Quick! Name a country that has been conquered and swallowed up by an aggressive neighbor in the last 50 years. Throughout history, this used to be a routine event, but aside from Iraq’s brief conquest of Kuwait, quickly reversed by the US and its allies, there hasn’t been a single one. Also, it may be hard for most Americans to accept the fact, considering the wars we ourselves have been involved in, but wars and other armed conflicts have become not only less common, but also much less lethal over the last 70 years.
In many ways, in spite of all our public setbacks, the history of America’s interaction with the rest of the world has to be rated as a strong positive. We envisioned a new kind of world after WWII and largely brought it about, in spite of determined opposition from some powerful opponents. We wanted free trade, freedom of the seas, the growth of democracy, the reduction of war, and the end to wars of conquest, and we have achieved substantial progress toward all of those goals.
What’s more, we achieved those goals mostly by persuasion, helped along by the occasional carrot and a credible stick. For the most part, the world has been willing, if sometimes grudgingly, to let the US lead. To a certain extent, that’s because we paid a lot of the bills ourselves for enforcing the rules, but it’s mostly because the rules themselves created a positive-sum game in which most people were better off – richer, freer, and safer from enemies.
We have, however, made our share of mistakes – and, unfortunately, because of our power and influence, when we make a mistake the consequences are usually painful. However, at least in the greater scheme of things, our successes have tended to outweigh our mistakes (so far).
The foremost of those successes is that we have managed to create a world where we aren’t currently facing an existential threat like the one we faced during the Cold War – terrorism may worry our defense officials, and other powers (like China) might be thinking about replacing us as the world’s dominant economic power, but there isn’t anything that poses a real threat of destroying the US. Despite this lack of serious danger, managing our relations with other nations is a puzzle that American leaders will always have to deal with. There are a number of issues, problems, and trends going on within the international sphere that we need to keep an eye on and try to deal with, before they cause us more trouble than we can afford.
Next page: The dilemmas of foreign policy
Back to Foreign Relations