OP-ED: The Sad, Tragic Journey of U.S. Foreign Policy: Its Origins and Consequences

By Nicholas Patler
Nicholas Patler
Nicholas Patler
FOR WELL OVER A HUNDRED YEARS, United States foreign policy has contributed to death, suffering and instability all over the globe. We Americans don’t like to hear it—we want to believe that we are the good guys—but sadly it’s true. We have helped depose fourteen sovereign governments, often using reckless violence, beginning with Hawaii in 1893 and continuing with Iraq today; sponsored dictators all across Asia, the Middle East, Latin and Central America, Africa and Greece; and supplied brutal or genocidal regimes with credits, diplomacy, money, military weaponry, combat training and other assistance (or just turned the other way in the face of genocide because no perceived U.S. interests were at stake).

America is also the only nation to have attacked another country with nuclear weapons, deliberately unleashing atomic hell on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We napalmed the Vietnamese and Guatemalans; fired untold numbers of missiles at other lands, including over 200 unilateral strikes against modest and poverty stricken second and third world countries (we are still doing so in Afghanistan while threatening Iran); and have rained down tons of devastating bombs on millions of human beings, their homes and communities. In just six short months during 1973, for example, U.S. B-29 sortie raids dropped over 250,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia alone, a mostly agrarian country the size of Oklahoma. 

The world’s greatest superpower has practically bombed into oblivion an impoverished Afghanistan—the same thing it did to Iraq in the first Gulf War, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia, poverty-stricken countries unfortunate enough to be caught in the crosshairs of unbridled American power. As this is being written, we are directly contributing to civil wars, tensions and internal strife in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, the Koreas, Israel and Palestine. In some cases we have helped create these conflicts as well as fanned the flames of violence. Many of these peoples, sadly, live their lives in war zones, fearing that at any moment they may be killed or maimed. This is something unimaginable to the average American, many of whom view their country’s dangerous actions abroad through a murky prism of spreading democracy, ensuring freedom or combating enemies to protect us here at home.


During the past half century, the United States has expanded its military presence to practically every corner of the globe. This has included stationing thousands of heavily armed troops along the Arabian Peninsula, offending the religious sentiments, cultural traditions and sovereignty of the Muslim people living there, inspiring attacks such as 9/11. We have also spent enormous amounts of time and resources creating and building up institutions where power is closed and unaccountable, such as the CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, and Pentagon, all non-democratic agencies nurturing with the greatest care behind closed doors our self-centered, destructive policies and actions against other peoples. 


Gore Vidal, the moral conscience of our age, and a World War II Army veteran,  stresses that each of these agencies was created and all of their clandestine actions were carried out “without the consent, much less the advice, of the American people. 


The American government also spends billions of dollars annually on weapons and research, far eclipsing any other country in the world, including the combined totals for China, Russia, United Kingdom, Japan, France and Germany (and this does not include spending for the Afghan and Iraq wars). And we are the largest weapons exporter in the world, providing billions of dollars of weaponry and military assistance to countries, some of which have poor human rights records and use American military ingenuity to wreak terror on unwanted internal minorities. This includes Turkey, the third largest recipient of U.S. weaponry and military training in the world, which, until very recently, was committing the “slow-motion genocide of the Kurds” as U.S elites look on.


The George W. Bush Administration took things to a dangerously new level in our world by recklessly pursuing its own interests in the international arena in opposition to world consensus, trampling international law and democratic norms, disregarding global arms and environmental agreements, violating moral inhibitions against torture and thumbing its nose at the concerns of other nations.


And while defense and military spending reached new heights during the Bush years, it has so far changed only for the worse in the Barack Obama Administration, where, sadly, it will soon reach more than a trillion dollars (based on President Obama’s 2011 federal discretionary budget sent to Congress in January 2010. See www.afsc.org). While Obama has expressed a willingness to work more closely and sensitively with the international community, which is a positive step forward, he has nonetheless inherited the entrenched military-industrial complex. And without dogged grassroots support from us, the best we can hope for from one man, no matter how visionary, is perhaps some moderate reductions in its power and influence (though, so far, not dollars), which could be easily reversed by a future administration that panders to fear for its lifeblood, as we have seen over and over.  (Lesson: the reform that we need today in politics and global affairs can only come about by a transformation in government as we know it. Human rights and serving the welfare of the vulnerable must move from the non-political periphery and become the soul of our government and foreign policy institutions.)


