The history of the United States’ involvement in the political affairs of foreign nations is not an exceptionally long one. For the first one hundred thirty years of American history, the nation largely kept to itself on the international stage; a policy known as isolationism. The reasons for this self-induced isolation are multiple. On one hand, the nation followed George Washington’s advice to avoid foreign entanglements, while on another the country had a literal ocean between it and the hotbed of political activity at the time—Europe. Once the United States truly stepped onto the global stage in the aftermath of World War One, the nation’s outlook on foreign involvement began to evolve, culminating in the present-day struggle between national interest and self-determination.
In the peace negotiations following World War One, a domestic debate within the United States was how big of a role the nation should play in international affairs. While by 1917 most of the country, and over ninety-percent of Congress, supported going to war, the old isolationist feelings returned shortly after the armistice. Republicans in particular led the charge for a return to isolation, seeing no advantages in associating the nation with Europe. They were opposed primarily by President Woodrow Wilson who was the main architect of the Paris Peace Conference.
Even before the formal end of the war, Wilson gave a speech to a joint session of Congress which has become known to history as the “Fourteen Points.” The fourteen ideas set forth by Wilson were an attempt to formalize the post-war aims of the United States, propositions which American foreign policy has largely ignored since their proposal. The points can be summarized as transparency, liberalization of trade, demilitarization, and self-determination. The fourteenth point introduced the concept of the League of Nations, an international organization through which nations could settle differences diplomatically as opposed to forcibly. America, still dominated by isolationism, was not yet ready to involve themselves so intimately with the rest of the international community, and thus did not go along with Wilson’s plans.
The primary debate in the aftermath of World War Two, when the United States firmly accepted its place as the dominant nation in the world, became whether to support self-determination abroad or to protect national interests. It was in this regard that President Obama was harshly criticized by conservative pundits during his first-term for the supposed “Apology Tour” when he acknowledged the America has made mistakes in its foreign policy in the past. While it appears that the United States may be leaning towards a more self-determinationistic approach, the last seventy years have been dominated by protection of national interests; this in despite of America’s dedication to freedom.
An early example which has continued to leave repercussions into today is Iran. President Eisenhower, in an attempt to stabilize oil supplies for the United States, organized a coup to install Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as the leader of the nation. Pahlavi was never exactly a humanitarian, often drawing criticism from the international community, but the support of the United States prevented any meaningful international action against his government. In 1979, however, a popular revolt led by angry students ousted Pahlavi and installed an Islamic government which naturally fostered an unfavorable opinion of America. This has resulted in a government of Iran which has been antagonistic towards the United States for the past four decades; one which is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons. If the American government would have taken a more self- determinationistic approach—one which would have supported democracy in Iran, even if it initially resulted in an anti-American government. This support for democracy would have given the general population reason to like America and Americans, thus likely leading to more favorable relations in the future (the current present).
The position of the United States with relation to other oil-producing nations in the Middle East, even up to today, follows a similar model as Iran. Notable are Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where the United States supports oppressive monarchies, often providing them with the arms they use to suppress insurrection. America typically does this in exchange for favorable oil rights, but in the case of Bahrain, the United States has interest in maintaining a vital naval base from which the U.S. Navy can launch missions in the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Horn of Africa, and the Indian Ocean. While these may seem like favorable situations in terms of American benefits, they are likely to blow-up in the American government’s face in the future, just as Iran did.
The history of America’s involvement with a brutal regime in South Vietnam is rather well-known as well. Desperate to prevent South Vietnam from falling into communist hands, the American government under Eisenhower supported the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, a horrific leader who brutalized his own people in order to ensure he maintained power. The United States largely ignored these humanitarian atrocities as long as Diem remained anti-communist, until eventually the C.I.A. supported the South Vietnamese military in assassinating Diem. By that time, however, the damage was already done to the image of the United States, fueling the Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces. American assistance to self-determination in South Vietnam likely would have faced more opposition domestically than in Iran, due to the Cold War rhetoric. Iran was not under heavy threat of communism, at least not to the degree that South Vietnam was; the likelihood that the people would have chosen to unite with North Vietnam—probably under a communist government—virtually ensured that the United States would not allow self-determination. The consequences of the United States favoring its own interests as opposed to self-determination in Vietnam also differ from the historical example of Iran. While the nation fought a war with South Vietnamese rebels—the Vietcong—and the communist North Vietnam, relations between the unified Vietnam and the United States have generally been favorable for the past decade; this in stark contrast to Iranian-American relations.
A more contemporary example of this difficult foreign policy decision lays in the nation of Egypt, particularly in the aftermath of its Arab Spring revolt against Hosni Mubarak, the “president” of Egypt for thirty years. Mubarak was often supported by the United States, both through foreign aid dollars and arms deals, due to his secular government and the peace he maintained between Egypt and Israel. As usual, Mubarak also frequently showed a distain for human rights by suppressing opposition parties, rigging elections in favor of his party, jailing political dissidents indefinitely, and limiting criticism of his ruling party. When the population rose against him in early 2011, President Obama’s administration was careful to not take a side too clearly, stating that the people must be heard but discouraging violence from either side.
The key issue involving Egypt, however, came not from the executive branch as much as the legislative branch and the media. When it became common knowledge that the Muslim Brotherhood, a large Islamic political organization, was playing a prominent role in the popular rebellion, conservative Congress members and media members from both sides of the political spectrum began to worry about Egypt becoming an Islamic state; this despite the Brotherhood’s assertions that it was dedicated to a democratic Egypt. This apprehension only increased in the wake of Egypt’s first successful election, which saw the Brotherhood win control of the Egyptian presidency. Even as Egyptians were celebrating their new political freedoms, some Americans began worrying that they were using these freedoms wrong by electing politicians who did not universally agree with American policies.
Another contemporary issue is the ongoing crisis in Syria and America’s lack of a clear-cut position on the civil war. While in this case the United States did not play a part in supporting Bashar al-Assad—a role instead played by Iran—America has nonetheless descended into self-determination or national interest internal debate. The United States has been hesitant to involve itself too much in the conflict due to the risk of incurring retaliatory strikes from Iran, destabilizing the Middle East, providing more recruitment material for extremist groups, and the fear that fundamentalist Islamic groups could replace al-Assad’s government. While these are legitimate concerns, if the United States was dedicated to self-determination the conflict would have been resolved thousands of lives ago. The American interest in resolving the conflict should be apparent; assisting Syrians in their pursuit of a true representative government would likely foster pro-American feelings in one of the most important regions in the world.
By no means is this a comprehensive list of all the instances of this trend in the previous seven decades of American history, nor is it an implicit assertion that self-determination is always the correct choice. While self-determination is often a desirable outcome, if it always came into fruition there would be hundreds of additional nations, even further complicating the international process. The United States has a checkered past in this area and while it seems to potentially be shifting from a foreign policy guided by national interests towards one more internationally oriented, it is unlikely that America will become a great liberator of oppressed people any time soon.