Often in a prophetic and sentimental tone, President Ronald Reagan would quote Christ. In His sermon transcribed in Matthew, Chapter 5, Christ tells his listeners: “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” As Reagan put it, America was that “shining city upon a hill.” The guiding light of liberalism for the world: political liberty, free markets, and a Christian conviction that was beginning to wane in Europe. The shining light Christ spoke of may have been slightly different, but the message was conveyed: the United States lead the world by Divine Right. Reagan called it our “rendezvous with destiny.” Indeed, United States foreign policy, over the last century, has been pursued with such vigor and confidence as if on the wings of fate itself.
It all began with an attempt by Woodrow Wilson to prevent another World War. In his “14 Points,” he devised the idea of an international organization to keep the peace through diplomatic means; this was to be the League of Nations. Throughout his presidency, Wilson took personal control over foreign policy - something that was unprecedented at the time. He ended the era of American isolationism in favor of engagement and diplomacy. While the vision Wilson put in motion signified the beginning of our foreign policy status quo, events that followed turned noble vision into utopian ideology, which we will refer to as “American imperialism.”
Such events include World War II, the Cold War, and 9/11, which rallied new support for American imperialism in the twenty-first century. World War II, the destruction of Europe, and a humanitarian atrocity unlike the world had ever seen, pushed out the persistent remnants of isolationism. Maybe Wilson had it right. The Cold War brought about “spheres of influence” - the way power-broking happened in a time of two world superpowers. Reagan’s foreign policy mission, to contain communism, was met with enthusiasm and praise from most of the American public. His ideal of liberalism had an unmistakable enemy, and the dissolution of that enemy marked the beginning of the end for American imperialism. But it wasn’t quite over yet.
In 2002, President George W. Bush spoke of an “axis of evil” made up of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. In that same year, Under Secretary of State John Bolton gave a speech titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” and added an additional three nations to the list: Cuba, Libya, and Syria. President Obama mimicked Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” when, in a speech to Ghana’s parliament, he said: “We must support a strong and sustainable democratic government… history offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not…” In the postwar era, American imperialism has remained the mainstream foreign policy prescription regardless of party. For one hundred years, the United States has engaged in foreign policy from atop the hill.
During the 2016 election, Donald Trump referenced failed foreign policy initiatives that left power vacuums in the Middle East. Voters who had hoped President Trump would forge new paths in foreign policy, beginning with reducing our presence in the Middle East, were thoroughly disappointed when John Bolton was appointed National Security Advisor in 2018. Bolton had served less major roles in the three prior Republican administrations, but heavily favored Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. To the chagrin of international theorists and large swaths of the American public, Bolton confirmed he stood behind the invasion as recently as 2018. According to Bolton, our only mistake was not leaving sooner after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and saying, “Here's a copy of the Federalist Papers. Good luck."
The American political imperialism that Bolton wholeheartedly supported wreaked havoc on the Middle East. With authoritarian, yet stable, regimes gone, and new democratic test-states failed, many wonder, “what was the point?” While the Berlin Wall signified the West’s decisive triumph over communism, the United States’ crusade against terrorism looks more like a game of whack-a-mole: Al Nusra, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS, the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Bashar al-Assad - it is this never-ending creation of new enemies that has the American public both tired and skeptical.
Does Bolton’s departure mean this foreign policy status quo will be put to rest? That depends on the President and who he chooses to replace Bolton as National Security Advisor. One thing is for certain - carrying the flag of American Imperialism, Bolton could not reconcile his views with the President’s. Bolton nearly derailed Trump’s first historic meeting with Kim Jong-un, saying publicly that North Korea ought to follow the “Libya model.” Within a decade of agreeing to give up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi was deposed by NATO. It is likely Bolton shared the view of Trump’s critics, that the President’s meetings and planned meetings with powerful leaders and groups such as Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, and most recently the Taliban, are legitimizing their claim to power. Likewise, critics claim these actions have caused the United States to lose respect among its traditional allies.
What these critics, including Bolton, neglect to recognize are the entirely new challenges the United States faces as a global hegemon. Long gone are the days of the Soviet Union and the Western sphere of influence, and by no means can the United States hope to expand its influence across the world. We simply do not have the military resources to do so, nor the willingness of sovereign nations to participate. A never-ending presence in the Middle East and more than 70 countries around the world represents a constant drain on these resources. This expenditure is important when compared to Russia or China’s relative military growth. American imperialism ultimately makes our military weaker and more vulnerable as time goes on.
The President’s recognition of our adversaries as legitimate powers, and because of this, his willingness to come to the table does not signal weakness. Rather, it is a recognition of the limits of power. Without a doubt, the United States still remains squarely at an advantage in these negotiations, allowing our country to get “the better end of the deal.” One might pose the question: What else is there to do? Invade North Korea? Place troops on the Russian border? Start a war? As it turns out, no one is willing to invade North Korea. Likewise, Americans aren’t willing to go to war with Russia. What other option might the President’s critics suggest other than sticking out our noses at other world leaders by ignoring the fact that they exist, much less have power?
Bolton’s departure, coupled with the American public’s cheers and the foreign policy establishment’s tears, signals that a change in the tide is coming. If not now, American imperialism will eventually meet its fate, perhaps involuntarily. Hopefully, before then, we can achieve a policy of détente with our adversaries.