Perhaps the most disturbing thing for the world today, which we hear very little about, is that the U.S. has been developing and testing E-Bomb weaponry—an alarming new generation of weapons that uses electromagnetic and neurological technology to kill, maim, paralyze and control the mental and emotional states of human beings. Col. Doug Beason, a leading scientist in the development of this destructively oriented technology, and director of Threat Reduction at Los Alamos National Laboratory, expresses his enthusiasm for the future of warfare in which “directed energy weapons” allow us to strike “around the globe almost instantaneously,” based upon, once again, the misuse of science: “[I]n the next few years, when they are unleashed on the battlefield,

                                                         “they will be more revolutionary than the longbow, machine

                                                          gun, stealth airplane, cruise missile, nuclear submarine, or

                                                          atomic bomb … It will transform our way of life.”

And, might I add—our way of death.


The motivations behind our global behavior: economic-resource, ideology and power

With all considered, how on earth did we, the United States of America, the great experiment in human liberty, get here? How could a supposed democracy act so undemocratic?


There is the obvious reason (but still rarely admitted or acknowledged openly in public discourse). The U.S. is an empire. That’s what empires do—they expand, dominate and conquer. They act unilaterally and take little heed of the concerns of their neighbors. They have done so since times immemorial. The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, wrote that the Athenians initially increased their empire for defensive reasons, but then they found power over others intoxicating and justified their imperialism by passionately arguing the natural right of the stronger to selfishly dominate the weaker. More than two thousand years later at the dawn of American empire expansion, foreign policy icon, George Kennan, wondered if America had not embarked on a similar course with its conquest of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the brutal takeover of the Philippines.


                                                    “…at the bottom of it all lay something deeper, something less

                                                    easy to express, probably the fact that the American people of

                                                    that day, or at least many of their more influential spokesman,

                                                    simply liked the smell of empire…” 

U.S. foreign policy has been largely motivated to project its power abroad by three main objectives, infused in practice, however, with many nuances: a desire to create or maintain access to global resources and markets; to spread its worldview and crush perceived (and often exaggerated or invented) ideological threats; and simply to maintain its image as the world’s privileged superpower.


 Sometimes it has been a coalescence or overlapping of two or three of these objectives—economic-resource, ideology and power—involved in the decision to deliberately violate or manipulate the sovereignty of another nation or people. American presidents also seem increasingly obsessed with their legacies—particularly since they now a days memorialize themselves in expensive, self-venerating monuments known as presidential libraries—that they are willing to senselessly sacrifice human lives and resources in hopes of reversing the downward spiral of their foreign policy fiascos such as in Vietnam and Iraq.


But in many cases the main tangible objective underlying our domination-oriented approach to world affairs has been and still is access to markets and resources, such as oil in the Middle East. This has been central to American history going back to at least the post World War I period, when the foundation of our petroleum foreign policy was built upon the murdered corpses and skeletons of human beings in the former Ottoman Empire.


In The Burning Tigris, Peter Balakian writes that as war waged across Europe, the Turkish nationalist government carried out a brutal campaign of terror and extermination against the Armenian minority living within its borders, where it is estimated that over one million people perished from massacres or starvation and disease as a result of forced deportations. He further explains that U.S. public opinion was outraged, determined to not only hold Turkey accountable for “crimes against humanity” in an international court of law, but also to help create a homeland for the Armenians. 


The leaders of the new Turkish Republic, however, cleverly dangled their oil fields in front of U.S elites, tempting them with the lure of money, power and global influence. To make a tragic story short, U.S. political and corporate leaders (and missionaries) scrambled to thwart any justice for the Armenians, even bowing before Turkish demands to mute any mention of “Armenia” in diplomatic talks. Soon thereafter, the U.S. had its foot snugly in the oilfields of the Middle East, along with other European powers. 


The suffering of the Armenians was swept under the rug and the Turkish government continued to commit atrocities against them as well as Greeks within their reach. Thus, the immoral aspect of our contemporary foreign policy, where materialism took precedence over humanity, emerged from the dark ashes of genocide, where material self-interest or the prospect of self-enrichment led the U.S. to shelter a genocidal government while at the same time helping to drown out the cries of its victims for justice.



This would set a significant moral precedent for the rest of the century in which the thirst for global resources and power would take precedence over any genuine concern for the peoples living in the lands we coveted. We would repeat what we did in Turkey, ignoring suffering and putting human lives in terrible jeopardy to get what we wanted, in many other countries around the world: Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—not to mention Japan in World War II.


Humanity not only took a backseat to material and ideological interests however, for that would imply that at some level the aspirations, interests and lives of non-Americans were at least considered, even if secondary. The reality was that too often we demonstrated outright ambivalence to how our actions would negatively impact others, or we intentionally inflicted harm on peoples, their communities and countries. We treated non-Americans as a “bloodless set of abstractions,” in the words of a troubled Anthony Lake after he resigned in protest from the Nixon administration during the Vietnam Era.


