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The United States has shared an intricate and turbulent history with Caribbean islands and nations since its inception. In its relations with the Caribbean, the United States has displayed the dueling tendencies of imperialism and anticolonialism that characterized its foreign policy with South America and the rest of the world. For nearly two and a half centuries, the Caribbean has stood at the epicenter of some of the US government’s most controversial and divisive foreign policies. After the American Revolution severed political ties between the United States and the British West Indies, US officials and traders hoped to expand their political and economic influence in the Caribbean. US trade in the Caribbean played an influential role in the events that led to the War of 1812. The Monroe Doctrine provided a blueprint for reconciling imperial ambitions in the Caribbean with anti-imperial sentiment. During the mid-19th century, Americans debated the propriety of annexing Caribbean islands, especially Cuba. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, the US government took an increasingly imperialist approach to its relations with the Caribbean, acquiring some islands as federal territories and augmenting its political, military, and economic influence in others. Contingents of the US population and government disapproved of such imperialistic measures, and beginning in the 1930s the US government softened, but did not relinquish, its influence in the Caribbean. Between the 1950s and the end of the Cold War, US officials wrestled with how to exert influence in the Caribbean in a postcolonial world. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has intervened in Caribbean domestic politics to enhance democracy, continuing its oscillation between democratic and imperial impulses.
Evan D. McCormick
Since gaining independence in 1823, the states comprising Central America have had a front seat to the rise of the United States as a global superpower. Indeed, more so than anywhere else, the United States has sought to use its power to shape Central America into a system that heeds US interests and abides by principles of liberal democratic capitalism. Relations have been characterized by US power wielded freely by officials and non-state actors alike to override the aspirations of Central American actors in favor of US political and economic objectives: from the days of US filibusterers invading Nicaragua in search of territory; to the occupations of the Dollar Diplomacy era, designed to maintain financial and economic stability; to the covert interventions of the Cold War era. For their part, the Central American states have, at various times, sought to challenge the brunt of US hegemony, most effectively when coordinating their foreign policies to balance against US power. These efforts—even when not rejected by the United States—have generally been short-lived, hampered by economic dependency and political rivalries. The result is a history of US-Central American relations that wavers between confrontation and cooperation, but is remarkable for the consistency of its main element: US dominance.
Patrick William Kelly
The relationship between Chile and the United States pivoted on the intertwined questions of how much political and economic influence Americans would exert over Chile and the degree to which Chileans could chart their own path. Given Chile’s tradition of constitutional government and relative economic development, it established itself as a regional power player in Latin America. Unencumbered by direct US military interventions that marked the history of the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, Chile was a leader in movements to promote Pan-Americanism, inter-American solidarity, and anti-imperialism. But the advent of the Cold War in the 1940s, and especially after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, brought an increase in bilateral tensions. The United States turned Chile into a “model democracy” for the Alliance for Progress, but frustration over its failures to enact meaningful social and economic reform polarized Chilean society, resulting in the election of Marxist Salvador Allende in 1970. The most contentious period in US-Chilean relations was during the Nixon administration when it worked, alongside anti-Allende Chileans, to destabilize Allende’s government, which the Chilean military overthrew on September 11, 1973. The Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990), while anti-Communist, clashed with the United States over Pinochet’s radicalization of the Cold War and the issue of Chilean human rights abuses. The Reagan administration—which came to power on a platform that reversed the Carter administration’s critique of Chile—reversed course and began to support the return of democracy to Chile, which took place in 1990. Since then, Pinochet’s legacy of neoliberal restructuring of the Chilean economy looms large, overshadowed perhaps only by his unexpected role in fomenting a global culture of human rights that has ended the era of impunity for Latin American dictators.
Alfred P. Flores
Following the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the illegal overthrow and annexation of Hawai‘i, the US government transplanted its colonial education program to places in the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Specifically, American Sāmoa, Guam, Hawai‘i, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and the US Virgin Islands would all have some aspect of the native boarding school system implemented. In many ways, the colonial education system in Guam was emblematic and exceptional to native boarding schools in the continental United States. Utilizing Guam as a case study reveals how the US military used schools as a site to spread settler colonial policies in an attempt to transform Chamorros into colonial subjects who would support American occupation.
