America’s role in the world has evolved—and been fiercely debated—over the centuries. Washington’s farewell address, for instance, was laced with warnings about foreign entanglements. In fact, he used the words “foreign” and “world” 17 times in his valedictory—almost all of them in a negative light. Yet the United States conducted more than 40 treaty negotiations between 1783 and 1800, and the number of U.S. consular posts jumped from 10 in 1790 to 52 by 1800. Moreover, just four years after Washington left office, Jefferson would engage in large-scale, far-flung foreign involvements: To fight piracy off the coast of Africa, he proposed an anti-piracy coalition with Europe. When European powers failed to rally around Jefferson’s proposal, he opted to build a power-projecting navy and take the fight to the enemy, declaring, “It will be more easy to raise ships and men to fight these pirates into reason, than money to bribe them.”
Indeed, between 1798 and 1810, the U.S. waged war on the Barbary States of Africa, landed Marines in the Dominican Republic, invaded Spanish holdings in Mexico and sent troops to occupy parts of Spanish Florida. In 1803, Jefferson made a deal with Napoleon for the vast Louisiana Territory, opening the door to countless new foreign entanglements. By 1823, Monroe unveiled a doctrine that, with the help of the British navy, made the United States a hemispheric hegemon. Simply put, these are not the actions of some isolationist hermit republic.
In the early 1900s, McKinley, TR and Wilson guided America onto the world stage as a force for good, even as critics worried about America being seduced by empire. Yet after the Great War, America retreated from global leadership for a generation.
The attack on Pearl Harbor shattered the idea that the oceans could somehow protect America and silenced those who argued that isolation was preferable to engagement. Thus, FDR built the great “arsenal of democracy” and steered America into an era of unprecedented global engagement and unmatched geopolitical power.
Cold War-era presidents used that power to rebuild the international system. Along the way, they jettisoned a principle on which Washington and Jefferson agreed: Washington advised his successors “to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world”; Jefferson counseled “entangling alliances with none.” The Cold War saw the U.S. construct a vast network of alliances: NATO in Europe, SEATO in Southeast Asia, ANZUS for Australia and New Zealand, bilateral guarantees for South Korea, Japan and the Philippines, the Rio Pact for the Americas. As JFK reminded the United States of 1963 (and re-reminds us today), “We put ourselves, by our own will and by necessity, into defensive alliances with countries all around the globe.”
There was then broad consensus among Americans about their place and purpose in the world: to lead the Free World, to guard the frontiers of liberty, to contain and deter the Soviet Empire. But that consensus has frayed, and the old debate about America’s role in the world has been reignited by a public that is not only war-weary but quite literally world-weary. According to Pew polling, 57 percent of Americans want the U.S. to “let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.
Many political leaders seem to share the public’s view that it’s time for the U.S. to take a much-deserved break. President Obama, for instance, employed phrases like “nation-building here at home” to explain his stand-off foreign policy, which featured withdrawals from Iraq, “time-limited” operations in Libya, unenforced “red lines” in Syria and steep defense cuts. In a surprising echo of his predecessor, President Trump declared, “We have to build our own nation,” embraced the historically-fraught “America First” label, and even described “trying to topple various people”—we can infer he was talking about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—as “a tremendous disservice…to humanity.”
This is why the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose (CAP) is so critically important. The world cries out not for America to retreat and retrench, but for a new era of smart, steady and sustained American engagement. CAP seeks to make this case forcefully and thoughtfully. CAP’s mission is to promote America’s leadership role in the world by: identifying historical guideposts to bolster national-security strategy in the 21st century, applying the lessons of history to the challenges of today and reminding the American people that the United States remains a force for good in the world. Drawing from history, CAP is idealistic about America’s purpose in the world, optimistic about what America and its allies can achieve in the world, and realistic about how and where to employ American power in the world.