 The end goal was almost always to serve U.S. and at times allied self-interest. Practically anything was acceptable as far as the means were concerned as long as we secured access to oil reserves; markets and dominance for U.S. multinational companies based in foreign lands; and puppet leaders and regimes that supported American political, economic and military power and objectives.


There are many excellent writers-thinkers who describe in detail and synthesize U.S. activities as it relates to the use of American power abroad, historically and today, and I strongly encourage you to read these if you not familiar with them already (they are referenced in this footnote).9 However, these works are primarily interested in exploring how this power is misused and they rightfully point out America’s shortcomings along with potential remedies. They focus on empire (or militarism and imperialism), resources, ideology and power as the forces behind our domination driven foreign policy. As valid as these are in understanding why the U.S. does what it does in the international arena, all of these are still only manifestations of something much deeper.


What really underlies our negative behavior in the world?


Why have we imposed our will on other people to get what we want no matter the costs to others? Why do we believe that it’s acceptable to deliberately create and escalate violence and brutal conflicts where thousands of human beings are destroyed and maimed for life? What really underlies our use of force, coercion and manipulation in world affairs? How could the world have gotten more violent, destructive and chaotic over the past hundred years—a period considered “the most catastrophically bloody century in history”—while at the same time human rights have become more accepted


Indeed, today we have thousands of organizations and treaties that enshrine and promote human rights, with members and adherents numbering in the millions. The main goal of the United Nations, for example, is to “reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person.” Why, then, have things gotten worse for much of humanity?


Because we still carry the same view of ourselves as we did before the democratic institutional or human oriented structural changes, before all of the human rights treaties and organizations. That is, at some level we still believe that human nature is hopelessly degraded, untrustworthy, unreliable and at worst evil, and that has been the premise from from which most governments operate.


 “The idea that we are inherently selfish but also that aggression and hostility are part of our basic human nature has dominated our culture for centuries,” writes Dr. Howard Cutler in The Art of Happiness, a book he co-authored with the Dalai Lama. A high-profile televangelist, for example, recently stressed to his national audience that the human heart is “hopelessly wicked.” While no one would deny that change with respect to human rights has occurred on the outward level, the inward level has stayed the same, particularly with governments where most of the power resides and is used, or misused.


 And as philosopher Eckart Tolle writes, when “there is no change on that inner level, no amount of action will make any difference. We would only re-create modified versions of the same world again and again…” The acceptance of a selfish human nature has been an important part of an underlying worldview in the West and especially America that, ironically, we are often not fully aware or perhaps even deny. This can be explained in part because the belief in a degraded human nature which subtlety informs our worldview is often obscured by what biologist Mary Clark aptly describes as all of “ballyhoo in America about individual freedom and rights.”


Even when it appears that we do not see ourselves as flawed, we all to easily perceive others that way. And the belief in our own material and ideological supremacy masks a diminished moral perception of ourselves: if we truly believed that we were intrinsically good we would not take advantage of others through force, manipulation and coercion, and support policies that cause them harm. Or to put it another way: if we believed that we were compassionate and empathetic above all else, placing supreme value on their cultivation and integration into our political affairs, it would be unlikely that we would engage in destructive behavior towards others. Our worldview would be more humanized and our policies and actions abroad would reflect that belief. Paradoxically, and most importantly for the next essay, this negative outlook of human nature influenced the earliest and perhaps most momentous charter and government based on human rights in history: the U.S. Constitution and the formation of America.



Editor's note: This August 18th, 2010 essay by Patler takes a look at the history of our negative global behavior, and attempt to show how our approach to global affairs was shaped. Patler: "In doing so, I hope to inspire us to see that what we often take to be a fixed worldview, something outside of our own power (the way it is!), is nothing more than the creation or outcome of historical ideas, beliefs and events. And what I hope more than anything that you come away with is that the negative conditions arising from these were ultimately based on a negative or lower conception of ourselves, or a perception of human nature as fundamentally selfish, which we accepted, nurtured and integrated into our politics and behavior, even as we professed the rights of the individual.  And perhaps then we can gain the confidence, despite the seemingly fixed nature of our political institutions and behavior, that our politics, along with the assumptions about ourselves and others, were “made by human beings” and so “they can be changed by human beings,” in the words of psychologist William Eckhardt.

    Nicholas Patler lives in Staunton, VA. He has a B.S. in Government, Liberty University, 1990

Master’s in Government, Harvard University, Division of Continuing Education, 2001. 

Patler's website: http://goldenruleforeignpolicy.com 
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