Would you believe if I told you that not long ago, the United States firmly stuck to the policy of isolationism? Sounds unbelievable? It surely does. Although we have grown accustomed to the US interventionism as we witness it everyday, its history is relatively short.
Having won the Revolutionary War, the United States were recognised as an independent country in 1783. The Second War of Independence only confirmed the status quo in 1812 which ultimately convinced Great Britain to establish peaceful relations with the former colonies. However, the young country was still weak and well aware of that. In 1823 James Monroe, the 5th president of the USA, announced that the States adopted the policy that subsequently became known as the ‘Monroe Doctrine’. It stated that ‘further efforts by European nations to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America would be viewed as acts of aggression, requiring U.S. intervention. At the same time, the doctrine noted that the United States would neither interfere with existing European colonies nor meddle in the internal concerns of European countries’ (1). President Monroe introduced the policy of isolationism which categorically rejected any possibility of the US intervention in Europe and any European intervention is America. This assumption became the basis for the US foreign policy for the next 100 years. Henceforth, the States waged wars only against their neighbours. Since most of them turned out to be very successful, the policy provided prosperity and growth. Even during the Civil War (the name is not a coincidence) the Union made an effort to describe the conflict as an internal matter of the States in order to prevent any European intervention. It seems that Monroe Doctrine ensured the conditions for growth within the undisturbed United States.
So one may ask ‘what went wrong?’ The policy introduced in 1823 was suspended for the first time in 1917 when the United States declared war on the German Empire. Between 1914 and 1917 Germany successfully carried the warfare against Russia, France and Great Britain. The possibility that this aggressive nation wipes out its enemies and conquers the whole continent was considered a serious threat to the very existence of the American States. Especially, regarding the undeclared war that was taking place at the Atlantic Ocean between the German submarines and the US ships. American president Woodrow Wilson decided to step in and sent troops to Europe. The United States engaged in the European war for the very first time. The US Army changed the balance of powers and contributed to the victory over the German Empire. However, this was not enough for Wilson who had far-reaching plans for the US foreign policy. In 1918 he announced his famous Fourteen Points for Peace where he postulated, among others, the creation of the League of Nations. The first intergovernmental organisation that was supposed to prevent further wars. Although the organisation was established by the Treaty of Versailles, the US Congress did not approve the Wilson’s idea and rejected to ratify the agreement. The US involvement in the Great War was merely suspension of the Monroe Doctrine, it did not change the mental attitude of the US politicians who feared that the League of Nations would entangle the USA in the unstable European matters indefinitely. Isolationism was restored.
In 1939 the Nazi Germany invaded Poland and started the World War II. The USA were very reluctant to get involved but after Japan had attacked the US Navy at Pearl Harbor, there was not much choice. The States were dragged into another war that had originated in Europe. In 1944 the US Army landed in France and liberated the Western Europe. At the same time the Soviet Union that had been fighting the Germans since 1941 captured Berlin and the war was over. By that time, the Americans were deployed in Italy, France, Western Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines. The natural step was to withdraw these troops and return to the good old isolationist policy but the old enemy was replaced by the new one. The Soviet Union strengthened by the victory over Germany started to pose a deadly threat not only to the USA but to all free States across the Globe. The Cold War was about to begin.
President Harry Truman faced a dilemma. He could either withdraw from the international affairs and let the events take their course or challenge the Soviet Union and try to stop the progress of the communism. The latter required a constant involvement in Europe as well as occasional presence on other continents. That meant a large skip to the other side of the political theory. From isolationism to interventionism after a century of the former. This radical change was named ‘Truman Doctrine’ and stipulated that the USA must intervene everywhere where the democracy is being overthrown by the totalitarian forces. That was in 1947. It was based on the assumption that the democracy and the America itself may flourish only if surrounded by the free nations. The doctrine led to the US support for Greece which was being torn apart by the civil war at the time, Turkey, Western Germany, Israel. But with every US president, the policy was escalating and becoming more and more aggressive. It led to direct interventions in Cuba (1961), Korea (1950-53), Vietnam (1955-75), Dominican Republic (1965-66), Grenada (1983) and to different level of involvement in Congo, Libya, Afghanistan, Iran and countless other states. Quite an impressive list. All these actions were carried out in order to stop the spread of communism.
Interventionism has put down roots in the minds of the American politicians. As it has become part of their nature, they have felt comfortable with it.
The Cold War ended in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. In 1991 the Soviet Union officially stopped existing. It has collapsed leaving the USA unquestionable winner after half-a-century struggle. As the main element that had been determining the US foreign policy disappeared, the void was created. The doctrine did not make sense anymore but at the same time there was no way back. The US politicians were identifying with interventionism as well as the United States were being regarded in that way abroad. The policy changed the way every one thought about the USA therefore the sudden return to isolationism turned out to be impossible. Having their troops deployed across the whole Globe, even from technical point of view, withdrawing from international affairs was problematic. The early 90s constituted quite a challenge for the US foreign policy. The Gulf War (1990-91) marked a new stage in the American interventionism. The USA led a coalition against another country that was not designed to stop the spread of communism but rather to restore peace where the aggression occurred. The same situation took place in Panama (1989-90), Somali (1992-94), Serbia (1993-95) and Haiti (1994-95). It was no longer about the ideology. The Cold War was over. The interventions were not strategically planned and did not serve any particular agenda. The last decade of the 20th century could be regarded as a transitional period in the history of the US foreign policy. The States did not abandon interventionism even after the reason for its adoption had disappeared.
The present US approach to the foreign politics was established the moment the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York were destroyed by the planes in a terrorist attack September 11 2001. The war on terror was declared this day by President George Bush Junior. The United States have found a new enemy. The interventionist policy was given back its rationale that day. The void has been filled. As a result, further military operations were conducted in Afghanistan (2001-present) and Iraq (2003-2011). War on terror as grounds for US interventionism naturally evolved from the Truman Doctrine. Communism was replaced by terrorism but rationale remained the same. However, for the next US president, Barrack Obama, war on terror was not a sufficient justification for the US involvement in the international matters. He came up with the idealistic approach to the foreign policy. As the Arab Spring began, he decided to support the rebels. It should be noted that during the Cold War the United Stated had supported also undemocratic regimes as a lesser evil against the communistic forces as long as they did not threat the US interests. The end was believed to justify the means. However, the present US policy lost its coherency as the support is given to the opposition that strives to overthrow the Governments that did not pose any threat to the US interests. All the rebels have to do is to create an impression that they believe in democracy (Libya 2011).
If the United States adopt this rationale as grounds for military interventions in independent states, we will witness a series of endless wars that will eventually lead to anarchy. This is where we stand today. At the verge of military intervention in Syria (2013?). We witness the climax of the US interventionism. It had been initiated by President Truman in 1947 for an honourable purpose but it has come a long way since then. It has become rotten and distorted. Like it or not but possible military operation in Syria is Harry Truman’s legacy. Though, he could not have predicted such a development of his policy. He must be spinning in the grave right now.