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It would be wise to start by mentioning that every great country kept aloof from the world politics at a certain point of their history. The period of the so-called splendid isolation in Great Britain and the indifference of the powerful Celestial Empire to international relations up to the late 19th century clearly demonstrate this point. Similarly, the US foreign policy rested on the principle of neutrality prior to the incipience of the First World War in 1914. President George Washington and his successors admonished that the country should eschew from all the foreign entanglements. Nevertheless, Uncle Sam did not want to wait until this great geopolitical conflagration in Europe burned itself out and became embroiled in it instead. Withering overseas operations had also positive political ramifications within the American continent. For instance, American women were granted suffrage in the aftermath of the war. The inter-bellum period was characterized by a relative tranquility in the US foreign policy.
It was not until the Second World War that the US got bogged down in another military quagmire. Decision of the US government to lend a shoulder to the Anti-Hitler Coalition in their full-bore military campaign against the Axis Alliance changed the course of its foreign policy for good. Indeed, the principle of neutrality receded into history. Under the pretense of safeguarding strangulated democracies and resuscitating ailing economies, as well as the plethora of other benevolent pretenses, the US chivalrously interfered in the internal affairs of many countries. Theoretically, America had no choice but to engage in proxy wars with the USSR in order to offset the ubiquitous communist threat. In praxis, it did not start to shun foreign entanglements when the Soviet threat vanished with the collapse of the USSR. This paper makes an arduous attempt to examine the evolution of the American foreign policy and it illuminates six watersheds in the country’s foreign policy history.
The Panama Canal
Although it was not until the end of the World War II that the US entered the world’s political fray as a full-fledged member, the first attempts to flex its diplomatic muscles were made much earlier. The tumultuous changes in the sphere of the international trade had also reinvigorated the interest of the international community in a canal that would connect the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. Emboldened by the beginning of the Gold Rush in California, the American Government bestirred itself to clinch a deal with its Nicaraguan counterpart that would give the US a monopoly over the canal construction industry in this Latin American country. Due to the fact that the dominions of the British Empire abutted on Nicaragua, Great Britain hastened to rein the American expansion in. Nothing daunted, the two states concluded the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1950, which obliged them to guarantee neutrality and safety of the would-be interoceanic canal. The Spanish-American War of 1898 inculcated in the Washington Government the idea of building a canal in Panama in lieu of Nicaragua so as to increase its sway over the Western Hemisphere. It was at this time that the US took a revisionist view of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty and arrogated to itself the privilege of building the canal without the British involvement. Similarly, it resorted to a series of cunning stratagems to dissuade France from pursuing its own ambitions in Latin America. After all, the Panama Canal was unveiled in June 1920. The American mandate over the Panama Canal lasted until 31 December 1999, making the country a pivotal actor in this region.
The Beginning of the Cold War and the Policy of Containment
After the World War II subsided, the US and the USSR embarked on the ambitious efforts to divide the world into their spheres of influence. Thanks to the successful detonation of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US gained some sort of advantage over its chief geopolitical foe in this respect. Realizing the magnitude of threats and challenges posed by the USSR, the US decided to contain its formidable rival. The policy of containment is a geopolitical concept developed by the American diplomat George Kennan in the late 1940s. It is closely intertwined with the concept of mutually assured destruction, which is premised on the idea that the implicit and irrevocable annihilation that would be visited upon one of the nuclear-weapons states, should deliver the first strike against its enemy. The Washington Government made this theory the cornerstone of its bilateral relations with the USSR during the Cold War. George Kennan believed that containment always led to the armaments race and, as a result, to the high risk of an armed conflict. The first geopolitical imbroglio began on the Korean Peninsula in the early 1950s. 60 years have passed since the Korean War ended, but North Korea still vents its spleen on the US, threatening nuclear retaliation against the country.
When Dwight Eisenhower was swept to power in 1953, he declared allegiance to the well-known principle of deterrence. Working in tandem with the architect of the containment policy George Kennan, he sought to dislodge communism and liberate the subjugated nations. To this end, he decided to pile up a nuclear arsenal that would be strong enough to dissuade the antagonists from striking first. Thus, the Eisenhower Administration made a volte-face on the American foreign policy, with the emphasis on reinforcing the country’s security at any cost. The country did not spare the wherewithal when it engaged in the proxy wars with the Soviet Union. The list of foreign entanglements of Uncle Sam in the 1960s and 1970s runs the gamut from the Vietnam War, the Laotian Civil War and the Congo Crisis to the War in Bolivia. The Third World countries in Africa and Indochina were the cockpit of the Soviet-American relations. Mass antiwar demonstrations, as well as a series of discomfitures on the battlefield, oftentimes prevailed on the US Government to discontinue the unsuccessful military campaigns.
The Marshall Plan
The Marshall Plan was the initiative of the Washington Government to render economic assistance to the war-ravaged European states. The plan was implemented in 1948 and aimed, inter alia, at helping the regional countries to consolidate peace. Among the other ostensible goals of the Marshal Plan were the abolition of trade barriers in the region, industrial modernization of the West European states and development of Europe in general. By and large, the US earmarked nearly $15 billion for the purposes of the European economic recovery. It should be noted that the American authorities did not miss a chance to attach strings to its foreign aid. In particular, the White House demanded that countries-donors of the American assistance should banish communist parties from their governments. This was a thinly designed demarche to undermine the positions of the Soviet Union in this region, which by chance also subscribed to the ideas of communism. Indeed, the abdication of communist principles by the majority of European states prevented the USSR from spreading its clout to the Western Europe. On the whole, the Marshall Plan placed Europe in a position of dependence from the US, giving the latter sweeping powers over the continent’s politics.
