America isn’t subject to gravity. America is gravity. America is the gravitational force that organized global power since the 20th century”, says British historian, Adam Tooze. America is a country that has neither a deep-rooted culture nor a centuries-old civilization to boast, yet it still gained dominance over all the prestigious empires including the British Empire to become a colonial superpower. The United States became more than just a productive force, it shaped a consumer culture that exerted a magnetic attraction on people all over the world. Most American historians sing songs of the benevolent America whose destiny was to save the powerless nations from the clutches of the colonizers and help spread peace around the world. However, there is more to the American agenda than preventing wars and constructing a world of prosperity.
The United States of America which was once a part of the European colonies became a colonial superpower within 200 years. This unprecedented growth did not happen overnight. The potential to become an imperialist nation had always existed within America. The Unites States is by far the most powerful country in human history possessing globe-spanning network of alliances and military bases. It has over 800 military bases and 37% of global military spending. The United States has now become the leader of a vast inter connected global system that has helped usher in an era of unprecedented prosperity and low levels of conflict. To understand how America acquired a pivotal role in world politics one must truly understand its founding history. Present day America is practically unrecognizable from the colony it once was. It was not a global power in any sense of the word. It was the expansionist trait in America that led to its immense growth. Early examples of this can be seen in how the Europeans who landed in the American Continent slaughtered the natives to take over their lands and build their own settlements. The annexation of the large American continent by the Europeans was a bloody affair. When we trace the first 70 years of America’s existence, we see the foreign settlers expanding their territory and influence in North America by a one-sided slaughter of the indigenous people by which they reached the Pacific Ocean. Most American historians have reiterated that the former American state had no concrete plans on further expansion and were conflicted on the matter of whether or not to go beyond the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This topic of foreign expansion was a matter of major debate between leaders after the American civil war. Post war Secretary of State, Willian H. Seward, argued that America must push to become a global power. He said, “All prosperous nations must expand”. This expansionism that is deeply ingrained in the DNA of America is what led to it becoming a nation that rivalled the British Empire.
Thus, after the American Civil War, the country purchased Alaska from Russia but Seward’s attempts to buy Greenland and Iceland, as well as an annex territory in the Caribbean were all blocked by the Congress. This is because most American leaders did not want America to get involved in global politics and they believed that such an expansion meant integrating populace from “inferior” races into the American society. This opposition became a major hurdle in the imperialist urge to expand. But a major event in the 1800s led to a serious turnover in this debate over American Expansionism. It was the Industrial Revolution. The industrial revolution resulted in the explosion of American economy. This explosive economic growth led to the need for a more centralized state and bureaucracy to manage the growing American economy. Power became concentrated in the federal government which made it easier for expansionist American leaders like William Mckinley to unilaterally push ideas of foreign expansion forward. Despite the conflict in interests between leaders, America was most definitely an aggressive expansionist force that moved across the Pacific at a terrifying pace. By this trait, America was no different from the other great empires. What made it different from the other colonial powers was the strategy it used to become the colonial superpower that it has now become. The United States corralled scrap territories that were beginning to drift away from the empires that had started dismantling. These far flung territories later formed the bedrock of the singular power that America is at present.
Many believe that it was the World War that led to America becoming a superpower. But unlike popular opinion it was the Spanish-American War that laid down the foundation of America’s global reach. In 1898 when the then President, Mckinley, dragged the country into war with Spain over Cuba there was intense domestic oppositions. But the rising United States defeated the Spanish Empire whose power over its colonies were waning and had lots its past grandeur. The war ended with America acquiring many different territories around the world like Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. America led the Spanish-American War under the premise of freeing Cuba from Spanish rule. However, America was driven by neo-imperialist beliefs, by which they desired an empire of their own similar in style to the British. Anti-imperialists called America hypocritical for condemning Europe while pursuing its own selfish interests. Cuban nationalists who believed they had achieved independence felt betrayed when they realized that the United States aided Cuba with their own personal interests and ideas in mind. It was only in 1902 that Cuba gained independence, which was after they had agreed to the Platt Amendment so that Cuba would always be entangled into the American web of influence. The amendment also stipulated that Cuba was not allowed to transfer lands to any other nation, it could not acquire any sort of foreign debt without U.S. approval, and the United States had the right to intervene into Cuban affairs whether Cuba wanted it or not.
