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Long before the present-day globalization, the US had taken its place as the main ‘driver’ of the world.

For nearly three years the United States stayed out of World War under President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamations of neutrality ‘both in thought and deed’- although this stands is largely debatable. But finally, on the 6th of April, 1917, the US entered the war. It is believed that the US’s entry into the war was as a result of Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare (History Learning Site). But it is also believed that it was as a result of the ‘Zimmerman’s Letter’, which revealed the agreement between Germany and Mexico, and in which Mexico agreed to attack the US if it joined the war on the side of the allies and in return Germany would help Mexico claim Texas, Arizona and New Mexico (….).

Yet, when President Woodrow Wilson announced the US’s entry into the war he evaded the immediate and domestic reasons for this. Instead he described it broadly as ‘for the sake of world safety and democracy’. Initially, the US, through Wilson, had been playing the mediator between the warring sides. Now it would become the key player in leading the world to democracy. But this role became more pronounced after the cold war.

World War II, like World War I, raised the US’s stature high. But it was during the cold war that that stature would come into practice. The US led the world against communism. It marked the first US most pronounced and explicit attempt at promoting ‘democracy’ and spreading its ideals to the rest of the world.

However, against the mainstream global face of the US foreign policy, it is argued that It has only favored its own interests. For instance, when the US entered the war, by President Wilson’s mandate it refused to join the British and French forces. It sought to fight as an independent force. This was seen as a self-serving effort. Perhaps, the US wanted the whole outcome of the war to be solely attributed to its forces.  And for what reasons?

It has also been argued that the US entered the war to prevent the impending defeat of the allied forces, which would have meant that the US would have lost the loans it had given the allied forces (…….).

Evidence shows that the US, despite claiming to be out for the good of the whole world, has actually set out to serve and satisfy its own interests. And as a consequence of pursuing these interests, many countries and the people in them have paid a great price. In other words, the self-serving foreign policy of the United States has caused more harm than good- not just to the US itself and its foreign policy, but also to the countries that have, one way or another, been involved in that course.

The purpose of this paper is to look into the branches of the US’s foreign policy, the justifications for and critiques against them and what harms they have caused. 


The US’s foreign policy ranges on a number of issues. These are known as the components of foreign policy. They include National Security, Democracy, Human Rights, Free Markets and World Peace.

Before looking into the implications of the US’s approach to these issues in the world, it is important to understand what the US government’s interpretation of them are; the traditional perspectives of the US on these issues.

Democracy, despite other factors such as international relations, seems to be the key issue on which all other components of the US foreign policy lean, as well as the main justification for the US’s foreign policy. For instance, human rights is a key component of democracy, global free markets is seen as a reflection of global democracy and, in the search for world peace, “the Bush administration viewed democracy as a tool for combating terrorism” and attaining national security (Epstein, et al., 2007).

Both the executive and legislative arms of the US government support the notion of promoting democracy in other countries in the world. President Bush, in December 2006, justified his attack of Iraq as a move for the sake of democracy. He said: “[We] have a commitment to a strategic goal of ensuring a free and democratic Iraq that can govern, defend and sustain itself” (Epstein, et al., 2007).

The US government has increasingly seen itself as the one to lead the world to that dream. The Bush administration, for instance, adopted various programs, as efforts to promote democracy. For instance, in 2007, the US came up with the ADVANCE Democracy Act (H.R. 982), which aimed to make stronger the “community of Democracies” and contained provisions for promoting democracy promotion, called for actions and reports from specific departments of the state in this effort and authorized democracy-assistance funding for the financial years 2008 and 2009 (Epstein, et al., 2007). In this effort, in the financial year 2008, the Millennium Change Account (MCA) requested for approximately $1.5 billion for promoting democracy (Epstein, et al., 2007).

The problem with this attempt to promote ‘democracy’ has been to do with the very notion and definition of democracy. In fact, the very notions of democracy today are different from the original idea of democracy in Greece. While ancient democracy in Greece fostered a sense of community, the notions of democracy today encourage individualism (Lynn-Jones, 1998).

