From Parameters, Winter 2001-02, pp. 5-20.
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The diplomats and decisionmakers of the United States believe, habitually and uncritically, that stability abroad is our most important strategic objective. They may insist, with fragile sincerity, that democracy and human rights are our international priorities--although our policymakers do not seem to understand the requirements of the first and refuse to meet the requirements of the second. The United States will go to war over economic threats, as in Desert Storm. At present, we are preoccupied with a crusade against terrorism, which is as worthy as it is difficult. But the consistent, pervasive goal of Washington's foreign policy is stability. America's finest values are sacrificed to keep bad governments in place, dysfunctional borders intact, and oppressed human beings well-behaved. In one of the greatest acts of self-betrayal in history, the nation that long was the catalyst of global change and which remains the beneficiary of international upheaval has made stability its diplomatic god.
Our insistence on stability above all stands against the tides of history, and that is always a losing proposition. Nonetheless, our efforts might be understandable were they in our national interest. But they are not. Historically, instability abroad has been to America's advantage, bringing us enhanced prestige and influence, safe-haven-seeking investment, a peerless national currency, and flows of refugees that have proven to be rivers of diamonds (imagine how much poorer our lives would be, in virtually every regard, had our nation not been enriched by refugees from Europe's disturbances in the last century).
Without the instability of the declining 18th century, as the old European order decayed, we would not have gained the French assistance decisive to our struggle for independence. Without the instability of the 20th century, protectionist imperial regimes might have lingered on to stymie our economic expansion. And without the turbulence that seeks to rebalance the world today, much of humanity would continue to rot under the corrupt, oppressive regimes that are falling everywhere, from the Balkans to Southeast Asia. A free world subject to popular decision is impossible without the dismantling of the obsolete governments we rush to defend. In one of history's bitterest ironies, the United States finally became, in the 1990s, the reactionary power leftists painted us during the Cold War.
Before examining in greater detail why instability abroad is often to America's long-term benefit, let us consider the foolish manner in which we have descended from being a nation that championed change and human freedom to one that squanders its wealth, power, and lives in defense of a very bad status quo.
We began well enough, applauding Latin America's struggles to liberate itself from the grip of degenerate European empires (except, of course, in the case of Haiti, whose dark-skinned freedom fighters made our own Southern slave-holders nervous). The Monroe Doctrine was not about stability, but about protecting a new and beneficial instability from reactionary Europe. We did take an enormous bite of Mexican territory, which Mexico had inherited and could not manage, but we did not attempt to destroy or to rule Mexico. At the end of our Civil War, we were even prepared to intervene militarily on Mexico's behalf against European interlopers, had not the "Emperor" Maximilian met a fitting end at Mexican hands.
It all began to go wrong when we found ourselves with an accidental empire. Future historians, with the clarity allowed by centuries, may judge the Spanish-American War to have been America's decisive conflict, a quick fight that changed our nation's destiny and practice fundamentally. Brief, nearly bloodless, and wildly victorious, that war's importance has always been underestimated. Unlike almost all of America's other wars, it was a war that need not have been. Because it did happen, we turned outward, abandoning the convent for the streets, and could not go back. With that war, we became an imperial power, if a benign one, thus denying our heritage as the key anti-imperial power in history.
Domestically, the nation we have today is the result of our Civil War. Internationally, our fate was shaped by the Spanish-American War--more than by any of the wars that followed, despite their greater scope and striking results. Occurring at the peak of unbridled domestic capitalism, the Spanish-American War made of us an extractive power, in which the earnings of fruit companies became more important than support for freedom and democracy. Our bayonets served business, not ideals. This pattern of valuing profit above our pride--or even elementary human decency--holds true in our present relationships with states as diverse as Saudi Arabia and China (during the captivity of a US military aircrew in the spring of 2001, some American businessmen went to Capitol Hill to make China's case, rather than rallying to support our service members; our diplomatic blank check written to Saudi Arabia on behalf of our oil interests has allowed behind-the-scenes Saudi support for terrorists, while Saudi intelligence services stonewall us and Saudi citizens commit unprecedented acts of violence against the United States).
Despite evidence to the contrary throughout the 20th century, it has remained our conviction that stability abroad is good for business and, thus, for the United States--yet, the globalization of America's economic reach was enabled only by the colossal instabilities of collapsing empires. We argued that peace was good for business, no matter the human cost of an artificial peace imposed with arms, across a century when wars, revolutions, and decade after decade of instability opened markets to American goods, investors, and ideas. Were the maps of today identical to those of a century ago, with the same closed imperial systems in place, our present wealth and power would be impossible. America has always had a genius for picking up the pieces--the problems arise when we insist on putting those pieces back together exactly as they were before. I know of no significant example in history where an attempt to restore the status quo ante bellum really worked. The new "old" regime always turns out to be a different beast, despite attempts to fit it with a worn-out saddle. Neither bribes nor bullets (nor clumsy, co