America’s role in the world for the past two-and-a-half centuries has been determined by the complex processes of politics, public opinion, territorial expansion, trade, immigration, and an ongoing debate about what America is and what it should be. Is it an empire? Is it a peaceable democracy? Should it be a police force for the world? Or should it just be a friendly neighbor? Different answers and approaches to these questions provide competing visions for American foreign policy.
Among the driving themes in the history of American foreign policy is the tension between isolation and intervention. Since the advice George Washington gave in his farewell address to avoid entanglements with other nations, many have felt that America would be best to keep to itself. In the twentieth century, however, America intervened in the politics and wars of nations around the world, from the Dominican Republic to Vietnam, and from Nicaragua to Korea. Extended conflicts like the Vietnam War frequently led to public backlash and increased support for isolationist policies. Major security threats like the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, have led to widespread support for foreign intervention.
- The question of whether the United States should have a more or less activist foreign policy turns on several distinct issues. Which side are you on?
- One question is whether you believe the United States, as a democratic republic built on the idea of freedom, has an obligation to try to export its system and its ideas to other nations?
- Next, let’s ask the question whether, if American institutions are superior, it is possible for other countries to adopt them?
- Lastly, a final question is whether American values compel the United States to intervene for humanitarian purposes, in conflicts where no American interests are at stake?
- What other questions do you think animated the debate about intervention v. isolationism?
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3, Oct. 1941, Col. Charles Lindbergh addresses a crowd in Fort Wayne, IN [Digital photograph]. Retrieved from <npr.org>.