When Did We Start Telling the World How to Behave?

Posted on January 19, 2019


Sometime between the middle of the nineteenth century and today, the U. S. turned from participating in the world of diplomacy and politics to dictating to the world how to behave. Let’s examine this phenomenon a bit since I get somewhat edgy telling people all over the world that they should be more like us, especially when so much of us today is simply not likable, or honest, or even true in so many instances.

While researching for a book on the history of Peru and the United States years ago I came across this advise from American Secretary of State James Buchanan to his minister in Peru, respecting whether to recognize a new government. Buchanan wrote it was not the business of the U. S. to sit in judgment on the “internal affairs of other powers.”

And Buchanan added “it is impossible that you can reform either the morals or the politics of Peru.”[1]

Clearly, the diplomatic mission of our diplomats was to watch and report on what was happening in the countries they were assigned to. They were in effect to gather intelligence, analyze it, and advise the Department of State on affairs in Peru, or Russia, or Spain, or wherever we maintained a diplomatic mission.

We looked down somewhat critically at the expanding European empires in Asia and Africa who tended to enforce not only their military power, but they pushed their language, their religion, their organization of society and politics and economics on the colonies they controlled. Read a good book on the English in India, or the French or Dutch or Portuguese in Africa to get the flavor of imperial Europe in what came to be called the “underdeveloped” world in 20th century argot.

After the catastrophic First World War which probably consumed about 37 million people in its four years of hell, the leading—and winning—nations came together to forge a peace—built around the new international League of Nations–that would last forever. It lasted about 20 years until the onset of the Second World War in 1939.

At the end of the Second World War, the League was dumped for the new United Nations to keep the world at peace. By this time the U. S. was the biggest player on the world’s stage largely by default than by choice.

There had always been a strong nationalist and isolationist sentiment among Americans who viewed the Europeans as aggressive, self-aggrandizing states grabbing up many portions of the world in their competition for power in Europe, and the world. Indeed, the first “world war” was not between 1914-1918, but between 1756 and 1763 between the English and the French for domination of colonies in the Americas, Asia and other parts of the globe.

After the Second World War, however, we were committed to a world order—the United Nations its most visible symbol—in which we had to play a major role. Our diplomats were no longer just watchers and reporters, but active participants in altering or changing or establishing new countries (as the European empires crumbled in the second half of the 20th century) in the world to defend our interests, whether it was in creating a new Jewish state in 1948 (the nation of Israel) or defeating the spread of communism by Russia and China. Communism was the antithesis of capitalism and a form of government based on the liberty of the individual, and so we became deeply involved in changing or altering governments of states—especially those dominated by the communists of course—which challenged our values by their action, often violent and totalitarian.

At stake were not only totalitarian and communist states which violated most of the traditions of liberty, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and others we held dearly, but the struggle for economic domination in the world, and, by extension, the very prosperity which we had almost inherited by virtue of the Second World War that left so much of the world destitute.

Looking back on last sixty to seventy years, now we seemed to have stuck our finger in everyone’s eye, from the old rulers in the Kremlin to banana dictators in Central America. But in the “global” society of today, if we didn’t, someone else—especially China or Russia—surely would have, or did in fact, play the role of international policeman and entrepreneur.

Plus, today we have players beyond the old nation-states protecting their ideologies and interests. Think radical Islamic terrorists for the best example of transnational, one could almost say “global,” players, if we can use such a banal word as players for terrorists who decapitate their critics. Now, how’s that for being offensive?

And, finally, in such a complex world we need some complex and sophisticated thinking. Let me gently suggest that we aren’t quite ready to turn our colleges and universities into vocational training institutes for the work force, although we need more of that kind of training to meet the demands of a complex work force.

We need young people trained to think widely, across the spectrum of the human experience, from languages to mathematics, computer programming to philosophy, the sciences and the cosmos, and, yes, equally and while perhaps not the most important, but ranking right up there with a liberal arts education, they need to learn good history.

The new leaders need to know what is it that we are about, from the doctrines of the Founding Fathers, and earlier the Puritans for example, to the latest in technology and communications, to be able to lead our own country, and the world with justice and truth. That’s a big order. It might be a good one for UA to take up and examine and then make it happen. Start with a conference in 2019 devoted to leadership and scholarship and excellence and see where it takes you. That would be a great capstone to the Bicentennial. How about title the conference “the next 200 years?”

Published as “A complex world calls for complex thinking” in The Tuscaloosa News, Dec. 9, 2018




[1] Clayton, Peru and the United States, p. 32.

Posted in: History