Amid all the gloomy predictions that Trumpaggeddon is upon us, I wonder if the Trump presidency has simply laid bare the reality of American power that usually hides behind the mask of the USA’s founding mythologies.
The founding mythologies insist that America is grounded in righteousness and that it’s destiny is to bring freedom, democracy and justice to the world. It’s heroes are the pilgrim fathers, fleeing persecution in England to establish a just nation; George Washington, who nobly turned down the opportunity to assume dictatorial power; and Abraham Lincoln, who went to war to end slavery.
The reality is that the United States has always acted in its own interests. When Donald Trump declared he would put “only America first” he was only saying openly what previous President’s concealed behind lofty rhetoric.
For the last 100 years the United States has been the most militaristic nation on the planet. When it comes to the use of violent force to impose its will [on other nations]**, the USA has no equal. From the end of WWII to 2001, the USA launched 203 military operations* and the pattern continued post 2001. These included command operations in Greece (1947-49), the Philippines (1948-54), Iran (1953) Guatemala (1954, 66), Cuba (1961), Iraq (1963), Indonesia (1965), Oman (1970), Chile (1973), Angola (1976-92), El Salvador (1981-92), Nicaragua (1981-90), and bombings and/or ground troops in Korea (1951-53), Vietnam (1965-70), the Dominican Republic (1965-66), Cambodia (1969-75), Laos (1971-73), Lebanon (1982-84), Granada (1983-84), Libya (1986), Panama (1989), Iraq (1990-2011), Kuwait (1991), Somalia (1992-94, 2006-), Bosnia (1993), Haiti (1994, 2004-05), Sudan (1998), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Yugoslavia (1999), Yemen (2002, 2009), Colombia (2003), Liberia (2003), Pakistan (2005-), Libya (2011), Syria (2014-). These incursions were undertaken for one reason and one only: to advance American interests.[When we think of great crimes against humanity we may reference the genocides of Hitler’s Germany, Satlin’s Russia, or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Thankfully the US has not been an Empire given to genocide, but it does have its own defining crime against humanity]**, the dropping of the atom bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The righteous state mythology argues that dropping the bomb was a righteous act that brought the war with Japan to an end. The reality is that America’s military leaders, including General Eisenhower, advised that Japan was ready to surrender and the dropping of the bomb was completely unnecessary. Many historians [contest the argument that dropping the bomb was necessary to ending the war]** and believe the target of the bombs was not the citizens of those two ill-fated cities in Japan, but the Russian leadership. America wanted to demonstrate its power in order to gain advantage in the postwar carve up of territory.
And then of course we have the more recent ill-fated incursions in the Middle East, where it has become apparent that the United States tore apart Iraq and Afghanistan without having any plan for nation building afterwards or consideration for the impacts upon the Iraqi and the Afghani people. Not unsurprisingly the legacy has been utter chaos and the descent of those states into continual violence.
When it comes to ”soft power” the story remains the same. Critics of the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund argue that these are used as instruments of the powerful nations to maintain their economic advantage. Nobel prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz, for example, argues that it is the interests of the powerful and not the poor that are at the forefront of activities by the international financial institutions. In an interview for global policy.org he said
the international institutions go around the world preaching liberalization, and the developing countries see that means open up your markets to our commodities, but we aren’t going to open our markets to your commodities. In the nineteenth century, they used gunboats. Now they use economic weapons and arm-twisting.
When it comes to global challenges such as climate change, refugees, and global poverty the US is anything but the leader of the free world. In the area of aid, for example, the US is the largest donor in terms of dollars, but in terms of proportion of income is one of the least generous nations on the planet. It can however afford to outspend the collective spend of almost every other nation in the world on its military.
I’m not suggesting that the United States has not had any positive impacts on the world. There is no doubt that the democratic ideology embodied by the United States has proved inspirational to peoples all over the world; that amazing life-saving medical technologies have been developed in the US and exported to the rest of the world; that many kinds of knowledge and technology that enrich human living originated in the United States. I’m pretty confident that the world would be have been a much more oppressive place had the Soviets won the Cold War. But none of this should blind us to the fact that the United States has only ever done what is in the interest of the United States. That’s how international affairs are conducted in the modern world. That some of it benefits others is just a happy coincidence.
It looks like it’s going to be a particularly ugly and ignorant version of self-interest under President Trump, but when Donald Trump stood on the podium on the weekend and said his presidency would be about only America first, he was not saying anything new. He was just being honest.
*William H. Wiist, Kathy Barker, Neil Arya, Jon Rohde, Martin Donohoe, Shelley White, Pauline Lubens, Geraldine Gorman, and Amy Hagopian. The Role of Public Health in the Prevention of War: Rationale and Competencies. American Journal of Public Health: June 2014, Vol. 104, No. 6, pp. e34-e47.
** This sentence has been changed from my original piece