A report by the US Congressional Research Service shows the difficulty of defining democracy. The basic meaning of a democratic political system is that it allows for “an effective (either directly or indirectly, through representatives), participation of the people as set out by the constitution, promotion and respect of human rights and a people’s political equality in the face of the law” (Epstein, et al., 2007). Generally, contemporary definitions of democracy agree on certain basic principles: one, that democracies have institutional mechanisms, such as elections, by which people participate in the selection of their leaders; two, would-be leaders must compete for ‘the people’s’ support; three, that the government’s must be accountable to the people, and as such, retrains their powers (Lynn-Jones, 1998).

Otherwise, there’s hardly a true meaning of democracy. Even the US and Britain, perhaps believed to be the two major democracies in the world, have differences within them (the British monarchy, for instance).

“Democratization,” writes Laurence Whitehead, a scholar, “is a complex, dynamic and debatable process”. In other words, it cannot be defined.

Lynn-Jones (1998) argues that the US should spread ‘liberal democracy’, where ‘liberal’ means much more than just the question of structural democracy, but also including guarantees of individual liberties. Liberal democracies, he says, should be distinguished from electoral democracies, which are only institutionally democratic without necessarily favoring the liberties of their people.

Whatever one wants to call it, the US take on democracy and its insistence on preaching to the whole world, and even its use of armed forces to assert and implement it, overlooks the contextual factors and tensions that define the various forms of democracy in various countries. Such contextual factors have given way for new political concepts as ‘soft authoritarianism’. Even the US itself has had problems with these ‘internal tensions’.

Many are times when the so-called ‘liberalism’ has been trampled in the name of the ‘greater good’. And no country has been explicitly guilty of this than the US in the aftermath of 9/11- of course it is worth noting that may be attributable to an more open space for expression in the US. But it does not change the fact that the US has had to cope with a half-hearted ‘liberal democracy’ as shaped by the events of 9/11 and reign of Al Qaeda as a whole. And so have other nations come up with their own forms of democracy that fit within their own contexts, as shaped by their own cultures.

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The US government knows that it cannot shape the world’s democracy as it wants, just as it is aware that there can never be a global homogenous interpretation and practice of democracy. Such a dream is overzealous and probably a utopia. If this is true, then there must be something else driving this fervor.

Theories on…..

Lynn-Jones the writes on the benefits that the US are meant to gain out of spreading democracy: peace (democratic nations will not go to war against the United States as they would not support anti-US terrorism); reduced immigration to the US as democracies produces lesser refugees; democratic nations would be allies, economic or otherwise, with the US; and ultimately, that the ideals of the US flourish when adopted by others (Lynn-Jones, 1998).

But still these arguments raise brows, especially as they forget that other nations have interest too, both within their borders and in relation to other nations besides the US.

The question of ‘democratic peace’, that is, the argument that democracy is likely to reduce the cases of war is also debatable. The first problem with this argument is that it attempts to overlook the place of mechanisms of international relations in maintaining world peace and averting wars. But most remarkably, the argument is a slap on the very face of the US that it seeks to defend. In its pursuit of the so called ‘democracy’ the US has declared war on other nations without provocation. The most obvious example is its attack on Iraq, even against the UN ruling against such a move.

Now there are times when war may not be avertable. But it is true that even despite proclaiming to be the most democratic nation in the world, the US is a major culprit when it comes to unprovoked bombings and ground military interventions where it is not needed. Obviously, if democracy was a sufficient impetus for a war-free world, the US has been a most reluctant party in proving that on the ground. Today, there’s already talk of war even as Iran is suspected of moving closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. This against the US recent role in a nuclear proliferation policy in conjunction with Russia.

