Wednesday, 25 December 2013

An overview of the USA's relations with the world since 1918...

Since 1918, the USA has been a major player in international relations. It has exercised its influence in the world on all levels: military and economic (coercive or “hard power”) as well as diplomatic and cultural (persuasive or “soft power”).

The USA’s foreign policy in the 20th century can be described as both pragmatic (defending its own interests) and idealistic (the USA has always justified its interventions abroad in the name of democracy, peace, and the defence of fundamental human rights).

1918 to 1945: the rise of the most powerful nation

In April 1917, the USA declared war on Germany. This went against its traditional isolationism. On the 8th January 1918, Woodrow Wilson, the President of the USA, gave a speech to Congress in which he justified his country’s involvement in the First World War: the Fourteen Points. In it, Wilson outlined his vision for a post-war world that would avoid another terrible conflict. He wanted reduction in arms, the self-determination of nations, and to create an association of nations to prevent future wars, i.e. a League of Nations to ensure international relations were based not on force but on understanding between nations. His ideas faced opposition at home and abroad, and the Treaty of Versailles was in fact never ratified by the United States Congress. His idealism was undermined by the spirit of revenge of the Versailles Treaty against the Central Powers. The League of Nations was set up, but the USA did not become a member. After the war, the USA went back to its isolationism (up to 1941), its influence in the world being essentially economic (at the time, the USA owned a third of the world’s gold reserve and had 19% of the world’s GDP).

It is essentially because of the bombing by the Japanese of Pearl Harbor (7th December 1941) that the USA decided to get militarily involved in the Second World War (it became interventionist). Up to then, it had hesitated, especially because of the influence of the Americans of German origin. It had not however been neutral since it was supplying arms and material to the Allied nations via the Lend-Lease program (initiated in March 1941), which was already a step away from its non-interventionist/isolationist policy of the inter-war years. The course of the war was changed because the US joined the Allies and because of its capacity to produce massive amounts of arms (it was the “great arsenal of democracy”).

Yalta Conference (02/1945): Churchill, FDR, Stalin

By 1945, the US had become a superpower, having led the war effort against the Axis powers, becoming rich thanks to the war (two-thirds of the world’s gold reserve was by then American, and it owned 50% of the world’s GDP), and it had the A-bomb. At the Yalta Conference (February 1945) and the Potsdam Conference (July 1945), the USA, along with the UK and the USSR, determined what the post-war world would be like.

1945 to 1991: one of two superpowers during the Cold War

After WW2, the USA’s enemy was the other superpower: the USSR. The world became bipolar, i.e. split in two: the Western Bloc (or Capitalist Bloc) i.e. the USA and its allies, against the Eastern Bloc (or Soviet/Communist Bloc) i.e. the USSR and its allies.

In the Western Bloc, the USA was the leader and economic and cultural model for its allies. It had the most powerful economy (and controlled the industrialized countries’ monetary system since the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, the dollar being the only currency convertible into gold).

The US set up military bases and fleets everywhere in the world and it signed many military pacts including NATO (1949), ANZUS (1951), and SEATO (1954). The USA and its allies dominated the UN Security Council. Its strategy was one of containment, i.e. of stopping the spread of communism.

Direct military confrontation between the USSR and the USA was impossible because of the nuclear capabilities of both, though there were numerous crises (1948 Berlin Airlift, 1961 Berlin Wall, 1962 Cuban Missile crisis) and proxy wars (1950-53 Korean War, 1963-73 active US participation in Vietnam War). Based on deterrence theory, the superpowers entered a nuclear arms race; the USA “won” this race since the Soviet Union was, by the 1980s, no longer able to upkeep its nuclear weapons arsenal. The “balance of terror” of the nuclear arms race during the Cold War was the price the USA was willing to pay to defend the “Free World” against the spread of what it saw as the totalitarian communist system of the Soviet Union.

Protest in the US against the Vietnam War (circa 1969)

In the 1970s, the US’s self-confidence was undermined by the economic crisis and the opposition among Americans and people in the world against the Vietnam War.

1989: the Berlin wall is pulled down

President Ronald Reagan declared in 1980 that “America is back!” and gave the US renewed confidence in its capacity to promote what it saw as universal values (freedom, democracy) against the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. His aggressive rollback strategy paid off and the Soviet Bloc, economically defunct, collapsed in 1989 (the USSR being dissolved in 1991).

1991 to today: from being the hyperpower to being part of a multipolar world

Editorial cartoon condemning the agressive militarism of the USA

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the USA was the only superpower left, in effect a hyper-power, dominating the world at all levels. The world was no longer bipolar (with two opposing centres of power) but became unipolar. This status ended in 2001 with the Al-Quaeda terrorist attacks on mainland America. During those ten years, the USA defended, as usual, both its national interests and universal values, acting either under UN Mandate (Gulf War liberation of Kuwait from Iraq in 1991, and the Afghanistan War against the Taliban started in 2001) or without a UN mandate (i.e. by adopting a unilateralist stance, such as during the 2003 invasion of Iraq to eliminate Saddam Hussein).

President George W. Bush (2001-2009), wanted, post-9/11, to fight the “Axis of evil”, the rogue states that he thought sheltered or sponsored terrorists (Iraq, Afghanistan) or that were opposed to the USA (Iran, North Korea). The US’s image abroad, notably in the Middle East, was not positive throughout this period. The US government has also been challenged at home because of the perceived abuses by the government of the Patriot Act (enacted in 2001).

Editorial cartoon commenting US-Russian discussions over Syria (2013)

Since the start of the economic crisis in 2008 and the rise of other economic powers (notably China), the USA’s economic domination is being challenged (though it still has 23% of the world’s GDP) and with it its hegemonic position on the world. President Barack Obama, elected in 2009, has ended the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, got rid of Al-Qaeda leaders, and appears more open to multilateral solutions to world problems. Is the USA moving to the status of a nation among other nations in a multipolar world (one with several centres of power)? The intensive use of military drones and the NSA scandal (widespread spying by the USA including on leaders of friendly countries) has however tarnished this Administration’s good image… 


  1. Merci tellllllllement, j'ai enfin tout compris !!

  2. Je plussoie...Merci infiniment !

  3. merci mille fois

  4. enfin un cours clair ! Merci !

  5. Très bon résumé!

  6. Merci à vous ;) très clair !!