Simultaneous to the Cuban annexation, America also acquired Philippines, which was treated as an extension of the Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is the idea that the United States was “destined” to spread across the North American continent from the edge of the Atlantic to and through the Pacific Ocean. However, as America continued to grow, this definition started to change to fit its growing interests. Thus, America started to continue its expansion but now with idea of bringing democracy, peace and civilization in all parts of the world. America saw itself as a savior or a Messiah who was saving and protecting the less privileged who very clearly needed help keeping up with the civilized nations. Contrary to this benevolent mission, America’s annexation of Philippines gave it two major advantages over other players. One, Philippines is an archipelago situated in a way that it would allow commerce with countries in East Asia like Japan and China which were growing in power. Two, in case of a conflict with these powerful nations, Philippines would provide a strategic warfare position. These ulterior intentions were sugarcoated under the guise of being a benevolent nation whose only purpose is to bring peace and help the natives rise from their state of “savagery”. The notion of “Benevolent Assimilation” of 1898 was issued under this pretext in regards to Philippines. In their original statement, United States intended to takeover political control from the Philippines’ leaders. This statement was sent to General Otis, the US military commander who was stationed in the Philippines, who censored it by removing any mention of ruling and sent it to the Philippines’ President Emilio Aguinaldo. The censored version is given below,
“‘Our little brown brothers’ would need ‘fifty or one hundred years’ of close supervision ‘to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills’. ‘Filipinos are moved by similar considerations to those which move other men’”- William Howard Taft to President Mckinley.
The usage of “Our little brown brothers” is intentional. It was meant to make the United States appear less intimidating and threatening. This term, coined by William Howard Taft has racist undertones. Here, American leaders have placed Philippines in a subordinate position where they need close supervision in order to grow into an “upright” nation. From the usage it is clear that to the Americans, the Filipinos are merely children who are helpless and must rely on the U.S. to achieve anything resembling a civilization and this “close supervision” needs to be done by America which is supposedly a nation that embodies civilization, democracy, and peace. Through the seizure of territories across the Pacific and the Atlantic, America officially became a global power with the ability to intervene into world politics, make diplomatic moves in East Asia, and play a critical role in ending the First World War.
Over the two years after the American-Spanish war, America annexed the Kingdom of Hawaii, Wake Island and American Samoa (1900). A few years later they took control of the Panama Canal Zone (1903) and sent troops to occupy the Dominican Republic. They also purchased the American Virgin Islands (1917). In these few years, due to this rapid annexation of far flung territories around the world America was able to establish an interconnected global network of alliances and attempted to balance all the other major players in the global system. Consequentially, America began to use their influence to protect their growing commercial and military interests abroad by installing pro-American regimes in places like Nicaragua and playing a critical role in international diplomacy regarding the Western presence in China. 1916 is a crucial year when considering America’s growing global influence. It was the year when the U.S. output overtook that of the British empire. Before the 1914 war, America’s great economical potential was suppressed by an ineffective political system and a dysfunctional financial system. America was also riddled by violent racial conflicts.” America was a byword for urban graft, mismanagement and greed-fueled politics, as much as for growth, production, and profit”, writes Adam Tooze. As World War I crossed into its third year, power that was till then held by the British was seen shifting into American hands. The belligerents of World War I could no longer handle the costs of war. Germany, which was cut off from world trade had to hunker down to defensive sieges and concentrate its attack on weaker nations like Romania. Their Western allies, especially Britain had to place massive orders with the United States in order to outfit its troops. Britain had to buy most of its goods like engines, shell casings, grains and oil from foreign suppliers with America at the top of the list. Of all the European nations Britain and France were the ones placing larger and larger bond issues with America which were denominated not in pounds or francs but in dollars. This astounding amount of Allied purchases called forth a war mobilization in the United States. American factories focused on meeting the increasing demands and hence switched from civilian to military production. Farmers planted food and fiber so as to feed and clothe European troops.