In his explanation of the last point, the take that spreading US ideal helps them, the ideals, flourish back home, in the US, Lynn-Jones (1998) writes: “spreading democracy in the world raises the Americans’ sense of confidence (psychological well-being) about their own institutions of democracy.” The clear implication of this is that the US is not sure of its own ideals, so that it can only do so through imposing them on others. Rarely does a man who is out to prove he is right and boost his ego ever care for what others think and feel. Then again, if this were true then one may wonder just how imposing something on another person makes it look better. Commonsense would dictate that if something is good, then it would sell itself. This argument therefore is preposterous.

The ability of the US to do this, to impose its own ideals on the rest of the world has been helped by its hegemony, its dominance over the other nations.

Robert Kagan is all out for this hegemony- what he calls ‘benevolent hegemony’. For him, it is not just the reason why the US is able to push others, but a necessary element for the progress of the world. The said ‘pushing’ by the US, to him, is one that the world cannot do without. He writes: “the truth is that the benevolent hegemony that the US exercises is good for most of the world”. To him, there is no better alternative besides it. Kagan is implying that the rest of the world benefits from the hegemony than the US does. He warns against undermining it as “it would cost the rest of the world more than it would the Americans” (Kagan). He uses the world euphoria during the Clinton-Lewinsky saga to defend his point.

This arrogance, both Kagan’s and the US’s, is in conflict with Lynn-Jones argument on the liberal democracy that the US is out to spread. Liberalism guarantees the right to choice. Hegemony, as Kagan puts it, is beyond reproach; the rest of the world should take it as it is because is ‘good for them’.

But while Kagan argues that the US has used its hegemony to help others, Chomsky does not agree. On the contrary, Chomsky argues that the US has hardly ever been out to favor any other nations besides itself. And such ‘benefits to others’ have only happened as complements to the US primary goals. Chomsky, for instance, cites the US activities in the South East Asia as an example of just how the US fronts its own interests. He notably refers to this as “US imperialism’.

Contrary to arguments that communism hurt development, China seemed to make great economic progress under their communist system in the early 1960s (Chomsky, 1972). To the US, this would have appealed to the other nations in the region; it would show them that that communism was not such a bad thing afterall if China could make economic progress under it. In other words, China was going to give a good name to communism. China presented a “political aggressiveness” and an “ideological threat” (Chomsky, 1973).

If the US was out to help the world progress, the assumption would be that it would favor what works for who under the prevailing circumstances. But the US was out to dominate and run the world and could not afford sharing the world with communism. And so in 1964 the US set out to “contain China for as long as possible” (Chomsky, 1973).

Chomsky points out how the US saw this effort at self-determination by China, as well as by the Vietnamese, as going against its own self interest. 

US Foreign Policy Has Done More Harm than Good

It is not disputable that the U.S. foreign policy has done some good to certain countries and their people. The IMF and World Bank’s conditions for debts and loans were designed in line with the US foreign policies. These conditions did help wring the hands of some African leaders into starting and implementing certain basic policies that would, in years to come, open the way for a democracy- of course, taking into consideration the prevailing circumstances.

It is also true that a lot of harm has come of it. Which overrides the other then- the good or the harm?

The harms must be looked at from two major perspectives: the US’s point of view versus the rest of the world’s. In the former case, the question to be answered is if the US has realized the main objectives and goals of its foreign policy or the likeliness of achieving these goals in the long run, and the implications of its pursuit of such objectives on its own people. The latter case will assess what the rest of the world thinks of the US’s foreign policies on them.

a) To The US

Questions on whether the US foreign policy has done it more harm than good can be looked at in terms of the resultant diplomatic relations between it and the nations.  While the US government has gone on to carry out its global activities like it does not care or need any support, it is also true that it has gone on with caution in order to help its diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

For this reason, Bush has been criticized for his unilateral ‘War on Terror’ policy, which used force and did not care for the feelings and thoughts of the Muslim world, and as a result hurting the US diplomatic relations with them and even the western allies, and ultimately failing to curb the rise of radical Islamism in other parts of the world (Katz, 2010).The reason for the alienation of Bush’s US was his attack of Iraq against the UN ruling against it.

