where we see the intentionality of the US in that, as one of its terms for the loans, the US required removal of Britain’s currency controls that prevented its members from exchanging the Sterling for more useful goods other currencies such as the US dollar (40). This was key because most of the financial holdings Britain had at this point was due to the restrictions of them not allowing people to sell their claims. Eichengreen claims that the US did this with an expectation of expanded market for US exports (41). Not only that, the US also was very aware the by releasing the holdings the US would then unarguably become the global dominant currency which would give them an even more dominant role in the global economy.

The British proposed the Clearing Union plan in a bid to limit the US’s advantage of being the reserve currency. The fact that Britain did this, shows how important currency was in world relations and the global economy (Eichengreen 46). The plan targeted at the US was such that countries would run balance of payments surpluses. There were also going to be credit lines provided to countries which were initially proposed to be so high that it would have been damaging to the US. The US saw through Britain’s plan and came up with a strong negotiating team (46). The US did not want to have to give away all their goods because of the high amount of credit that Britain had proposed. So, the two parties met for a 2-week conference in Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. According to Eichengreen, though the US made some concessions, it still emerged with more terms in its favor (47). Article agreements of what became the International Monetary Fund. IMF articles authorized countries to define their exchange rates in USD (39) among other terms and conditions for credit. It is important to note here that the Bretton Woods agreements had assumed the US dollar was as good as gold (50-51) i.e. it rested on the commitment of the US to provide reserves and gold at a fixed price.

Having the US dollar as the prime currency in the world gives America and its people some benefits. These include firstly, convenience when travelling of not having to incur costs or difficulties changing to other currencies (3). Secondly, Eichengreen describes an economic concept called Seignorage. This means that other countries are the ones who have to come up with and provide goods in order to obtain US dollar, while for America obtaining currency is cheap and relatively easy with the US only having to pay a few cents to print bills. This saves the government and the American people a lot of money which gains them an economic advantage. With the US as prime currency the US could afford to consume, and import more, while not racking up a deficit, as other countries that needed the USD were in essence paying for it (Eichengreen 4). This is the exorbitant privilege as coined by Charles de Gaulle.

It may be challenging pin point specifically when the US became a great power, depending on how you define what being a great power entail. But it is certain that the US’s global position at the end of the 1940s was due to a trifactor, a strong military, a booming economy, and a strong currency that allowed its economy to grow even more with less deficits. The US economy had been great since the end of the 19th century in the 1870s (Eichengreen 17) but the rise of the US Dollar in this period and the strategic negotiations that resulted in to the Bretton Woods institution played a large role in the US’s global position. So, every strategy and thought that led to this at the time were all essential in maintenance of the country’s global position.

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