For almost a century and a half, successive American governments adopted a general policy of neutrality on the world stage, eschewing involvement in European conflicts and, after the Quasi War with France, alliances with European powers. Neutrality, enshrined as a core principle of American foreign relations by the outgoing President George Washington in 1796, remained such for more than a century.
Finally, in the 20th century, the United States emerged as a world power and a belligerent in the two world wars and the Cold War. This article explores the modern conflict between traditional American attitudes toward neutrality and the global agenda embraced by successive U.S. governments, beginning with entry in the First World War. With the United States immersed in these titanic struggles, the traditional U.S. support for neutrality eroded considerably. During the First World War, the United States showed some sympathy for the predicaments of the remaining neutral powers. In the Second World War it applied considerable pressure to those states still trading with Germany. During the Cold War, the United States was sometimes impatient with the choices of states to remain uncommitted in the global struggle, while at times it showed understanding for neutrality and pursued constructive relations with neutral states. The wide varieties of neutrality in each of these conflicts complicated the choices of U.S. policy makers. Americans remained torn between memory of their own long history of neutrality and a capacity to understand its potential value, on one hand, and a predilection to approach conflicts as moral struggles, on the other.
C. J. Alvarez
The region that today constitutes the United States–Mexico borderland has evolved through various systems of occupation over thousands of years. Beginning in time immemorial, the land was used and inhabited by ancient peoples whose cultures we can only understand through the archeological record and the beliefs of their living descendants. Spain, then Mexico and the United States after it, attempted to control the borderlands but failed when confronted with indigenous power, at least until the late 19th century when American capital and police established firm dominance. Since then, borderland residents have often fiercely contested this supremacy at the local level, but the borderland has also, due to the primacy of business, expressed deep harmonies and cooperation between the U.S. and Mexican federal governments. It is a majority minority zone in the United States, populated largely by Mexican Americans. The border is both a porous membrane across which tremendous wealth passes and a territory of interdiction in which noncitizens and smugglers are subject to unusually concentrated police attention. All of this exists within a particularly harsh ecosystem characterized by extreme heat and scarce water.
Michael R. Anderson
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.
Although the term “Asia-Pacific” was not coined until World War II and the geographic parameters are admittedly imprecise, the regional designation nevertheless has gained popularity in recent decades among policymakers, businesspeople, and non-governmental organizations. Asia-Pacific refers to the regions bordering the western Pacific Ocean: East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. It excludes some countries that are considered part of the larger Pacific Rim: Russia, Canada, Mexico, and the western nations of Central and South America. American interest in the Asia-Pacific over the past two centuries has been marked by strong and often contradictory impulses. On the one hand, the western Pacific has served as a fertile ground for Christian missionaries, an alluring destination for American commercial enterprises, and a critical launch pad for U.S. global power projection. Yet on the other hand, leading countries in the Asia-Pacific region frequently have challenged U.S. economic and military interests, and the assertion of “Asian values” in recent years has undermined efforts to expand Western political and cultural norms. The United States’ professed “pivot to Asia” has set the stage for the latest chapter in a centuries-long relationship, one more than any other that will determine the geopolitical fault lines of the 21st century.
Relations between the United States and Argentina can be best described as a cautious embrace punctuated by moments of intense frustration. Although never the center of U.S.–Latin American relations, Argentina has attempted to create a position of influence in the region. As a result, the United States has worked with Argentina and other nations of the Southern Cone—the region of South America that comprises Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Chile, and southern Brazil—on matters of trade and economic development as well as hemispheric security and leadership. While Argentina has attempted to assert its position as one of Latin America’s most developed nations and therefore a regional leader, the equal partnership sought from the United States never materialized for the Southern Cone nation. Instead, competition for markets and U.S. interventionist and unilateral tendencies kept Argentina from attaining the influence and wealth it so desired. At the same time, the United States saw Argentina as an unreliable ally too sensitive to the pull of its volatile domestic politics. The two nations enjoyed moments of cooperation in World War I, the Cold War, and the 1990s, when Argentine leaders could balance this particular external partnership with internal demands. Yet at these times Argentine leaders found themselves walking a fine line as detractors back home saw cooperation with the United States as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty and autonomy. There has always been potential for a productive partnership, but each side’s intransigence and unique concerns limited this relationship’s accomplishments and led to a historical imbalance of power.
James F. Siekmeier
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, U.S. officials often viewed Bolivia as both a potential “test case” for U.S. economic foreign policy and a place where Washington’s broad visions for Latin America might be implemented relatively easily. After World War II, Washington leaders sought to show both Latin America and the nonindustrialized world that a relatively open economy could produce significant economic wealth for Bolivia’s working and middle classes, thus giving the United States a significant victory in the Cold War. Washington sought a Bolivia widely open to U.S. influence, and Bolivia often seemed an especially pliable country. In order to achieve their goals in Bolivia, U.S. leaders dispensed a large amount of economic assistance to Bolivia in the 1950s—a remarkable development in two senses. First, the U.S. government, generally loath to aid Third World nations, gave this assistance to a revolutionary regime. Second, the U.S. aid program for Bolivia proved to be a precursor to the Alliance for Progress, the massive aid program for Latin America in the 1960s that comprised the largest U.S. economic aid program in the Third World. Although U.S. leaders achieved their goal of a relatively stable, noncommunist Bolivia, the decision in the late 1950s to significantly increase U.S. military assistance to Bolivia’s relatively small military emboldened that military, which staged a coup in 1964, snuffing out democracy for nearly two decades. The country’s long history of dependency in both export markets and public- and private-sector capital investment led Washington leaders to think that dependency would translate into leverage over Bolivian policy. However, the historical record is mixed in this regard. Some Bolivian governments have accommodated U.S. demands; others have successfully resisted them.
