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History and the Tragedy of American Diplomacy

How quickly we forget history’s lessons. For a country that puts so much stock in its history and heritage, it seems ironic that Americans so rarely tend to heed history what history might tell them. Put aside for a moment the illegality of the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the deceit of the current administration, and its current backtracking and finger pointing, and consider the immediate tragedy that is Iraq and the ongoing failure of American policy in the Middle East, which can only escalate with distrust growing in Iran.

Once again, an American administration is hurt and confused by the lack of gratitude expressed by peoples it has “liberated.” To hear Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or his deputy Paul Wolfowitz tell it, the Iraqi people are callously ungrateful and wholly undeserving of the great gift of American democracy. Rather than listening to the whining arrogance of the hawks, whose victory in Iraq has not been as glorious or as shiny as anticipated, Americans might turn to the history books and learn that this is a common refrain that stretches back at least as far as the end of the nineteenth century.

In his classic 1959 study, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the eminent historian William Appleman Williams suggested that in spite of its best intentions American foreign policy was based largely on a one-dimensional American belief that Americans and American democracy had all the answers. The sad truth is that that belief might not be far wrong, but the inflexibility of the administrators in charge of its application has contributed to a century of failure in foreign relations.

According to Williams, American diplomacy was based on three premises, which, for all intents and purposes, have not changed and maintain a contemporary validity and relevance. The first is the humanitarian impulse to help other people solve their problems. The second principle encourages self-determination, which insists that every society have the right to establish its own goals or objectives, and to realize them internally through the means it decides are appropriate. Third-and here’s the kicker-American diplomacy has typically insisted that other people cannot really solve their problems and improve their lives unless they follow the American formula. The contradiction evident in this third premise effectively nullifies the genuine best interests of the first two, but it also speaks volumes about the global perception of American arrogance.

To understand American diplomacy, we need to make sense of this arrogance. In a recent column in the Manchester Guardian, George Monbiot referred to Clifford Longley’s important study, Chosen People, which argued that America’s founding fathers believed that they were guided by divine purpose. As Longley put it, the formation of a righteous Americanism evolved as part of a Western evolution of who God’s chosen people were. The Roman Catholic church claimed that mantle from the Jews, Longley contends, after the Jews were repudiated by God. After centuries of corruption, the Catholics surrendered the mantle to the English Protestants, who in turn lost it to the American Revolutionaries, who believed that the British had broken their covenant. For more than two centuries, American citizens have been the chosen ones, and their dominance in global political and economic affairs would seem to suggest they might even have a case. Highlighting its contemporary relevance, Monbiot noted that President Bush recently referred to Woodrow Wilson’s statement that “America has a spiritual energy in her which no other nation can contribute to the liberation of mankind.” But taking such Christian fervor and self-righteousness back to the Middle East to subdue the “infidels” seems to be a recipe for disaster.

And while media analysts have already started to compare the quagmire in Iraq-and please let us not forget Afghanistan-to Vietnam or the Philippines or Haiti or Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic, perhaps a more fitting comparison might be made closer to home. The sixty year relationship with Cuba between the Spanish-American War (1898) and the Cuban Revolution (1959) illuminates so many of the shortcomings in American diplomacy that its history should become required summer reading for the Bush administration. After a lengthy build-up, the United States declared war on Spain on 21 April 1898 after the U.S.S. Maine exploded and the Spanish were blamed (think of it as the nineteenth century version of flawed evidence to galvanize popular support for a war). The objectives of the war from the American standpoint were to free Cuba from Spanish tyranny, to establish and underwrite the independence of the island, and to support Cuba’s development toward political democracy and economic independence.

As Williams observed in the 1972 edition of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the United States exercised considerable and uninterrupted influence in and over all aspects of Cuban affairs for the following six decades, during which time Americans were quick to point out that Cuba enjoyed some modest progress. The advantages Cuba enjoyed as an American protectorate rather than a Spanish colony were notable. So, too, was the modernization of and increase in sugar production. So, too, relatively speaking, was the very modest move toward representative government. But therein rested a disparity between the progressive rhetoric and the actuality of events. Americans dominated the economic life of the island by controlling the sugar industry and by preventing any dynamic modification of Cuba’s one-crop economy, ultimately compelling the Cuban people to revolution.

Williams drew four conclusions from the Cuban experience, which might appear eerie if put in a contemporary context. The United States possessed an overweening power in relation to Cuba, which it exercised vigorously and persistently. Use of that power prevented the implementation of the ideals avowed as the objectives of power, namely encouraging self-determination on the part of the Cubans, while failing to modernize the Cuban economy. By maintaining their dominant relationship over Cuba, Americans galvanized Cubans into forming a coalition of groups committed to realizing important societal changes. And lastly, American rejection of the Cuban coalition’s interests resulted in strengthening the resolve of and popular support for radicalism on the island. Again: American antagonism resulted in a militant reaction against the American presence. After sixty years of American oppression, the Cubans rose up in a militant social revolution that sought to establish the kind of Cuban society and development that American diplomacy had promised since 1898.

So, too, in Iraq. Even with expenditures of $4 billion a month, American occupation in Iraq can’t even ensure electricity and running water. Iraqis are no closer to realizing the fruits of democracy and currently appear years away from any kind of self-determination, and American interests are clawing their way into Iraqi oil. Their reaction to following the American model speaks for itself.

I cringe when people suggest that history repeats itself. The notion is utter nonsense, but that does not mean that we can’t learn important lessons from the past. A more compassionate and less righteous approach to its humanitarian principles would help to make the United States of America the benevolent world neighbor that we want it to be and know it should be.

MICHAEL EGAN teaches in the Department of History at Washington State University. He can be reached at: michaele@wsu.edu

 

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