But perhaps if Bush’s policy would have made positive steps towards curbing terror it would probably not have been criticized as it has. What this brings out s the issue of policy vis-à-vis results.

In recent times, the criticism of the US foreign policy from within has been on whether the expenses are reciprocated. On the Iraq intervention Katz writes: “it was not cost-effective for the US to spend so much for such meager results” (2010).

It has increasingly been questioned if the US can afford to attend to its global roles in the world (such as global security, financial aid, etc) even in the face of its own economic problems. “The US foreign policy, when viewed in relation to affordability, is hard to defend” (Mitchell, 2011).

But since it is not easy to quantify the achievements of the US, especially in promoting democracy and fighting for human rights in relations to the costs incurred in the effort, it may not be easy to decide if the monies spent have helped or made things worse for the US. But Mitchell notes: “While many of the US foreign policy components, especially foreign assistance, are relatively not so expensive, broader and more substantial foreign policy activities such as military interventions will need to be reexamined” (2011). 

b) To the Rest of the World

It is worth noting that the US hardly ever speaks of serving its own interests when with regard to its foreign policy- at least not explicitly. Of course, it has always been expected that the US would benefit. But this has only been implicitly mentioned, and only as a result of benefiting the ‘world’. In other words, the big lie of the US foreign policy is that ‘we are only here to help you’, where ‘we’ is the US and ‘you’ is the country targeted by such policy at any point in time.

Another implication of this is that the US will only play the second fiddle, so that it is only in the place of the country of target to decide how to go about implementing such a policy.

However, a lot of evidence shows that the US pursuit of these foreign policy goals has been at the expense of the target countries. In fact, a lot of those times the US has trampled its very own ideas of democracy and defense of human rights.

A debate held at Trinity College, Dublin, on 9th of October, 2003 sought to answer the question of whether the US foreign has done more harm than good. The proposition won. William Blum, contributing in the debate, mentioned some of the things done by the covert arm of US foreign policy has done. These include: unprovoked armed invasion of about twenty sovereign countries; attempting to crush populist movements fighting against dictatorial and suppressive regimes; working to overthrow at least forty foreign governments; arming brutal dictatorships (such as Mobutu of Zaire during the cold war and in the process the CIA aided the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Zaire’s first prime Minister, Korea’s Rhee; Iran’s Shah, etc); controlling the world’s major financial institutions and imposing harmful embargoes and sanctions; political assassinations, et cetera (Blum).

The US military operation in Afghanistan, for instance, writes Blum: “has taken the lives of thousands of civilian… demolished many homes and infrastructure, helped the return of depleted uranium, return of warlords to extensive power, a re-emergence of a booming opium cultivation, rise in crime…” (Blum).

Blum also attributes the rise of the Taliban regime to the US role, in the 1980s and 90s, in overthrowing a “secular and relatively progressive government, which offered more freedom to women” (Blum). 

These cases, and many others that have not been mentioned, and others that have never been disclosed, reflect the tangency between US self interest and diplomacy in its pursuit of its foreign policies.  That is, the times that the policies have led to more harm to other countries have mostly coincided with the US fronting its self interests instead of the global concern that it preaches.

For instance, the US support of Mobutu, and the eventual assassination of Patrice Lumumba was during the cold war. It is believed that Lumumba was murdered because he seemed independent minded and in favor of communism. 


In spite of these, it is quite unlikely that the US will reduce its foreign policy interventions. That would be like admitting defeat. On the contrary, it is likely to go up, especially with the rise of China. In Africa today, China is well received because of its ‘partnership’ approach to business. This contrasts with the US hitherto ‘big-brother’ stance. What is possible is for those policies and how they are implemented to be reexamined and remodeled so that they are more accommodative of the rest of the world. Obama’s multilateral approach is one such example. 


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