A Historical Context of American Foreign Policy

David Kelly
Mar 12 · 9 min read

In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned against foreign entanglements. A highly intelligent man, Washington understood the necessity of maintaining various foreign alliances for economic and possible emergency situations. The nation’s first president held wisdom within him centuries before the complex global and geopolitical world that we live in present day.

“Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all. … In the execution of such a plan nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments for others should be excluded, and that in place of them just and amicable feelings toward all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.

So, likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained, and by exciting jealousy, ill will, and a disposition to retaliate in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld; and it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country without odium, sometimes even with popularity, gilding with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.” — George Washington Farewell Address September 19, 1796

Over 200 years later, America has almost completely disregarded Washington’s warnings. Sure, the nation and world are both far different than they were in Washington’s day. Nonetheless, our passionate alliances with various foreign nations have brought us into many conflicts over the course of the last two centuries. Oftentimes, these conflicts have come with no real justification other than the protection of our allies. While the protection of our allies is extremely important, it has been paid with the lives of millions of brave men and women that have served our country.

In a June 2003 speech to cadets at West Point, President George W. Bush proclaimed, “America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish.”

Like many statements that presidents make, what President Bush stated shows a closed eye view of our past. His statement also contradicts the course that his administration would set us on for the next fifteen years and beyond. American troops had been on the ground for nearly 3 months in June of 2003. In fact, the Afghanistan war began nearly two years previous to this statement in October of 2001.

Watch: George W. Bush ‘US Should Not Nation Build’ 2000 Campaign Debate

George W. Bush and his administration are not solely to blame for these conflicts. Then candidate Barack Obama ran a campaign on a promise to bring the troops home and end the wars abroad. Obama campaigned on this for the 2008 election, over ten years ago. It was a popular position to take since the nation was tired of the endless wars that seemed to have no end in sight. Over ten years later, it seems that these wars still have no end in sight. The United States still maintains a boots-on-the-ground military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama contradicted candidate Obama quite heavily, however. The man who sought to bring peace to the various Middle Eastern conflicts stated 5 years later, “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.”

As President Obama handed his commander-in-chief duties to then president elect Donald Trump, his legacy became defined of one that was quite paradoxical to that of peace. During all eight years of Obama’s tenure, the U.S. Military was involved in war abroad. Obama launched military operations, raids, and airstrikes in at least seven countries that we are aware of: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. The man who had hoped to bring peace to America and the world instead lead America further into war, just in different ways than his predecessor.

Barack Obama drastically cut the number of troops on the ground in conflicts from 150,000 to 14,000. His policy and actions led to fewer American soldiers coming home in body bags. Quite possibly his greatest accomplishment in foreign policy came with diplomacy, not war. He was able to defuse the tension with threat of a nuclear standoff with Iran through diplomacy. That agreement has of course since been done away with by President Trump.

President Obama pivoted the foreign policy strategy of the United States in many ways. Though he brought more troops home, he vastly expanded the role of elite special forces and commando units. He also escalated the use of newer technological weapons such as armed drones and cyber weapons. Both the Bush and Obama administrations created the infrastructure of this new, modern, military strategy. The Trump administration merely inherited and escalated this type of warfare. The infrastructure was already in place.

President Obama, unlike President Bush, acknowledged this targeted killing program. President Obama and his administration drastically escalated the use of drone strikes in comparison to President Bush and his administration. The Obama Administration performed covert drone war strikes ten times more than the Bush administration. The man who wanted to bring about peace left a legacy behind of ordering drone strikes on US citizens abroad without charges or due process.

Donald Trump has vastly increased the amount of American drone strikes taking place throughout the globe. In the first two years of Trump’s presidency, there have been 2,243 drone strikes. In Obama’s eight years in office, there were 1,878 drone strikes. On top of this, Trump revoked a policy set by Obama that requires United States intelligence officials to publish the number of civilian collateral in drone strikes outside of war zones. Obama signed this executive order in 2016 after receiving pressure to provide more transparency about American drone strikes.

Understanding American History

The United States has consistently been involved in foreign conflicts for hundreds of years. This has been done both directly through war as well as indirectly. The United States has supported regime change and armed various factions throughout the world for much of the nation’s history. After World War II, the United States became hell bent on protecting its capitalist and democratic ideology across the world. American troops were sent to Korea and Vietnam to try and halt the spread of Communism. These conflicts did not pose an existential threat to the United States. Rather, they posed a threat to spread of American interests such as ideology and imperialism.

To understand the actions and positions of recent past and current American foreign policy, one must understand a brief history of how and why the US operates the way in which it does. Throughout the 20th century, the United States initiated and supported regime change across the globe either directly or indirectly.

Here are a few examples of this:

Additionally, the United States has interfered with many national elections in other countries including:

Image Source: In-Depth News

After the 2016 election of Donald Trump, the country turned its focus towards findings showing that the Russian Government directly intervened in the 2016 presidential election. Americans were outraged by these claims. Some demanded that the results should be thrown out. Some argued that America should retaliate with heavy sanctions. Some were even screaming for war. A large faction even have claimed that Trump and his campaign directly colluded with Russia in order to help facilitate this Russian intervention. It seems rather pointless to spend time speculating on whether Trump and his campaign colluded with the Russian government. Such speculation is an utter waste of time. We must wait until the full facts reveal themselves.

For a country that is so outraged about Russian intervention in elections, Americans seem to not understated our own history. From 1946–2000 the United States executed at least eighty-one both overt and covert interventions in foreign elections. In each case, the ethical, moral, economic, and militaristic reasons for or against directly or indirectly supporting regime change abroad are highly debatable. Each must be looked at objectively. There is little doubt though that the American outrage, specifically that of the intelligence community, over the Russian intervention in the 2016 election is and extreme case of projection. It is hard to place blame upon the average American. The majority of Americans has simply not been taught this historical context.

For whatever reason was given in each of those 81 interventions, there is an underlying problem that cannot be overlooked. After World War II, the US ratified the UN Charter (Unfoundation). This international law legal binds the U.S. government to the Charter’s provisions.

This includes Article 2(4) which states:

“All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

As you can see, Article 2(4) of the UN Charter directly prohibits the threat or use of force in international relations. This only can take place in incredibly rare circumstances. Remember, this was ratified in 1945. Also remember, that from 1946 until 2000 the US intervened overtly and covertly in 81 foreign elections. The Soviet Union and United States fought an astounding fifty-six proxy wars throughout the Cold War. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse in December 1991, the United States has taken a far stronger position of leading or supporting wars that determine the governing bodies of numerous nations across the globe.

It is important to understand how the United States operates and has operated with foreign policy throughout the past. Contrary to the cliche, ignorance is not bliss. Our education systems have sold a historical context of a heroic, protective, and morally driven United States. In various conflicts, such as World War II, this indeed was the case. However in many conflicts, this has not been the case. Let’s be very clear: acknowledging that truth is not unpatriotic. Quite the contrary, actually. Acknowledging this history allows us to right our wrongs, moving forward with a clear path charting clear foreign policy goals and stances.

David Kelly

Written by

Writing about politics, society, business, music, and all things personal development. Let’s connect on insta: @thedavidjkelly

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