Is the US Ready to Stop Being the World's Policeman?Historians in the News
tags: war on terror, international relations, militarism
When the United States announced its military withdrawal from Afghanistan in May, the Taliban wasted no time in launching an offensive to reclaim the country, fueling warnings of mass displacement and government breakdown. But President Biden hasn’t budged from his plan to complete the withdrawal by Sept. 11, 20 years after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
“We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build,” he said this month. “And it’s the right and the responsibility of Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
It’s a very different message from the one that prevailed in the early 2000s, when George W. Bush declared that “ending tyranny in our world” had become “the calling of our time.” How has U.S. interest in humanitarian military intervention waxed and waned over the years, and what should Biden’s approach to it look like? Here’s what people are saying.
The United States did not always conceive of itself as “the world’s policeman.” While the United States expanded its dominance in the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century, it didn’t emerge as a global military superpower until World War II.
“The fall of France, in 1940, convinced U.S. leaders of the need to enter the fray,” Daniel Immerwahr explained in The New Yorker last year. “In 1941, the publisher Henry Luce went further and proposed an ‘American Century,’ a postwar global order led by the values, institutions, and ultimately the military force of the United States. Luce’s idea was controversial at first, yet by the end of the war it seemed inevitable.”
Part of the justification for U.S. military supremacy was tactical. After World War II, U.S. leaders came to see the Soviet Union and the spread of Communism as a national security threat. “In a shrinking world, which now faces the threat of atomic warfare, it is not an adequate objective merely to seek to check the Kremlin design, for the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable,” read a formative document to the National Security Council. “This fact imposes on us, in our own interests, the responsibility of world leadership.”
Yet U.S. military supremacy also took on a moral dimension. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation,” Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, said in 1998. “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
The logic of humanitarian military intervention gained force in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, “the unipolar moment” of American dominance, and after the Sept. 11 attacks, when it became increasingly common among conservatives to tie national security to democracy promotion abroad. “The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region,” George W. Bush proclaimed in 2003, after the United States had invaded Iraq. “Iraqi democracy will succeed — and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Tehran — that freedom can be the future of every nation.”
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