Jason C. Parker
The decolonization of the European overseas empires had its intellectual roots early in the modern era, but its culmination occurred during the Cold War that loomed large in post-1945 international history. This culmination thus coincided with the American rise to superpower status and presented the United States with a dilemma. While philosophically sympathetic to the aspirations of anticolonial nationalist movements abroad, the United States’ vastly greater postwar global security burdens made it averse to the instability that decolonization might bring and that communists might exploit. This fear, and the need to share those burdens with European allies who were themselves still colonial landlords, led Washington to proceed cautiously. The three “waves” of the decolonization process—medium-sized in the late 1940s, large in the half-decade around 1960, and small in the mid-1970s—prompted the American use of a variety of tools and techniques to influence how it unfolded.
Prior to independence, this influence was usually channeled through the metropolitan authority then winding down. After independence, Washington continued and often expanded the use of these tools, in most cases on a bilateral basis. In some theaters, such as Korea, Vietnam, and the Congo, through the use of certain of these tools, notably covert espionage or overt military operations, Cold War dynamics enveloped, intensified, and repossessed local decolonization struggles. In most theaters, other tools, such as traditional or public diplomacy or economic or technical development aid, affixed the Cold War into the background as a local transition unfolded. In all cases, the overriding American imperative was to minimize instability and neutralize actors on the ground who could invite communist gains.
Timothy C. Hemmis
The Federalist Era (1788–1800) witnessed the birth of the new American Constitution and ushered in a period of a strong Federal government headed by a president and a bicameral Congress. The new American government sought to protect American interests in a turbulent time. From threats from Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea to the turmoil in Revolutionary France and to the slave revolt in Haiti, the young republic had to navigate difficult political waters in order to protect itself. Furthermore, it also had to deal with the British and Spanish, who remained in American territory, without starting another war. Additionally, the United States had to engage with various Native American tribes in the interior of the continent to end the threat of war on the American frontier. Later in the time period, tensions between the United States and the new French Republic became strained, which led to the diplomatic embarrassment of the XYZ Affair and an undeclared naval war between the United States and France. American foreign policy during the Federalist Era was a matter of trial and error because there had been no standard protocol for dealing with international incidents under the old government.
George Washington, the first president under the new Constitution, shouldered the burden of creating the new American foreign policy. Washington, along with cabinet members such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, helped shape US foreign policy in the Federalist Era. Washington was succeeded by his vice president, John Adams, who guided America through tense times, which included conflict with France. With the creation of the American Constitution, Washington and other Federalist leaders had the difficult task of creating a new nation, which included forging a foreign policy. The goal of the fledgling American republic’s foreign policy was to protect American sovereignty in an era of perpetual threats.
Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy legacy remains hotly contested, and as new archival sources come to light, those debates are more likely to intensify than to recede into the background. In dealings with the Soviet Union, the Reagan administration set the superpowers on a course for the (largely) peaceful end of the Cold War. Reagan began his outreach to Soviet leaders almost immediately after taking office and enjoyed some success, even if the dominant theme of the period remains fears of Reagan as a “button-pusher” in the public’s perception. Mikhail Gorbachev’s election to the post of General Secretary proved the turning point. Reagan, now confident in US strength, and Gorbachev, keen to reduce the financial burden of the arms race, ushered in a new, cooperative phase of the Cold War. Elsewhere, in particular Latin America, the administration’s focus on fighting communism led it to support human rights–abusing regimes at the same time as it lambasted Moscow’s transgressions in that regard. But even so, over the course of the 1980s, the United States began pushing for democratization around the world, even where Reagan and his advisors had initially resisted it, fearing a communist takeover. In part, this was a result of public pressure, but the White House recognized and came to support the rising tide of democratization. When Reagan left office, a great many countries that had been authoritarian were no longer, often at least in part because of US policy. US–Soviet relations had improved to such an extent that Reagan’s successor, Vice President George H. W. Bush, worried that they had gone too far in working with Gorbachev and been hoodwinked.
International law is the set of rules, formally agreed by treaty or understood as customary, by which nation-states interact with each other in a form of international society. Across the history of U.S. foreign relations, international law has provided both an animating vision, or ideology, for various American projects of world order, and a practical tool for the advancement of U.S. power and interests. As the American role in the world changed since the late 18th century, so too did the role of international law in U.S. foreign policy. Initially, international law was a source of authority to which the weak American government could appeal on questions of independence, sovereignty, and neutrality. As U.S. power grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries, international law became variously a liberal project for the advancement of peace, a civilizational discourse for justifying violence and dispossession, and a bureaucratic and commercial tool for the expansion of empire. With the advent of formal inter-governmental organizations in the 20th century, the traditional American focus on neutrality faded, to be replaced by an emphasis on collective security. But as the process of decolonization diluted the strength of the United States and its allies in the parliamentary chambers of the world’s international organizations, Washington increasingly advanced its own interpretations of international law, and opted out of a number of international legal regimes. At the same time, Americans increasingly came to perceive of international law as a vehicle to advance the human rights of individuals over the sovereign rights of states.
