“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities
for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.” In his address to a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked for a Declaration of War against Germany, justifying leading “this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars” by emphasizing the importance of maintaining international peace and diplomacy through American intervention. In the years since World War I, American foreign policy has abandoned its isolationist immersion in domestic issues and has come to accept its newfound responsibility and leadership as a world power, making international relations and diplomacy a priority in its foreign policy. However, the United States has been criticized for letting its history of colonialism and expansion, as well as concern for its own national interest and economy, interfere with its humanitarian mission and for being selective and often contradictory on which conflicts and international crises in which it intervenes. In the wake of 9/11, lack of domestic support for the Iraq War and an increasing global resentment towards the United States, it is important to determine how the United States’ humanitarian agenda can be balanced with its national interest in terms of the economy, national security and collective ideology. Additionally, one must examine whether public opinion calls for a more isolationist foreign policy that uses deterrence and preemption to maintain peace and freedom or a more humanitarian mission that will use aid and military assistance to improve the United States’ image in the international community and alleviate poverty and suffering worldwide.
The United States has a long history of intervention in foreign affairs, beginning as far back as the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine and the nation’s emergence as a world power (Tucker, 14). Through expansionism, isolationism, the “Good Neighbor” policy and more, U.S. foreign policy has always had a strong base in intervention and humanitarianism, whether out of a desire to control world affairs or a feeling of responsibility as a world power. In his 1904 annual message to Congress, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared, “All that this country desires is to see the neighboring countries stable, orderly and prosperous. Any country whose people conduct themselves well can count upon our hearty friendship. If a nation shows that it knows how to act with reasonable efficiency and decency in social and political matters, if it keeps order and pays its obligations, it need fear no interference from the United States. Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such impotence or wrongdoing, to the exercise of an international police power.” (“Roosevelt Corollary”) This willingness to act as a global “police power” and intervene on humanitarian grounds has been a dominant theme in 20th century foreign policy; however, in light of the recent war against terror and growing American backlash, these aims must be reexamined. Additionally, the domestic political considerations that lie beneath humanitarian efforts must be considered as well.
In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, William Appleman Williams outlines three major conceptions that guide the ideology of American foreign policy: the humanitarian impulse to help other people solve their problems, the principle of self-determination applied at the national level and the idea that other nations cannot truly solve their problems unless they use the same approach as the United States (Williams 13). However, the motivation behind foreign policy decisions is not always as selflessly benevolent as Williams describes it. A variety of American national interests, from international political influence to economic gain to national security, influence the decision to become involved in a humanitarian crisis (Ferer 49).
Since the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. foreign policy has sought to gain political or economic influence through its intervention in foreign affairs, whether by setting up puppet governments in weak Latin American states or occupying territories in the Pacific (Ferer 51). For any capitalist society, the desire to reach into underdeveloped countries for new markets, raw materials, cheap labor and profitable investment of capital is understandable, but within American foreign policy, humanitarian efforts can have economically self-serving ulterior motives and place more emphasis on economic and political ends and means than on human rights.
Prime examples of U.S. humanitarian intervention for political control are seen in our nation’s involvement in Latin America in the 20th century. After years of oppression by violent dictators and a desperate need for social change, U.S.-supported dictator Jorge Ubico was overthrown by revolution in 1944 and Juan Jose Arevalo was legally elected (Parenti 122). While he established free speech and press and education reform among other successes, he appeared to be a communist threat to the United States and the government arranged for him to be overthrown and set up another oppressive dictator in his place (Parenti 124). Another example is found in the United States’ support of the Contras in Nicauragua during the 1980s, as well as support for the oppressive governments of El Salvador, Guatamala and Honduras (Chatterjee 86). While the United States may claim to intervene to right a wrong or protect human rights, the action policy makers and administrators take may not always be in the best interest of the nation, but in the best interest of the so-called liberator. By setting up pro-U.S., anti-socialist dictators, the United States allowed for influence in the nation’s politics and economy and increased access to the nation’s trade and resources.