Aside from this, major power players around the world were anxiously observing the results of the American Elections, that took place in 1916, as the chosen candidate would determine America’s involvement in the First World War. As America was equipped with greater military infrastructures, they were considered a potential ally that could assure victory in the war. America’s decision would have had serious ramifications in the fate of both East Asia and the European countries. However, much to Europe’s dismay the chosen candidate, Woodrow Wilson, planned to keep America out of the war. He was the first American leader who tried to defy “gravity”. “Peace without victory”, was what Wilson preferred. His strategy of keeping America out of the war was aimed at subordinating other warring countries by establishing American dominance on the ruins of the legitimacy of their political systems. However, President Wilson catastrophically failed to keep America out of the war which led to large military tax and debts within the country. Even then, the First World War truly showed just how influential America had become. American intervention not only became a decisive factor for the war’s end, the President also attended the Paris Peace Conference which ended the war and attempted to set the terms of the peace. In fact, President Wilson spearheaded the most ambitious foreign policy initiative yet, an international organization named The League of Nations, designed to promote peace and cooperation globally. This international organization capable of remaking global politics was testament to how ambitious America foreign policy had become. His Republican opponents were leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot lodge etc. who wished to see America become a superpower. These American leaders wanted the United states to be equipped with a navy, an army, a central bank and all other systems and infrastructures of power as possessed by other empires. They were named “isolationists” because of their mistrust towards Wilson’s foreign policies. This isolationism became the driving force which doomed President Wilson’s foreign policy as the Congress blocked the United States from joining The League of Nations. They feared that it would encroach upon America’s sovereignty. Wilson had an entirely different vision of America and had understood its potential to become “a power unlike any other”. He had hopes of using this emerging super power to establish an enduring peace around the world. Unfortunately, Wilson’s and his successors’ mistakes doomed this project and instead led to The Great Depression, the rise of fascism and a second world war which was even more terrible than the last. Thus, during the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, America had to focus on its own region and its welfare rather than intervene into European affairs.
The Great Depression was one of the most painful and wrecking events in American history. Total American industrial production dropped by at least 30 percent, unemployment spiked close to a 12 percent and overall prices plummeted at a rate steeper than ever before. However, after 18 months of hardship the American economy started to recover. By 1923, America was able to return to full employment. The Great Depression was one of the most ominous milestones on the world’s way to World War II. After the Second World War, Britain recovered mainly through American aid. America was the nation that had suffered least during the war and was also the one that contributed most to reconstruction. All World War I belligerents had quit the gold standard early on since they knew their currency would depreciate against gold as part of their war finance. Hence the currencies of the nations that lost depreciated much more than those that won. Among the nations that won, Italy’s currency depreciated most, then France and then Britain. Even the mighty pound lost almost a quarter of its value against gold. Thus, every national government was at a dilemma on whether to return to the gold standard and, if so, at what rate. The 1920 American depression made this decision all the more difficult. World War I made America the world’s leading creditor, the largest owner of gold, which by extension made it the unofficial custodian of the international gold standard. The United States was determined to restore a dollar to be as good as a gold standard. This imposed terrible hardships on war ravaged Europe which led to the flooding of American markets with low-cost European products. A similar situation prevailed even after the Second World War and the world began to owe the United states billions of dollars. The Great Depression overturned parliamentary governments all over the European and American continents. The dictators that replaced them aspired to be modernizers, none more so than Adolf Hitler.
