Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
What has America done for us? It is easy to be cynical about it. The history of the United States has more than a few dark episodes, and this continues in the present day. But it’s also done plenty of good.
Starting with the World Health Organisation (WHO): founded in New York in 1948, and dedicated to universalising public healthcare, it is perhaps the most relevant of the United States’ contributions to the world at the moment. Combining technical expertise and global authority, it has achieved much for public health, not least the eradication of smallpox and the vaccination of hundreds of millions. It is estimated by the WHO that vaccinations prevent 2-3 million deaths worldwide, while the eradication of smallpox put an end to a killer that had blighted mankind for millennia.
Bretton Woods is a less famous but arguably just as important case. If you want to know what Bretton Woods is, well, there are two answers to your question. It is a wooded area in the US state of New Hampshire, but it is also the name of the international fiscal system that was agreed there in 1944. The agreement stipulated that the value of the US dollar would be $35 dollars to an ounce of gold (the ‘gold standard’), and that all other countries would hold reserves of US dollars. Sound like economic imperialism?
Well, not quite. As investigative journalist Oliver Bullough points out in his book Moneyland, the US also effectively promised to supply the world with enough dollars to fund international trade, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created to prevent countries from unilaterally making drastic changes to their currencies and ruining their neighbours. As part of this, strict monetary controls were imposed, which would have made the offshoring of the present day impossible. In this way, it was hoped that economic instability would be prevented, thereby avoiding a repetition of all the extreme political outcomes this had produced in the past 20 years (think the Nazis and the Great Depression). And for a time, it worked. Between 1948 and the early 1970s, there was not a single global recession, while the world’s GDP grew an average of 2.8% per year, according to journalist Ed Conway. Since President Nixon dropped the gold standard in 1971, there have been four, and the world has inexorably slid to the right.
What do both of these things have in common? In both cases, it was international action, mounted through coalitions of states. But crucially, this action was underpinned by the economic and diplomatic firepower of the United States, who led from the front and used its unprecedented position of power to try and make a better world.
It is in the same spirit that the UN was founded. Having realised, after the inter-war debacle of the League of Nations, that without American influence, any kind of inter-governmental structure would nonviable, and having learnt from Pearl Harbour that the old fortress mentality was insufficient to guarantee the safety of the US, its government pushed its influence out into the world and attempted to stabilise it.
This has had mixed results, but it’s worth noting that the number of battle deaths fell hugely over the course of the 20th century, and at the global level we have not seen anything approaching the carnage of the Second World War since 1945. It would be remiss not to recognise the role that increased dialogue, and regulation of interactions between, states through institutions such as the UN and Bretton Woods.
We should also recognise that the US expended significant money and materiel to prevent Europe falling to the Soviet Union, with the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall plan being excellent examples.
By way of counterargument, much is often made of American covert action in this period, as well as its support for various dictators through the decades. Nor can I argue that these actions were always justified, and frequently they were not. Yet I hold some hope, enough for me to disagree that America is somehow inherently evil or aggressive. An aggressive, imperialist current does run through their politics, as it does ours and many other countries, but there are other forces at play.
President George H.W. Bush worked within the UN in the case of the Gulf War; President Franklin Roosevelt hosted the signing of the ‘Declaration by United Nations’ in 1942, committing 26 nations to fight the Axis and work for international peace when the war was over, which laid the foundations for the UN. In recent times, the Obama administration led the charge against Russian aggression in Ukraine, while seeking to close off the global movement of dark money through passing domestic legislation, pushing other countries to do the same.
Although the US has certainly erred, on occasion egregiously, they have also done a lot of good. And what becomes apparent from examining the different events is that the US tends to work best when it acts as a leader among partners, not when it acts unilaterally. Take the Gulf War vs. the Iraq war as examples of this: two Republican presidents, both fighting against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but while one accepted the constraints of the UN and the international order that the US had created, the other ignored the rest of the world, fighting a war of aggression that ended in bloody chaos.
And therein is the message, so far as I can articulate it. America has done a lot of good for the world and has the potential to do more, provided it is content to rein itself in, working with allies and regional partners. Whether the occupant of the White House knows it or not is a different matter.