The year 1917 was crucial for America. In that year, the Americanization of the world would commence with the entry of the United States in World War I. When Woodrow Wilson proclaimed “the world must be safe for democracy” on April 2, 1917, he ended years of American isolationism. For the first time, two million American soldiers were on a mission to decide a European war, to teach the Old World a lesson. That Wilsonian proclamation became the impetus to revive the old notion of national self-determination, an idea that was rusting since the days of William Gladstone or even farther. But it was national self-determination in the mould and shape of American democracy, not that of British Liberalism which Gladstone and politicians of his days subscribed to.
World War I destroyed the German monarchy. To Woodrow Wilson and his cohorts, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars. It was meant to be the historic fulfillment of democracy, the greatest event in world history since the coming of Christ. This foreign policy would later be America’s predominant view of the world, the doctrine adopted and pursued by different American presidents from Herbert Hoover to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Richard Nixon down to the incumbent George W. Bush.
By the end of World War II, the United States was on the top of the world. The Americanization of the world leaped forward in full swing. In 1945 the American dollar was at its highest peak, and the American navy alone was larger than all the navies of the rest of the world combined. Five decades later, on Christmas day in 1991, the Soviet Union officially ended its own existence, marking the end of 45 years of cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. So there came to be one superpower left in the world, the United States, a triumph for American Democracy that would continue to be haunted by regional wars in the Middle East, some parts of Asia and Africa, and in Latin America.
Without argument, the history of the democratization of the world is inseparable and identical with the Americanization of the world. It was in the name of democracy and making the world safe for democracy that America joined World War I. The rise of tyranny and dictatorships in Germany, Italy and Japan, however, shattered the peace treaties signed after World War I. In 1941, the Second World War broke out. Again, the American military might led the war against these enemies of democracy during World War II to restore peace and continue the Americanization of the world. From 1945 onwards, the consolidation of communism through the Soviet Union and its satellite countries became the major threat to capitalist democracy espoused by the U.S.A. The U.S. went to Vietnam, Korea and Central America to prevent nascent democracies from being engulfed by the spread of communism and to save aging autocratic regimes from being overthrown by their people’s uprisings and become prey to communist takeovers.
After the dismantling of the Soviet Union and the eventual weakening of the communist front, a new enemy emerged against American democratic imperialism. This time, it would be George W. Bush waging his pre-emptive military strikes against countries that provide refuge and comfort to followers of extremist Islam and terrorism. Sometimes the line differentiating Islamic fundamentalism in its extreme form and terrorism has been blurred by America’s military strategists that followers of fundamental Islam are deemed identical to being terrorists.
In justifying the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush has invoked America’s duty as the leader of the free world. Bush declared:
“The world seeks America’s leadership, looks for leadership from a country whose values are freedom and justice and equality. Ours should not be the paternalistic leadership of an arrogant big brother, but the inviting and welcoming leadership of a great and noble nation. We have a collective responsibility as citizens of the greatest and freest nation in the world. America must not retreat within its borders. Our greatest export is freedom, and we have a moral obligation to champion it throughout the world.”
Bush continues to say that America should speak loudly and carry a big stick. According to Bush:
“Peace is not ordained, it is earned. Building a durable peace requires strong alliances, expanding trade and confident diplomacy. It requires tough realism in our dealings with China and Russia. It requires firmness with regimes like North Korea and Iraq, regimes that hate our values and resent our success. And the foundation of our peace is a strong, capable, and modern American military.”
The imperialist motive in the statements made by George W. Bush is nothing new. It echoes the same sentiments expressed by Woodrow Wilson in his early views on international affairs and trade during his Columbia University lectures of April 1907, where he said:
“Since trade ignores national boundaries and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed must be battered down…Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted, in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused.”
This kind of thinking is very evident in many examples of standing to the greatness of America. In 1900, the imperialist Albert J. Beveridge said that “God has made us the master-organizers of this world.” Even the Catholic Archbishop Dennis O’Connell in 1898 said: “Now God passes the banner in the hands of America, to bear it...America is God’s apostle in modern times... War is often God’s way of moving things onward...the survival of the fittest.”
Was it not Abraham Lincoln who said of America as “the last best hope of mankind”? Perhaps, the best quote of America’s aspiration for imperial power is contained in William McKinley’s Manifest Destiny, when he said:
“When I next realized that the Philippines had dropped into our laps I confess I did not know what to do with them. I sought counsel from all sides—Democrats as well as Republicans—but got little help. I thought first we would take only Manila; then Luzon; then other islands perhaps also. I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonourable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly, and the next morning I sent for the chief engineer of the War Department (our map-maker), and I told him to put the Philippines on the map of the United States (pointing to a large map on the wall of his office), and there they are, and there they will stay while I am President!”
And if America is not watchful of the next president it will choose this coming November election, listen to what John McCain has said on the same topic:
“I am willing to meet with any leader who is dedicated to the same principles and philosophy that we are for human rights, democracy and freedom, and I will stand up to those that do not.”
The Americanization of the world has progressed through significant periods of patriotism to nationalism, isolationism and protectionism, from colonial expansion to two global wars to make the world safe for democracy, from combating communism to fighting terrorism, all in the name of American liberal democracy. We may yet see the decline of the great American empire not unsimilar to the fall of the great empires of the past, the British, the Spanish and the Dutch.
After the Americanization of the world has finally waned, a new world order could rise from its ruins, the beginning of real respect for each country’s freedom to choose how to govern itself and how to conduct its affairs with the rest of the world, where humanity is more important than the individual, and where the rule of law is not just a mere slogan.