Choosing Empire: America Before And After World War IIHistorians in the News
tags: foreign policy, war on terror, militarism, American imperialism
Last year, when Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the World Health Organization, it felt like a cruel bit of political theater. Threaten to cripple global public-health efforts as a pandemic stalks the planet? Why not? It was all upside for the narcissistic hall-of-mirrors feed stream that propels Trump’s demagoguery. With another dig at China and the “globalists,” he could rally his supporters on Fox News and gin up the usual outrage in the “lamestream media” to boot. As we now know all too well, nothing can be too craven if it appears to serve the ends of Trump’s long con: perpetuating the country’s rancorous divides to boost his authoritarian dreams.
Cue Joe Biden, riding in on a wave of conventional wisdom. Trumpism, the liberal standard bearer declares, has damaged America’s standing in the world and undermined the nation’s global leadership. The answer is to turn the clock back to the golden years of a sane liberal world order—led by the enlightened United States, of course, with its special dispensation for liberty.
This argument can feel just right—soft and forgiving like a familiar and well-worn shirt—a wave of relief after years of discomfort. But pause a minute, and those easy comforts might set off a suspicious itch. The story the liberal narrative offers, as we should already know, ignores far too much.
In Iran, Cuba, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among others, “liberal world ordering” has foundered, broken on the rocks of imperial hubris and the white-racial-superiority complex that propped it up. Of course, it would be easy to respond with a competing litany of US benevolence in postwar Europe, Japan, or elsewhere. But tit-for-tat won’t do. The country has reached an intellectual and moral impasse.
Trump’s bluster on foreign affairs has proved to be a malevolent game of shiny keys. It’s menacing, to be sure, but also a sign of his incompetence. Meanwhile, the call to return to a liberal world order swaddles the past three-quarters of a century in reassuring bromides about American indispensability, while failing to understand that status quo as only a softer, more respectable form of nationalist self-assurance and imperial universalism. Both America First nationalism and the postwar liberal status quo are symptoms of larger dilemmas. They reveal how the nation has failed to come to grips with the true challenges of the present: inequality, climate change, global pandemic. And both compound the fact that the United States has refused to face the challenges of the globalized world it inaugurated three-quarters of a century ago, during World War II.
How did this happen? In Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home between the Wars, Nancy Cott suggests that the years leading up to World War II saw the expansion of American world-mindedness. She rediscovers a once-famous generation of foreign correspondents and argues that they inspired their “fellow Americans to tie their own fates to the rest of the world.” What happened to those internationalist passions? In Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, Stephen Wertheim reveals that during World War II an American “foreign policy class” abandoned its roots in the more cooperative internationalism of the interwar years and chose to assert US “primacy” over the rest of the world, remaking internationalism as a narrow ideology of American dominance and steering the nation toward global empire.
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