American Foreign Policy from Conquering “Savages” to Global Dominance
excerpts from Confessions (Process Century Press, 2023)
The aim of American foreign policy today, argues John Cobb, is to dominate the world as a single controlling order. It is to "be number one." This aim, he adds, is not new. European colonists conquered the continent at the expense of indigenous peoples, stealing their land and justifying the conquest by deeming them "savages." They then brought slaves to do the hard work. The impulse to conquer and colonize has a long history. Today that impulse expresses itself in the impulse to maintain a single, integrated market that benefits global elites and transnational corporations, with the United States its leader. The impulse is justified by the idea that America is a moral and spiritual exception: American exceptionalism.
The alternative is to relinquish the impulse to conquer, cooperate with other nations, and encourage sustainable local economies around the world that are good for people, other animals, and the Earth. This is the better way advocated by many environmentalists and humanists.
Might Christians join them? Have Christians in the United States the courage to seek the truth, freed from one-sided propaganda to the contrary, and to challenge the goal of domination? Have they the wisdom to recommend a more humane and loving way of living in the world? Have they the courage to follow the teachings and spirit of Jesus? John Cobb hopes so. But first, he says, we must be honest about the past and present. Below please find excerpts from the chapter in Confessions titled: "American Foreign Policy: From Conquering 'Savages' to Global Dominance." The chapter contains much more detail than these excerpts might suggest. Scroll down for more pages in Open Horizons with excerpts from Confessions and a link to purchase the book.
- Jay McDaniel
Stealing Land, Buying Slaves
Before there was a United States, the colonies flourished at the expense of the indigenous people by stealing their land. They fought the French and Indian wars to keep the process going. The British crown made some attempt to keep the British presence in North America limited to the Atlantic coastal area. One major reason for fighting for independence was to free the colonists to expand indefinitely into indigenous land. George Washington’s fortune was dependent on further thefts from the indigenous people. The colonists won, and we have used our freedom from restrictions on Westward expansion to the hilt.
Few of us can read what we did to the earlier inhabitants of the land we conquered without horror. We Euro-Americans justified genocide by the “savagery” of the “injuns.” We illustrated their savagery by their practice of scalping. Of course, it turns out that we initiated that practice. A common expression was “No good injun, but a dead injun.”
Although we seized the land, we did not want, ourselves, to engage in all the labor required to profit fully from it. So, we bought slaves to do the work. The economy of much of the United States was based on slavery. Before the Civil War, my Cobb ancestors were wealthy Georgians. Of what did their wealth consist? Of land stolen from the indigenous people and the forced labor of enslaved Africans
Perhaps the most dramatic step in shaping our policies toward Europeans and the rest of the Western Hemisphere was the Monroe Doctrine. We told the European countries to leave, and stay away from, Latin America. It belonged to us. That is, its resources were ours to exploit. We would allow countries to choose their own leaders as long as they were compliant with our interests. The policy was enforced by our army. It was amazingly successful. We exercised unipolar dominance of the Western hemisphere for centuries. Only quite recently have there been successful challenges. The fact that they can now negotiate for help in development with China has opened a new door.
The other side of our policy was to stay out of the quarrels and wars among European nations. In relation to the Eastern hemisphere, until the twentieth century, we tended toward isolationism. We did not establish colonies in Africa or Asia. I grew up feeling that we Americans were more virtuous than the Europeans because we were not “imperialists.” I was not encouraged by my schooling to think much about our relation to the “savages” who had inhabited the land on which our nation was built or the Latin Americans we claimed to protect from imperialist Europeans. However, in the American Foreign Policy first half of the twentieth century, the United States was sucked into two world wars. After the second one, it emerged as the single great power in the world. It had no intention of withdrawing to the Western Hemisphere.
Emergence of a Dipolar World
The war against Hitler was fought chiefly on Russian soil. Russian losses were in the tens of millions. Its industry was destroyed. Nevertheless, it won. Although exhausted, it had no intention of being subservient to American capitalism. It continued to practice and to globally promote its Communist ideology. Communists in China overcame the Western-oriented and capitalist government of Chiang Kai-shek. And Communists were gaining ground, especially among the poor, all over the world. Although the United States was far richer, it felt significantly threatened by Communism and the latter’s Russian homeland. Foreign policy was largely one of weakening the appeal of Communism and of the countries that adopted it. We had a dipolar world.
