Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has reigned as the world’s foremost superpower. Americans hoped that we would use our supremacy to spread democracy and security to the rest of the world. Yet in the nearly 30 years since the end of the Cold War, it has become obvious that these goals are beyond the capabilities of the United States and often incompatible with the ideals of human rights and self-determination. If the United States wants a moral and effective foreign policy, it needs to rein in its ambitions and admit that total American supremacy is a fantasy.
Though the United States should play a major role in world affairs, the past 30 years have seen American policy take an unnecessarily blunt and unilateral approach. It’s time to look past rhetoric and examine the benefits that our primacy offers both the world as a whole and ourselves.
Although the Soviet Union collapsed decades ago, American international policy has not fundamentally changed since the Cold War. The United States continues to attempt to expand its sphere of influence in any way possible. We maintain military forces across the world, with troops in over 150 countries. While these troops were once deployed to safeguard against the threat of communism, they now remain to supposedly prevent terrorism. To project power around the world, the United States maintains a huge and cumbersome network of allies, ranging from the democratic United Kingdom to more repressive states like Iraq and Pakistan.
The problem is that these allies have little interest in helping the United States. The old adage that “he who has everyone as a friend has no friends” proves true. Instead, the United States finds itself shackled to allies of convenience. States like Saudi Arabia take advantage of American backing by using our money and implicit support to commit human rights violations and start illegal wars — such as the brutal Saudi intervention in Yemen. These states harm America’s image and its ability to take a stand on human rights because the United States fears that taking too hard a stance will end these alliances.
Instead of courting the approval of petty dictators, the United States should bolster its relationship with nations that have similar ideals, such as the United Kingdom. Shrinking the American alliance system may slightly deflate America’s sphere of influence, but it would strengthen our ability to remain morally consistent. A smaller, more unified coalition would also allow the U.S. to focus its resources in a more targeted way, responding effectively to the most pressing threats, rather than trying to somehow prevent against every conceivable threat.
The foundation of American power lies in its military might. Accordingly, the United States has poured over $20 trillion into the military since the end of the Cold War. But as the misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya show, no amount of money deems our armed forces a worldwide police force, nor does military presence guarantee democracy or stability in occupied countries. In fact, America’s foreign intervention often leads to violent reprisals like the 9/11 terror attacks. Yet despite the military’s limitations, the American government insists on launching global missions with open-ended goals — such as the “war on terror.” Unsurprisingly, the military has not been able to achieve its goals because the lofty ambitions placed upon it are too great for any one country, even a superpower, to fulfill. Spreading out our resources around the world actually harms our ability to counter threats posed by Russia and China and saddles our country with enormous debt, selling out the future of the American economy simply to project a facade of power.
But even if the United States had the resources to be the world’s policeman, that would not mean that our intervention would be a net good for the world. Despite hopes that American dominance would reduce the need for force, the Congressional Research Service has determined that America has used major military force in foreign countries over 200 times in the 28 years since the end of the Cold War, compared to 46 times during the entire 50-year Cold War. At times, these interventions have been beneficial and relatively successful, such as the intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Albania. But far too often, intervention only creates more instability and suffering. A 2018 study by Brown University estimated that the United States and its allies have directly killed over 200,000 civilians in Iraq since 9/11 and tens of thousands more in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The fundamental problem with the idea of American democratic expansion is that in the long term, democracy cannot be imposed on one country by another. A stable democratic system must be homegrown. If the United States restrained its global involvement, countries could have more control of their own destinies. A country’s path to democracy might not be an easy one, but imposing a democratic regime by force, as the United States has done in Iraq and Afghanistan, or worse, helping dictators overthrow democracies, as the United States has done in Nicaragua and Iran, do far more harm than good.
One might argue that instead of reducing direct global involvement, the United States should simply stop killing large numbers of civilians and overthrowing democratic regimes. But these misdeeds are an integral part of our international policy. Overwhelming military force, with all its negative side effects, is the cornerstone of America’s global supremacy, so to say that America could continue its supremacy without frequent use of military force is naive. The U.S. never sets out to kill huge numbers of civilians; it comes as a consequence of fighting a war.
Whether or not the American people approve of the government’s methods, presidents have proven themselves willing to commit atrocities, so long as these atrocities serve the maintenance of American primacy, a goal which the government hasn’t seriously questioned in over 50 years. Instead of focusing solely on the symptoms, Americans should grapple with the underlying cause of the violence: overambitious and morally dubious strategic goals.
It’s time for the United States to reevaluate its foreign policy goals. As China’s economy grows and the gap between American goals and American capabilities widens, our status as a superpower is already coming into question. The United States has two choices. It can either accept the limitations of its power and embark on a morally consistent and focused policy with a core group of like-minded allies, or continue to stand by its policy of dominance at any cost, until the gap between rhetoric and reality grows so great that the whole house of cards comes crashing down.
America should not withdraw from world politics. I only suggest giving up the egotistical and dangerous dream of a world dominated by the U.S. Just as Americans have an instinctive suspicion of any one man who thinks himself wise enough to control an entire state, Americans should be wary of any world where one nation possesses undisputed control.