Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
If you’ve ever watched Monty Python’s Life of Brian, you might recall the scene in which the People’s Front of Judea, a resistance group against Roman occupation, ask themselves a question. “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Whilst supposed to be rhetorical, its members give answers such as public safety, sanitation, and the aqueduct. So while they may have hated the Romans, they also acknowledged their contributions to Judean society. We today are not occupied by America in the traditional sense, nor do we hate it. However, we all feel its influence. Whether it be in our politics, or our culture. Has this influence benefited us, or harmed us? What has America ever done for us?
In terms of the world at large, many would believe that the United States sees itself as being a promoter of freedom and democracy, acting as a global policeman. This perception has been sold to the world through films such as Rambo III (1988), which was dedicated “to the gallant people of Afghanistan” in their resistance to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. This dedication did not age well; the American-backed Mujahideen forced out the Soviets which left a power gap, leading to infighting and the Taliban regime, which was later overthrown by the US and UK in 2001. Alternatively, Team America: World Police (2004) was more critical of this interpretation of American foreign policy.
The other way in which we gained this perception of American foreign policy, is of course, through American foreign policy itself. The prime example being, the so called ‘Axis of Evil’ of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as declared by President G.W Bush in 2002, and the ‘liberation’ of Iraq in 2003. This war revealed the reality of what American foreign policy is; Freedom and Democracy being the public justification for an unjustifiable war. Unjustifiable, because there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction as claimed, nor had Saddam Hussein supported terrorist organisations. Whilst Hussein was undoubtedly repressive, it is still debatable whether the invasion ultimately left Iraq better or worse off. Since then, Iraq has suffered a further 17 years of insurgency, civil war, and Daesh. Iraq, however, is only a small part of America’s foreign policy and is still in some sense a work in progress.
So have they done better elsewhere?
South Korea may, on the surface, be considered one of America’s success stories. It has the worlds 12th largest GDP and a functioning democracy, a far cry from its starting point in 1948 as one of the worlds poorest countries. So it might look as though America being there from the very beginning had something to do with it. Well, not exactly. America installed Syngman Rhee as their first President and later, dictator. Before this, he had been President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, only to be impeached for misuse of power. He won the 1948 election with 92% of the vote, and the opposing candidate, Kim Gu, was assassinated in the following year. His government was also responsible for several massacres, with one on Jeju seeing 15,000 killed. However, Rhee was avidly anti-communist. It is believed he had 30,000 suspected communists imprisoned and another 300,000 placed in ‘re-education camps’ known as the Bodo League. When the North invaded in 1950, these prisoners, as well as tens of thousands in the Bodo League, were executed by retreating southern troops. Rhee won his fourth term as President in 1960 with 100% of the vote, and only left power following mass student protests later that same year.
This was very much the style of American foreign policy throughout the Cold War, that being anti-communist alone is good enough. Other issues of freedom and democracy were less of a priority. Apartheid era South Africa for example, were supported in their wars against communists in Mozambique and Angola; all while repressing and dividing itself over race. Even after Apartheid and the Cold War, Nelson Mandela remained on a US terror watchlist until 2008.
These American issues with failing to promote freedom or democracy abroad are hardly surprising, given that they can’t achieve them at home. Last year The Economist Intelligence Unit classified the United States as a “Flawed Democracy”, and the recent wave of protests against police brutality certainly challenges the notion of the US being the ‘land of the free’. Furthermore, numerous allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election and the long lasting resistance to confronting these allegations begs the question of how much the US values democracy. Perhaps just enough to get into power, and not enough to let it go? Either way, their idealistic values have not found their way into foreign policy. And perhaps in some ways its good that they don’t. Libya and Iraq have made the dangers of regime change very clear to us. A democratic government in Iraq was created after the fall of Hussein, and all it did was fuel sectarian violence and a civil war, as the Sunni minority could never hope to regain power democratically. We likely won’t see much improvement either given that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has decided property rights and religious freedom to be the focus of future foreign policy, with it being deemed unrealistic that America be able to defend, or simply not worth it to defend other human rights.
“America is fundamentally good and has much to offer the world, because our founders recognized the existence of God-given, unalienable rights and designed a durable system to protect them… Americans have not only unalienable rights, but also positive rights granted by governments, courts, and multilateral bodies. Many are worth defending in light of our founding; others aren’t,”- Mike Pompeo, 16 July
What has America ever done for us? Not freedom and democracy. America, and all countries, act for themselves, and why would they do otherwise? The promotion of freedom and democracy has never been the intention of American foreign policy, but merely a shallow justification to the public. During the Cold War, the goal was to supress communism, and freedom and democracy were to be sacrificed for that end. Perhaps a better question would be ‘what can we do for ourselves?’