The modern United States is the most powerful country in human history. With over 800 military bases and 37% of global military spending, the United States has become the leader of a vast interconnected global system that has helped usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and low levels of conflict.
To understand America’s position in the world, and why it’s so important for world politics as we know it, we need to go back to the country’s founding, back to when America wasn’t a global power in any sense of the word.
During the first 70 years of its existence, the United States expanded in both territory and influence in North America, which eventually reached the Pacific Ocean in a wave of expansionism that resulted in the wholesale slaughter of the indigenous people who populated the continent. But early Americans were deeply divided as to whether the country should expand beyond the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This became a major debate after the civil war, when some leaders, like post-war Secretary of State Seward, argued that America should push to become a global power. Seward succeeded in pushing a plan to purchase Alaska from Russia, but his attempts to buy Greenland and Iceland, as well as annex territory in the Caribbean, were all blocked by Congress. That’s because some Americans, including many on Capitol Hill, had a strong anti-imperialist bent. These people worried about America getting more involved in global politics, as well as having to integrate populations from “inferior” races. And this opposition applied major checks on the imperialist urge to expand.
But, in the late 1800s, something was happening that would change the debate about American expansionism. The industrial revolution produced explosive economic growth, and the bigger US economy required a more centralized state and bureaucracy to manage the growing economy. Power became concentrated in the federal government, making it easier for expansionist presidents, like William Mckinley, to unilaterally push United States influence abroad.
The key turning point came in 1898, when President McKinley dragged the country into war with Spain over the island of Cuba despite intense opposition.
The rising US easily defeated the moribund Spanish empire, acquiring Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in the process (1898). Over the next two years, the US would annex the Kingdom of Hawaii (1898), Wake Island (1899), and American Samoa (1900). A few years later the US took control of the Panama Canal Zone (1903) and sent troops to occupy the Dominican Republic (1916), it also purchased the American Virgin Islands (1917). This period of rapid acquisition of far flung territories put the US on the map as a truly global power.
During this time, America also began using its influence to protect its growing commercial and military interests abroad, installing pro-American regimes in places like Nicaragua and playing a major role in international diplomacy regarding the Western presence in China. World War I showed just how much America’s influence had grown. Not only was American intervention a decisive factor in the war’s end But President Wilson attended the Paris Peace Conference which ended the war and attempted to set the terms of the peace. He spearheaded America’s most ambitious foreign policy initiative yet, an international organization, called the League of Nations, designed to promote peace and cooperation globally. The League, a wholesale effort to remake global politics, showed just how ambitious American foreign policy had become.
Yet isolationism was still a major force in the United States. Congress blocked the United States from joining the League of Nations, dooming Wilson’s project.
During the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, the US was was much more focused on its own region than on European affairs Ultimately. In East Asia, the growing Japanese empire posed the direct threat to American possessions and troops bringing the United States and Japan into conflict. This culminated in the Pearl Harbor attack bringing the United States into World War II. World War Two would transform America’s global presence forever. The United States was the only major power to avoid economic ruin during the war, and it was the sole country equipped with atomic weapons. As such, it was in unique position to set the terms of the peace — and, with the aim of preventing another war in mind, it took advantage, with the creation of the United Nations.
The UN charter set up a system of international law prohibiting wars of conquest, like the ones waged by the Nazis and the Japanese. It also served as a forum in which the international community could weigh in on disputes, and help resolve them. While the UN is the most famous of the post-war institutions, it isn’t the only one. 730 delegates from all 44 Allied nations came together in a small vacation haven in New Hampshire, to establish a global financial system that would prevent another Great Depression and World War. The resulting agreement, called the Bretton Woods Agreement ultimately became backbone of the global financial system. Resulting in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. By creating these institutions, the United States committed itself to being deeply involved in the world’s problems.
The issue, though, is that the world’s second-largest power — The Soviet Union — saw things differently. World War II had made allies out of the democratic West and communist East in the fight against Hitler, but that couldn’t last. The United States saw Soviet expansion in Eastern Europe and elsewhere as a direct threat
to its vision of a free-trading world. Fearful of Soviet intentions towards Western Europe, the US and other European nations created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a military alliance meant to stop Russia from invading other countries in Europe.
Globally, the US committed to a strategy called “containment”, aimed at containing the spread of Communism everywhere on the globe. This new global struggle meant that the US had to exert influence everywhere, all the time.
Instead of disbanding the massive military machine created for World War II, its wheels mostly kept turning. This had two main results: first, the US was pulled into unlikely alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and South Korea, seeing each of them as bulwarks against communist influence in their region.
Secondly, the US began intervening, often secretly, in dozens of countries to contain Soviet influence.
Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton decided that it was in both America and the world’s interests for the United States, now the sole superpower on earth, to continue actively managing global affairs.