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A New World Disorder

Playing the Role of 'Warrior' and 'Priest'

April 11, 1999|Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman | Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is a professor of American foreign relations at San Diego State University. She is the author of "All You Need is Love: The Peace Corps and the Spirit of the 1960s."

SAN DIEGO — In the war against Yugoslavia, the U.S. president spearheads a European coalition, commanded by an American general, that has resulted in U.S. prisoners. Why is the United States still taking the role of global policeman? Is the nation addicted to the thrill of throwing its weight around? Or are we "exaggeratedly moral," as a British foreign secretary once observed, and unable to perceive our self-interest as clearly as our European allies, who often seem to take less heat? In other words, are we knaves or fools?

Critics as well as supporters of U.S. interventionism often look to the messianic democratic ideology of the nation to explain its foreign policy. This ideology shapes the "how" of U.S. interventionism, but the "why" has more to do with the nation's geopolitical and economic position. Typically, Washington intervenes in defense of principles the nation believes in, because America's size and power make its decisions determinative compared to the influence of others. We intervene both because we can, and because our sheer weight compels us to make choices weaker countries are waiting for us to make. This is a position the United States has occupied since almost the beginning of the century, and, as of 1999, no other country or organization has replaced the nation as the leader of what was once called "the free world."

History shows that U.S. foreign-policy ideals and choices became important to the rest of the world only after Washington acquired the power to implement them. At the start of this century, Secretary of State John M. Hay sent a brief note to the rulers of Europe and Asia. In one paragraph, Hay announced the opposition of the United States to any attempt to colonize collapsing imperial China. In effect, he announced the arrival of a new great power, prepared to help police the globe in times of conflict, according to rules of its own invention. In its preceding 124-year history, the United States had issued only one other declaration to the powers of the world: Stay out of the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine lacked force, however. The United States, at the time of its fifth president, James Monroe, had all the scare power of a 98-pound weakling defending his towel on the beach.

The United States that strode into the 20th century, however, had the build of a Mark McGwire, born during the Civil War that concentrated power in the federal government and nurtured by the Industrial Revolution. The younger members of Hay's generation were Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Together, they committed the politically mature United States to a police role in defense of an international system largely of our own making. That international system took form in fits and starts during the 20th century, and Washington still defends it today because it is our best guarantee of a mostly peaceful modus vivendi critical to our own, and the world's, physical safety and economic well-being. In other words, Roosevelt and Wilson set the course leading from China in 1900 to Kosovo today.

As president, Roosevelt established the new character of U.S. foreign policy when he declared in 1904 that henceforth the United States would "police" the Western hemisphere and punish any nation that dared cause trouble. Any great power that claimed a sphere of influence, as the United States did in Latin America, bore a corresponding responsibility to maintain law and order, Roosevelt asserted. This Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine was a heavily muscled beat cop whose practice was to "walk softly and carry a big stick."

Wilson further widened the nation's responsibility. He insisted that a nation great in both its political power and moral character had the obligation to defend not simply the status quo, but also the dictates of justice. In Latin America, this meant a preference for democracy over despotism. In Europe, it meant a commitment to the self-determination of small nations like Serbia, as expressed in the "14 points" that laid the basis for U.S. intervention in World War I. The Allied powers welcomed U.S. troops and machines because they knew the nations Wilson sided with would win the war. They did not care terribly for the larger principles Wilson brought with them.

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