Hitler sought after Poland, Ukraine, and Russia so as to gain enough resources that could match that of America’s. He considered the vast land between Berlin and Moscow to be equivalent to the American west. But his aspirations were a nightmare parody that couldn’t hope to challenge American power. In 1870, the time of German national unification, the population of both the countries were roughly equal. But the total output of America, despite its massive amount of resources was only one-third larger than that of Germany’s. But just before World War I outbreak, the American economy had further expanded to roughly twice the size of Imperial Germany. By 1943, the total American output became almost four times that of the Third Reich. And in 1939 Germany became a weaker and poorer country even when compared to Britain, let alone the United States.
In the meantime, in East Asia the Japanese Empire was growing in strength which became a direct threat to America’s possessions and troops. This brought the two growing military powers into conflict. This conflict culminated in the Pearl Harbor attack which led to America’s involvement in the Second World War. World War II changed America’s global presence forever. The United States was the only country that remained more or less unscathed economically during the Second World War, and it was also the only country in possession of atomic weapons. This gave America power over other countries and put it in a unique position to set the terms of peace with the aim of preventing another war. America took advantage of this position they held. The most well-known example of this would be the creation of the United Nations. The U.N. charter set up a system of international laws prohibiting wars of conquest like the ones waged by the Nazis and the Japanese. It also served as a forum where international communities could gather, weigh in on disputes and help resolve them. In this manner, America believed that great powers could resolve their differences peacefully through compromise and law rather than war. The UN isn’t the only post war institution facilitated by the United States. 730 delegates from the 44 Allied Nations gathered at a vacation haven in New Hampshire to establish a global financial system that would ensure the prevention of another Great Depression and World War. This resulted in the Bretton Woods Agreement, which became the backbone of the global financial system, resulting in the establishment of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Through the creation of institutions like the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the United States committed itself deeply into global affairs and became equipped with the power to shape a new world order. However, the Soviet Union, the world’s second largest power, was not of similar mindset. The Second World War led to an alliance between the democratic West and the communist East in their fight against Hitler. But this appeared to be a temporary one. From the American perspective the Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe and elsewhere was a direct threat to the free trading democratic world it had envisioned. Fearful of this Soviet expansion and their intentions towards Western Europe, America and other European nations created the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations (NATO). This was a military alliance designed to stop Russia from invading other countries in Europe. The United States then committed itself to a strategy called “containing”, called so as it was meant to contain the spread of communism around the world. Hysteria over the perceived threat of Communists in America, which became known as the Red Scare, rose when the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United states intensified. The Red Scare led to events that had a profound effect on the American government and society. International events heightened public concerns over communism. In 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear bomb and later China got taken over by communist forces led by Mao Zedong. During 1950-53, the U.S. troops were engaged in combat against the communist forces of North Korea which resulted in the Korean War. Advancing communism convinced American citizens that the threat of the “Reds” was real and that they could potentially take control of their country. Figures like Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover fanned the flames of fear by exaggerating its potential.