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.
David A. Nichols
From 1783 to 1830, American Indian policy reflected the new American nation-state’s desire to establish its own legitimacy and authority, by controlling Native American peoples and establishing orderly and prosperous white settlements in the continental interior. The Federalists focused on securing against Native American claims and attacks several protected enclaves of white settlement (Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee), established—often violently—during the Revolutionary War. They used treaties to draw a legal boundary between these enclaves and Indian communities, and annuities and military force to keep Indians on their side of the line. The Jeffersonian Republicans adopted a more expansive plan of development, coupled with the promotion of Native American dependency. Treaty commissioners persuaded chiefs to cede road easements and riverfront acreage that the government used to link and develop dispersed white settlements. Meanwhile, the War Department built trading factories whose cheap merchandise would lure Indians into commercial dependency, and agents offered Indian families agricultural equipment and training, hoping that Native American farmers would no longer need “extensive forests” to support themselves. These pressures helped engender nativist movements in the Old Northwest and southeast, and Indian men from both regions fought the United States in the War of 1812, reinforcing frontier settlers’ view that Indians were a security threat. After this war’s end, the United States adopted a strategy of containment, pressuring Indian leaders to cede most of their peoples’ lands, confining Indians to enclaves, financing vocational schooling for Indian children, and encouraging Native peoples voluntarily to move west of the Mississippi. This policy, however, proved too respectful of Indian autonomy for the frontier settlers and politicians steadily gaining influence in the national government. After these settlers elected one of their own, Andrew Jackson, to the presidency, American Indian policy would enter a much more coercive and violent phase, as white Americans redefined the nation-state as a domain of white supremacy ethnically cleansed of indigenous peoples.
Oil played a central role in shaping US policy toward Iraq over the course of the 20th century. The United States first became involved in Iraq in the 1920s as part of an effort secure a role for American companies in Iraq’s emerging oil industry. As a result of State Department efforts, American companies gained a 23.75 percent ownership share of the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1928. In the 1940s, US interest in the country increased as a result of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. To defend against a perceived Soviet threat to Middle East oil, the US supported British efforts to “secure” the region. After nationalist officers overthrew Iraq’s British-supported Hashemite monarchy in 1958 and established friendly relations with the Soviet Union, the United States cultivated an alliance with the Iraqi Baath Party as an alternative to the Soviet-backed regime. The effort to cultivate an alliance with the Baath foundered as a result the Baath’s perceived support for Arab claims against Israel. The breakdown of US-Baath relations led the Baath to forge an alliance with the Soviet Union. With Soviet support, the Baath nationalized the Iraq Petroleum Company in 1972. Rather than resulting in a “supply cutoff,” Soviet economic and technical assistance allowed for a rapid expansion of the Iraqi oil industry and an increase in Iraqi oil flowing to world markets. As Iraq experienced a dramatic oil boom in the 1970s, the United States looked to the country as a lucrative market for US exports goods and adopted a policy of accommodation with regard to Baath. This policy of accommodation gave rise to close strategic and military cooperation throughout the 1980s as Iraq waged war against Iran. When Iraq invaded Kuwait and seized control of its oil fields in 1990, the United States shifted to a policy of Iraqi containment. The United States organized an international coalition that quickly ejected Iraqi forces from Kuwait, but chose not to pursue regime change for fear of destabilizing the country and wider region. Throughout the 1990s, the United States adhered to a policy of Iraqi containment but came under increasing pressure to overthrow the Baath and dismantle its control over the Iraqi oil industry. In 2003, the United States seized upon the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an opportunity to implement this policy of regime change and oil reprivatization.
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.
Jennifer M. Miller
Over the past 150 years, the United States and Japan have developed one of the United States’ most significant international relationships, marked by a potent mix of cooperation and rivalry. After a devastating war, these two states built a lasting alliance that stands at the center of US diplomacy, security, and economic policy in the Pacific and beyond. Yet this relationship is not simply the product of economic or strategic calculations. Japan has repeatedly shaped American understandings of empire, hegemony, race, democracy, and globalization, because these two states have often developed in remarkable parallel with one another. From the edges of the international order in the 1850s and 1860s, both entered a period of intense state-building at home and imperial expansion abroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These imperial ambitions violently collided in the 1940s in an epic contest to determine the Pacific geopolitical order. After its victory in World War II, the United States embarked on an unprecedented occupation designed to transform Japan into a stable and internationally cooperative democracy. The two countries also forged a diplomatic and security alliance that offered crucial logistical, political, and economic support to the United States’ Cold War quest to prevent the spread of communism. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan’s rise as the globe’s second-largest economy caused significant tension in this relationship and forced Americans to confront the changing nature of national power and economic growth in a globalizing world. However, in recent decades, rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific have served to focus this alliance on the construction of a stable trans-Pacific economic and geopolitical order.
