Why America is everywhere

When cynicism is used as an excuse not to believe anything anyone says who disagrees with you, it is destructive.

This post has been a long time coming. It's been brewing because of things I've heard people say or write lately. They run along a similar vein to things I actually grew up believing, namely that the United States' involvement in world affairs was because it wished to do business everywhere, secure its oil supplies, and dominate the rest of the world in a "neo-imperial" sort of way. It's a common view in many places in the world on the left, and within the US in the northeast at least (and I assume elsewhere). It is based on Marxist economic and political theory. It is also wrong.

Marxist theory attempts to explain political phenomena with economics, which is a bit like trying to explain what people like to do in their leisure time according to what job they have: The amount of money they make and the free time they have may have some influence, but it won't explain the core reason of why they like what they like. Politics and economics influence each other, but it is not possible to explain one wholly based on the other. But let's put that aside for a moment and pretend you can anyway (and don't worry, I will move away from theory to reality later, I always do).

Karl Marx believed capitalism led to imperialism. He looked at countries like Great Britain, the world's largest colonial (and capitalist) power at the time to draw this conclusion. Capitalism, as he noted, was very good at dividing labor and churning out more and more "stuff" per worker, getting ever more efficient. He reasoned that this expansion in production produced a surplus that the low-wage workers of a country could not consume. In order to keep selling their stuff and keep their businesses running and the cash flowing, capitalists would constantly have to expand their markets and find new consumers. This is a sort of Ponzi scheme, because when there were no new consumers, everything would come crashing down. Marx reasoned that capitalism would eventually destroy itself once it had developed the entire world and there were no more untapped markets. All the cash would build up on top among the rich, there would be no one left to buy goods, and everything would collapse with mass unemployment.

Sound familiar? It also sounds pretty plausible. After all, British colonialism often did begin with business forays abroad, like the East India Company's adventures in South Asia. The trouble is, Marx did not look back far enough and his theory also became a hostage to fortune as things later happened that his theory did not anticipate. On the first point, he ignored the fact that imperialism had existed for a very long time, long before capitalism emerged. That needn't be the death of the theory, of course: maybe capitalism always leads to imperialism, but imperialism can exist without capitalism. Fair enough, but then new things happened in the 20th century. One of them was that rich countries like the United States sometimes ran trade deficits! They bought the world's goods, rather than selling them to the world. The other thing that happened is that some big surplus countries, like Germany, were not imperial powers after WWII. Marx's economic insights were keen and many of them still apply today (though his theory has been twisted over time), but his political assertions were dead wrong. Things just did not happen the way he said they did. The main reason is that his two assumptions were wrong: Developed countries did not always run surpluses and, even if they did, they did not necessarily become imperialist. What to do with surpluses, if they arose, was a political decision not an inevitable economic one.

Some people refused to give up, however, and decided to modify the theory instead. OK, the West might not LOOK like an empire, but it was, through "trade dependency." The West was using its marketing and military power to suppress the development of poor countries and take advantage of cheap goods, which could also explain their imports of all those goods. Basically, then, if a country was rich and powerful, it was imperialist, even if it didn't look it according to old definitions. This sort of circular thinking is not terribly logical, but again it seemed to fit the times, as South America, Africa, and Asia failed to develop. But then Asia began to develop rapidly (think Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and, later, China), while Africa and South America did not. The difference was in their own policies. It wasn't that the West "let" certain countries develop and not others. Theory wrong again.

"Who cares about the theory if the shoe fits?" you might ask. "Look at the US's dominant presence throughout the world and its massive military spending! Look at 'aid for trade' and other initiatives pushed by the US," and on and on. All right, let's drop the theory and look at that, then. Why is the US military everywhere if not out of a desire to dominate the world?

Let's not pretend that people in powerful positions don't enjoy their power. I am not going to argue that the US is an altruistic but misunderstood gentle giant, a grandfatherly figure to a troubled world. The US has indeed abused its dominance, just as Britain and others before it. But it is overly cynical (and historically inaccurate) to suppose that the US and other powers have sinister, greedy motives for everything they do.

There was a relatively long period of peace enforced by Great Britain during the 19th century and up until WWI. Britain did not balance (joining alliances of weaker partners to keep stronger ones from dominating) against all wars, but it did do so in situations where it thought one power winning might pose a threat to it. It also dominated the seas with its powerful navy. WWI changed all this, leaving Britain severely weakened. The country with the greatest potential power was the one with the largest economy: the United States. The US, however, chose to return to its policy of not getting involved after WWI and left the Europeans to their own devices. Over time, Germany recovered and came to be more powerful than any of the other European countries. The United States could have prevented WWII, but it chose not to. It's management of the world economy (the responsibility for which it also refused to take on) was pretty bad, too, particularly its misguided protectionist trade policies that put high tariffs on imports, triggering retaliation and causing world trade to collapse, deepening the Great Depression. But I digress. In the end, WWII  broke out, America did not help till much later, and all of Europe and much of Asia suffered.

America eventually got involved because it came to see risks in a world with powerful German and Japanese empires. There was, of course, also much to dislike in the Germans and Japanese and the atrocities they committed. Surely it was better to prevent them from conquering everyone than to try to deal with them after the war was finished? The US needed a final push to decide to do this: Pearl Harbor. Once attacked, the country could not stand idly by.

After WWII, Europe lay in ruins. Lessons had been learned from WWI. One of these was that people whose lives are destroyed may turn toward extremist ideologies if these promise improvement (as Hitler promised the Germans). Even more important, policy makers learned that, without someone enforcing order, countries could easily begin fighting again, feeling insecure when peering over the border at their neighbor's capabilities (see the "Security Dilemma"). The Soviet Union was a rising power on the eastern edge of Europe and it became apparent that, should its armies, which occupied Eastern Europe after the war, decide to move into Western Europe, no country there could stop them. The US's allies pleaded for the US to stay and protect them. It did, and provided them aid to rebuild their economies and become stronger.

Eventually, the US became locked in what it saw as a battle with an empire with expansionist motives, the Soviet Union, which wished to dominate the world via the spread of communism. There is much to criticize about US policy during the Cold War. It meddled in a lot of countries' affairs and propped up pro-Western dictators while ignoring human rights violations, for example. The Vietnam War was unnecessary and is now usually viewed, rightly, as a costly mistake in terms of lives lost and money spent. The US did these things out of fear bordering on (or perhaps solidly into) paranoia.

However, countries under the US's protective umbrella did not bother worrying about their neighbors attacking. They could instead turn to building their economies, which partly explains why Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan did so well in the second half of the 20th century. South America has had bad policies for a long time. Chile, Brazil, and others are now improving. America didn't help the situation by propping up anti-communist thugs, but it did this because of fear of that the countries there might fall, one by one, to communism and the USSR--NOT so that it could "hold South America back." This is not an excuse for what was sometimes bad behavior on the part of the American government and business there, but it is an explanation.

If you think it's all about oil, by the way, please read my post on the war in Libya.

Americans like to see government and big business conspiracies everywhere. They are right to be suspicious, but I think we need to remember that believing in conspiracies ascribes to governments and business leaders near-divine powers that they clearly do not possess (look how much they screw up). Cynicism is good as long as it steers against naivete and is realistic. When it is instead used as an excuse not to believe anything anyone says who disagrees with you, it is destructive and a block to understanding.


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