Going to War, Victory over Communism
We fought an awful war in Vietnam to stop the spread of Communism. We lost. One difficulty the government had was that we fought primarily with a drafted Army. Armies of that kind had worked well in the two world wars. Most young men were proud to fight for their country. But fighting against peasants struggling for self-determination was different. They did not seem like wicked Communists threatening our nation. Many draftees fought unwillingly. The young people of the country protested against the war. For once, national propaganda did not counterbalance the lived experience of the soldiers. We lost the war.
Never again would the United States depend on the enforced military service of citizens. We would build an Army of professionals. A public not threatened by conscription would pay less attention. The government could fight whom and when it wished without arousing opposition. Public opinion is still critical, but it can be shaped by controlled media. Even if there is some public opposition, it is not intense, since no one is being drafted to fight. Wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan have brought little glory to our nation, but the public has not interfered.
Considering our huge defense budget, our record in wars has been remarkably unimpressive. Many of us are suspicious that the money is not spent with military success as the only goal. The defense budget has never been audited properly. Such estimates as have been made indicate that trillions of dollars cannot be accounted for. It is hard not to suspect that some of our billionaires owe much of their fortune to this unaudited budget. It seems to be another example of economism at work. Money comes first. The wellbeing of the nation, even as measured in military terms, is not the government’s highest priority.
In contrast to the lackluster performance of the greatest military force the world has ever seen, we used our unique economic strength at the end of World War II with great success. Wall Street became the center of world finance. The reserves of many nations were deposited there. The dollar became the international currency. And our “hit-men” led developing nations to use our money and our corporations in ways that allowed us to exploit their resources, binding them to our will. We still control many votes in the United Nations in these ways.
The economic power of the United States, more than its military power, led to the collapse of Communism as a globally significant alternative to capitalism. The Soviet Union collapsed. Although the Communist party still rules China, it makes no effort to promote Communism elsewhere and no pretense to practice it at home. On the contrary, China is a key contributor to global industrial capitalism.
* It is somewhat ironic that my strongest critics in China are young people who want China to become more like the United States. They consider me far too cooperative with the Chinese government.
Some thirty countries are now sanctioned by the United States. Sanctions do not evoke love. Those countries and others may still obey us, but only because they are forced to do so. When there are other options, such support will end.
The global victory of capitalism over communism did not end the Western enmity toward Russia and China. This is because of a profound change in the goals of the United States already noted in the preceding chapter. By organizing 9/11, neoconservatives gained control of the foreign policy of the United States. They want a world with a single controlling center supporting the growth and ever-increasing profits of the great transnational corporations. They see the United States as the only possible leader.
* In this vision, the goal is for the United States to provide the financial and military support for these transnational corporations to flourish. Whereas most countries could not be relied on to govern such a world, “American exceptionalism” assures us that the United States will use its global dominance for the benefit of the world
Make America Great Again?
This kind of thinking had been more Republican than Democratic. In the United States, the Democratic Party had been heavily based in organized labor after World War II. It would not have continued to have labor union support if it forced workers to compete with those in poorer countries. However, some saw that it was losing to the Republican Party, which was heavily based in business. The Democratic Party shifted to support of transnational business. Bill Clinton led in this move and rammed through Congress an agreement, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), that made it possible for productive facilities to move to Mexico and sell their products in the United States. The Democrats led in working on other trade agreements with Asia and Europe. In the United States, industrial labor unions were destroyed. Indeed, the workers, who had achieved middle class status, were thrown back into poverty. Many working-class people want America to be great again.
The Need for Sustainable Local Economies
As we look and plan ahead, our task will be to operate in a world dominated by the United States alone. Our goal must be to persuade the United States to give priority to a habitable planet rather than to a global market. That is not a promising prospect.
As both nature and society become more chaotic, those who can live on local resources have the best chance of surviving. Our goal as environmentalists and humanists is sustainable local economies. This is the exact opposite of the ideology that is winning the global sweepstakes. At some point, of course, even Washington will understand this, but it is already very late.
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