Economic nationalism tended to dominate U.S. foreign trade policy throughout the long 19th century, from the end of the American Revolution to the beginning of World War I, owing to a pervasive American sense of economic and geopolitical insecurity and American fear of hostile powers, especially the British but also the French and Spanish and even the Barbary States. Following the U.S. Civil War, leading U.S. protectionist politicians sought to curtail European trade policies and to create a U.S.-dominated customs union in the Western Hemisphere. American proponents of trade liberalization increasingly found themselves outnumbered in the halls of Congress, as the “American System” of economic nationalism grew in popularity alongside the perceived need for foreign markets. Protectionist advocates in the United States viewed the American System as a panacea that not only promised to provide the federal government with revenue but also to artificially insulate American infant industries from undue foreign-market competition through high protective tariffs and subsidies, and to retaliate against real and perceived threats to U.S. trade.
Throughout this period, the United States itself underwent a great struggle over foreign trade policy. By the late 19th century, the era’s boom-and-bust global economic system led to a growing perception that the United States needed more access to foreign markets as an outlet for the country’s surplus goods and capital. But whether the United States would obtain foreign market access through free trade or through protectionism led to a great debate over the proper course of U.S. foreign trade policy. By the time that the United States acquired a colonial empire from the Spanish in 1898, this same debate over U.S. foreign trade policy had effectively merged into debates over the course of U.S. imperial expansion. The country’s more expansionist-minded economic nationalists came out on top. The overwhelming 1896 victory of William McKinley—the Republican party’s “Napoleon of Protection”—marked the beginning of substantial expansion of U.S. foreign trade through a mixture of protectionism and imperialism in the years leading up to World War I.
Kathryn C. Statler
U.S.-French relations are long-standing, complex, and primarily cooperative in nature. Various crises have punctuated long periods of stability in the alliance, but after each conflict the Franco-American friendship emerged stronger than ever. Official U.S.-French relations began during the early stages of the American Revolution, when Louis XVI’s regime came to America’s aid by providing money, arms, and military advisers. French assistance, best symbolized by the Marquis de Lafayette, was essential in the revolution’s success. The subsequent French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power also benefitted the United States when Napoleon’s woes in Europe and the Caribbean forced him to sell the entire Louisiana territory to the United States, in 1803. Franco-American economic and cultural contacts increased throughout the 19th century, as trade between the two countries prospered and as Americans flocked to France to study art, architecture, music, and medicine. The French gift of the Statue of Liberty in the late 19th century solidified Franco-American bonds, which became even more secure during World War I. Indeed, during the war, the United States provided France with trade, loans, military assistance, and millions of soldiers, viewing such aid as repayment for French help during the American Revolution. World War II once again saw the United States fighting in France to liberate the country from Nazi control. The Cold War complicated the Franco-American relationship in new ways as American power waxed and French power waned. Washington and Paris clashed over military conflict in Vietnam, the Suez Crisis, and European security (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, in particular) during the 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately, after French President Charles de Gaulle’s retirement, the Franco-American alliance stabilized by the mid-1970s and has flourished ever since, despite brief moments of crisis, such as the 2003 Second Gulf War in Iraq.
U.S. imperialism took a variety of forms in the early 20th century, ranging from colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines to protectorates in Cuba, Panama, and other countries in Latin America, and open door policies such as that in China. Formal colonies would be ruled with U.S.-appointed colonial governors and supported by U.S. troops. Protectorates and open door policies promoted business expansion overseas through American oversight of foreign governments and, in the case of threats to economic and strategic interests, the deployment of U.S. marines. In all of these imperial forms, U.S. empire-building both reflected and shaped complex social, cultural, and political histories with ramifications for both foreign nations and America itself.
Olivia L. Sohns
Moral, political, and strategic factors have contributed to the emergence and durability of the U.S.-Israel alliance. It took decades for American support for Israel to evolve from “a moral stance” to treating Israel as a “strategic asset” to adopting a policy of “strategic cooperation.” The United States supported Israel’s creation in 1948 not only because of the lobbying efforts of American Jews but also due to humanitarian considerations stemming from the Holocaust. Beginning in the 1950s, Israel sought to portray itself as an ally of the United States on grounds that America and Israel were fellow liberal democracies and shared a common Judeo-Christian cultural heritage. By the mid-1960s, Israel was considered a strategic proxy of American power in the Middle East in the Cold War, while the Soviet Union armed the radical Arab nationalist states and endorsed a Palestinian “people’s wars of national liberation” against Israel. Over the subsequent decades, Israel repeatedly sought to demonstrate that it was allied with the United States in opposing instability in the region that might threaten U.S. interests. Israel also sought to portray itself as a liberal democracy despite its continued occupation of territories that it conquered in the Arab-Israeli War of 1967. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the rise of regional instability and radicalism in the Middle East following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring of 2011, Israel’s expertise in the realms of counterterrorism and homeland security provided a further basis for U.S.-Israel military-strategic cooperation. Although American and Israeli interests are not identical, and there have been disagreements between the two countries regarding the best means to secure comprehensive Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian peace, the foundations of the relationship are strong enough to overcome crises that would imperil a less robust alliance.
Relations between the United States and Mexico have rarely been easy. Ever since the United States invaded its southern neighbor and seized half of its national territory in the 19th century, the two countries have struggled to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. Over the two centuries since Mexico’s independence, the governments and citizens of both countries have played central roles in shaping each other’s political, economic, social, and cultural development. Although this process has involved—even required—a great deal of cooperation, relations between the United States and Mexico have more often been characterized by antagonism, exploitation, and unilateralism. This long history of tensions has contributed to the three greatest challenges that these countries face together today: economic development, immigration, and drug-related violence.