The Suez Crisis
Similarly to the Panama Canal, the Suez Canal has been sowing discord among the major international powers throughout its history. In the maelstrom of the WWII, the coalition of the German and Italian troops had assailed the Canal for several times, but they were always repelled by the joint Anglo-American contingent. One way or the other, tensions in the region reached the apogee in 1956, when the Suez War erupted. According to Varble (2003), “The 1956 Suez-Sinai War sprang from a 23 July 1952 military coup in Egypt”. Being a truly global power, the US could not shy away from the resolution of this conflict. Moreover, the country controlled nearly 60% of oil production in the region at that time. Hence, the US had a vested interest in suspending the nationalization of the Suez Canal by the Egyptian authorities. Since the simmering contradictions between Israel and Egypt were one of the underlying reasons behind the conflict, the US took strenuous efforts to mediate a peaceful agreement between the belligerents. Just like “a 1949 Israeli-Egyptian armistice failed to quell violence along their common boundary” (Varble, 2003), the US efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict did not succeed initially. As a result, it had to bring pressure to bear on Israel so that it would cede the beleaguered territories to Egypt. All in all, the Suez Crisis showed that the US could understand labyrinthine complexities of a geopolitically fluid situation and tackle them without resorting to military operations.
In the early 1970s, the Sino-Soviet split resulted in the further escalation of tensions on the continent. By this time the Soviet Union had reached a nuclear parity with the United States, which meant that the latter could not afford to miss an opportunity of remedying its souring relations with the People’s Republic of China. In a bid to pave the way towards rapprochement between the two countries, President Nixon paid a visit to his Chinese counterpart Mao Zedong. The leaders had a full-dress discussion about the impact of a possible thaw in relations between their countries. Nixon’s trip to China has been important because it ushered in a new milestone in the history of Sino-American relations and reinforced the effects of a policy of detente. This watershed event in the US history had an importance far beyond the bounds of Nixon’s bilateral relations with China. Many analysts and political scientists imply that President Obama could draw a lesson from Nixon’s dealings with the PRC in his efforts to mend diplomatic fences with the rogue state of Iran. For the sake of brevity, Nixon’s globetrotting in general and the trip to China in particular demonstrate that the US can succeed by going the extra mile diplomatically rather than resorting to sapping sanctions and other coercive measures.
Although no concrete proposals were put forward during Nixon’s visit to China, it was important for its symbolic value. President Nixon was the first American leader to go ahead with a state visit to the communist state. Three years earlier he departed in Rumania, which is another bulwark of communism on the Eurasian continent. This is interesting because Nixon was one of the most fervent opponents of communism on the American political horizon. It is worth mentioning that the US had not maintained diplomatic relations with the PRC at that point, as it supported the Chinese government-in-exile in Taiwan. Both Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during their official visits to China did all the necessary spadework for the normalization of the relations with the PRC. Eventually, the countries established diplomatic ties in 1979.
The End of the Cold War
The Cold War started winding down in the late 1980s, well before the Soviet Union fell apart. 10-year long invasion of Afghanistan eviscerated the Soviet coffers and it could not pose any significant threat to the US national interests anymore. Meanwhile, the Washington Government continued ratcheting up its image of a single superpower on the globe. Resounding victory in the Gulf War signified the beginning of a new stage in US’s Middle East policy. The conflict with Iraq began in August 1990, when the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein deployed his forces in the adjacent Kuwait. Baghdad was presented with an ultimatum to withdraw its troops from Kuwait, but it did not obey. Thus, the UN Security Council gave Uncle Sam carte blanche to conduct a military operation in Iraq and Kuwait. In concert with the UN “blue helmets”, the US managed to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait as well as to persuade Saddam Hussein to relinquish the spoils of his illegal conquest very quickly. The post-Cold War thrust of the American foreign policy stirred up hostility towards the US among Muslim people. Figuratively speaking, the meddlesome politics of the Washington Government aroused a nest of hornets in the Middle East.
Realizing full well that his predecessors almost turned the country into an international outlaw, President Obama decided to embark on a more circumspect and pacific strategy. It looks like his administration has settled on a policy of benign neglect in regard to the Middle East and perpetual nuisances associated with it. A phalanx of gadflies dismisses the Obama Doctrine as a precarious one. In particular, both laymen and well-known political pundits are angry about the lackadaisical approach of Washington to the Arab Spring. Even though recent geopolitical transformations in the Middle East had the capacity to jeopardize US national interests, the Arab Awakening overlapped with a fallow period in the American foreign policy. Nowadays, civil war in Syria is an issue on which any actor in international relations is not budging. Ultimate decision of the US whether to intervene will show if Obama Administration has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors. Once again, the US needs to desist from the unnecessary pitched battles against its occasional enemies.
In conclusion, it would be logical to say that the US has metamorphosed from a neutral state into the one that partakes in all major international events. The exhortation of President Washington to avoid foreign entanglements has been replaced by the country’s commitment to give succor to populations involved in sanguinary conflicts around the world. For a long time, the thrust of US foreign policy was to diminish the influence of the Soviet Union. Today, when the USSR is no more, the US enjoys world hegemony and essays to maintain diplomatic relations with all the sovereign states.