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.
The United States–Mexico War was the first war in which the United States engaged in a conflict with a foreign nation for the purpose of conquest. It was also the first conflict in which trained soldiers (from West Point) played a large role. The war’s end transformed the United States into a continental nation as it acquired a vast portion of Mexico’s northern territories. In addition to shaping U.S.–Mexico relations into the present, the conflict also led to the forcible incorporation of Mexicans (who became Mexican Americans) as the nation’s first Latinos. Yet, the war has been identified as the nation’s “forgotten war” because few Americans know the causes and consequences of this conflict. Within fifteen years of the war’s end, the conflict faded from popular memory, but it did not disappear, due to the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War. By contrast, the U.S.–Mexico War is prominently remembered in Mexico as having caused the loss of half of the nation’s territory, and as an event that continues to shape Mexico’s relationship with the United States. Official memories (or national histories) of war affect international relations, and also shape how each nation’s population views citizens of other countries. Not surprisingly, there is a stark difference in the ways that American citizens and Mexican citizens remember and forget the war (e.g., Americans refer to the “Mexican American War” or the “U.S.–Mexican War,” for example, while Mexicans identify the conflict as the “War of North American Intervention”).
On April 4, 1949, twelve nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty: the United States, Canada, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, Portugal, Italy, Norway, and Denmark. For the United States, the North Atlantic Treaty signaled a major shift in foreign policy. Gone was the traditional aversion to “entangling alliances,” dating back to George Washington’s farewell address. The United States had entered into a collective security arrangement designed to preserve peace in Europe.
With the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United States took on a clear leadership role on the European continent. Allied defense depended on US military power, most notably the nuclear umbrella. Reliance on the United States unsurprisingly created problems. Doubts about the strength of the transatlantic partnership and rumors of a NATO in shambles were (and are) commonplace, as were anxieties about the West’s strength in comparison to NATO’s Eastern counterpart, the Warsaw Pact. NATO, it turned out, was more than a Cold War institution. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Alliance remained vital to US foreign policy objectives. The only invocation of Article V, the North Atlantic Treaty’s collective defense clause, came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Over the last seven decades, NATO has symbolized both US power and its challenges.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the region that would become the Democratic Republic of Congo fell to the brutal colonialism of Belgium’s King Leopold. Except for a brief moment when anti-imperialists decried the crimes of plantation slavery, the United States paid little attention to Congo before 1960. But after winning its independence from Belgium in June 1960, Congo suddenly became engulfed in a crisis of decolonization and the Cold War, a time when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for resources and influence. The confrontation in Congo was kept limited by a United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force, which ended the secession of the province of Katanga in 1964. At the same time, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) intervened to help create a pro-Western government and eliminate the Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. Ironically, the result would be a growing reliance on the dictatorship of Joseph Mobutu throughout the 1980s. In 1997 a rebellion succeeded in toppling Mobutu from power. Since 2001 President Joseph Kabila has ruled Congo. The United States has supported long-term social and economic growth but has kept its distance while watching Kabila fight internal opponents and insurgents in the east. A UN peacekeeping force returned to Congo and helped limit unrest. Despite serving out two full terms that ended in 2016, Kabila was slow to call elections amid rising turmoil.
Thomas I. Faith
Chemical and biological weapons represent two distinct types of munitions that share some common policy implications. While chemical weapons and biological weapons are different in terms of their development, manufacture, use, and the methods necessary to defend against them, they are commonly united in matters of policy as “weapons of mass destruction,” along with nuclear and radiological weapons. Both chemical and biological weapons have the potential to cause mass casualties, require some technical expertise to produce, and can be employed effectively by both nation states and non-state actors. U.S. policies in the early 20th century were informed by preexisting taboos against poison weapons and the American Expeditionary Forces’ experiences during World War I. The United States promoted restrictions in the use of chemical and biological weapons through World War II, but increased research and development work at the outset of the Cold War. In response to domestic and international pressures during the Vietnam War, the United States drastically curtailed its chemical and biological weapons programs and began supporting international arms control efforts such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. U.S. chemical and biological weapons policies significantly influence U.S. policies in the Middle East and the fight against terrorism.