Nonetheless, these new treaties like NATO and strategies meant that America could now exert its influence everywhere. Thus, instead of removing itself from global politics after the World War II, America was now an active part of world affairs as the wheels kept turning. The U.S. intervention into world politics led to two things; one, America was now allied with countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel and South Korea where each of them acted as bulwarks or barricades against communist influence in their regions; two, America began to intervene secretly into the affairs of dozens of countries like Vietnam and Afghanistan to contain Soviet influence. The United States did this by sometimes propping up sympathetic dictators like in Iran and other times by supplying military ammunition to rebels like in Afghanistan (1979) and Nicaragua (1985). During and after the Cold War, America intervened into countless disputes in many nations around the globe which resulted in a complicated set of alliances, tensions and relations in every corner of the world. After the Berlin Wall fell, America could have gone back to its alleged original intention of isolationism, severed ties with its allies and reduced its military strength. But while America did reduce its military spending, most of its infrastructure and alliances from the Cold War remained. The then American President, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton later decided that it was in the best interest of both America and the world for the United States, now the sole super power on Earth, to continue its global influence. NATO which was created as tool for countering the Soviet Union not only stayed together but also expanded so as to keep the European nations united during the absence of the Soviet threat. America’s support for countries like Israel and Japan stayed intact, seemingly to avoid war in their respective regions. The global networks of alliances and institutions created to keep peace during the Cold War therefore became permanent and American military and political commitments became necessary to keep them running. This global system is still in operation today and no leading American politician since the Cold War has called for the dismantlement of it until Donald Trump. Trump has expressed contradictory feelings about these commitments and he has consistently argued that these allied nations haven’t paid America enough for their protection and also questioned the value of free trade. His arguments call NATO and the World Trade Organization into question. His beliefs show a sharp divergence from the ideas of America’s foreign policies and is much closer to the isolationism that the early American leaders preferred. Nevertheless, the United States is the most globally connected power that is capable of making pivotal decisions in the matters of world politics. Their position as colonial superpower gives them various tools and agencies through which they can shape and control major discourses.
The history of American hegemony is one of arrogance tinged with anxiety. It mirrors a sort of troubled triumphalism. Hegemony means that a single power possesses the tools to set and enforce the rules of political, economic, social and cultural affairs of the world. “It is the workshop, the banker, and the policeman of the world system.” Two systemic crises led to the rise of American hegemony. One is the Long Depression (1873-1897), which slowed down the world’s economic growth and second is the decline of the British hegemony which led to a “decentering” of the world system. This “decentering” simultaneously produced a “recentering” which was the establishment of American hegemony. The term “hegemony” can be traced back to the fifth century BC, where the Greek Scholar Thucydides used it to define Athens’ position in the Greek world. Athens possessed the greatest fleet in the Mediterranean region and it was the home of philosophers like Socrates and Plato, Sophocles and Aeschylus. Similarly, the United States is equipped with the largest military strength and thinktanks through which it dominates the world. The Soviet Union was the only nation that had challenged the United States in the 20th century, but it never produced more than about half of America’s national output. Though the Soviet Union could resist American hegemony, it did not have the power to replace it. Other than the bomb and an impressive space program, it had nothing else to offer. American hegemony became complete when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991 which left America at the top of the international system with no potential rivals challenging its global leadership. However, America’s unipolar moment lasted only a decade. 2001 showed the reemergence of Russia and the rise of China which threatened America’s position as global leader. The second decade of the 21st century showed a sharp decline in American hegemony. Nonetheless, America has an inner circle of English- speaking allies, dominion over the world’s seas, skies, airwaves, and cyberspaces, and the American Universities produce thinktanks capable of controlling the flow of information.
A shift in power would depend on China’s relationship with its neighbors. Geographically China is surrounded by some tough countries. It faces three major middle-tier powerhouses on its three sides; Russia towards the North, South Korea and Japan to its East, and Vietnam and India to its South. In the future, Russia might find it difficult to hold out against China, but even that isn’t a serious threat to U.S. hegemony. What could be a threat is the increasing Sino-Russian tensions, which could reinforce U.S. hegemony similar to how Sino-Soviet tensions did in the 1970s. Above all, the potential of a Chinese hegemony would depend on future Chinese economic growth. However, existing demographic trends show that China will grow old before it gets rich. By contrast, the U.S. population is young and growing at a substantial rate. Curiously, America’s English-speaking allies have similar demographic structures. And, even if the most talented people from other countries do not move to the United States, they would be moving to one of its allies which doesn’t make much of a difference. The fact that English is the global lingua franca as well as the language of the internet further bolsters America. America and all of its allies form a cooperative system of shared sovereignty which is similar in structure to the Roman Republic. No other country exists in this century that possesses this kind of world dominating vehicle for the enforcement of its will. And this U.S. dominated global system shows no sign of falling apart. In retrospect, current America’s intricate global power network seems even more resilient than the former American state.
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