Another motivation for humanitarian intervention is the protection of national security and the prevention of war or terrorist attack. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered World War II and joined the Allied forces out of a concern for its national security and a desire to eliminate the fascist threat and maintain peace and democracy (Ambrose 15). Besides having the staunch support of American citizens, the war not only neutralized the Axis powers, but established America as a world power and Germany and Japan as newly democratic capitalist nations and allies to the West (Ambrose 33-34). As the war was fought in direct retaliation to an attack on American soil and in response to a significant threat to freedom and human rights, political and economic interests did not affect American motivation to engage in the war. However, not all humanitarian interventions on behalf of national security and international peace are as pure-intentioned or as well supported as World War II. The current Iraq War, fought in response to Saddam Hussein’s human rights abuses and a suspicion of weapons of mass destruction, has had considerable amounts of both setbacks and scandals. From a lack of popular support for the war and problems with insurgency and anti-American sentiment worldwide to the war profiteering of private corporations in Iraq, high number of casualties and misbehavior of U.S. troops, the Iraq War has been plagued with problems despite having a goal of maintaining domestic and international security.
However, some humanitarian crises receive little to no consideration on a foreign policy agenda due to their lack of correlation to the national interest. While the United States commends itself as a defender of freedom, regional conflicts or human rights violations that do not pose a threat to the United States’ national security or economic and poltical interests – no matter how many casualties – may not be viewed as a priority. In 1994, radical Hutus attempted to eradicate the Tutsi population in Rwanda, leaving one million dead in less than three months while the international community dragged their feet (DiPrizio 61). While the genocide was well publicized, the U.S. hardly responded and only sent troops and a humanitarian relief operation well after the genocide ended (DiPrizio 61). Little over ten years later, the Darfur region of Sudan came under attack from government-sponsored Arab militias that massacred over 200,000 people and left countless more as refugees but the United States continues to avoid involvement (“Darfur”). Although the United States claims to be a protector of human rights, the lack of intervention in such sizable humanitarian crises were due to a lack of political or economic incentive. Because the violence was contained to the borders of Sudan and Rwanda and did not threaten American resources, such human rights violations are apparently not enough of a priority to act upon.
In light of the anti-American backlash worldwide, the threat of terrorism worldwide and the challenge of balancing American national interests with protecting human rights and international peace, would an isolationist foreign policy be more beneficial? While the United States has historically had periods of isolationist foreign policy, it seems almost impossible to remain self-contained and self-sufficient in today’s globalized society and interdependent marketplace. With the rise of trade agreements that open new borders and increased American dependence on foreign products and resources, it would be near impossible not to become involved in international affairs without alienating trade partners or losing influence in global politics. By becoming involved in humanitarian crises strictly in the defense of human rights and not self-interest, the United States would undoubtedly maintain peace without making as many enemies and eventually worsening the quality of life for others. Additionally, the United States needs to rebuild alliances with old and new allies and use the power of the United Nations and other international organizations in its endeavors (Lefever 45). While the United States would be wise to use its economic and military power to preempt acts of violence and maintain peace, military force and intervention in foreign government should be a last resort and not a means to police other nations.
After an examination of American motives for humanitarian intervention, historical incidents and approaches to policy making and policy ideology, it becomes clear that humanitarianism is inextricably linked with the United States’ foreign policy mission. As a self-described defender of liberty and democracy in a globalized and interdependent world, the United States must continue to intervene to protect its own political and economic interests as well as take precautions and even drastic action to preserve peace and democracy around the world. Rather than use excessive military force and act alone in its intervention efforts, the United States would be more successful in its efforts if it was more effective in using the support of the United Nations and other international organizations and take a more aid-based approach, only using military force as a last resort when sanctions and economic pressure do not cease the violence or violations. America must give more foresight to its policy choices and strike a balance between its national interests and its national ideology while ensuring that its involvement in a humanitarian crisis will be in the best interests of the afflicted nation and that its relationships within the international community remain sound.
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