What did all this mean? Confusion, at least. Scholarly terms reflected the confusion: internationalism, interventionism, globalism, multilateralism, transnationalism, hegemonism. But some things are clear, including that for many members of the post–World War II generation of internationalists, U.S. involvement abroad, utilizing UN agencies or other institutions, lacked a commitment to equality that the pre–World War II internationalists had promoted. Prewar internationalists generally viewed internationalism as a way to create a warless world and a more just international society. Post–World War II internationalists proved more willing to ignore both. Justice played second fiddle to the national interest. Especially after 1970, as Third World countries became the UN majority, Washington rejected what it viewed as radical proposals to share the resources of the industrialized North with the developing and needy South. From 1972, when the State Department rejected Third World demands for a new international economic order, to 2000, when the Clinton administration ignored proposals to forgive the debts of sub-Saharan African nations, issues of economic justice have been greeted unsympathetically by official Washington.
Americans after World War II also proved more willing to entertain—and occasionally even promote—the use of military force, as they did in Korea and Vietnam, but also in less risky areas such as the Dominican Republic (1965), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), the Persian Gulf (1991), and the former Yugoslavia (1999). Motives varied, ranging from anticommunism to regional hegemony to humanitarianism. So did the degree of international cooperation. In Korea, Cold War internationalists fought under a UN flag; during the Gulf War, under less formal UN authorization; in Yugoslavia, under NATO command. But in Latin America there was barely a pretense of cooperation. In fact, the Organization of American States formally condemned the U.S. intervention in Grenada.
The inconsistency concerning collective military activity also characterized the record of the United States in areas even more traditionally viewed as internationalist, such as support for international law and arms negotiations. Ever since the Hague Conferences, internationalist lawyers had promoted the creation of an international court to reduce the anarchy inherent in a system of sovereign states. They believed that the codification of international law would promote stability and peace, and that an international court would serve as a capstone of the legal system. Their dreams were partially fulfilled when, after both world wars, the victorious nations established international courts. But the court ideal never attained its promise, partly because of American policy. During the interwar period, Congress refused to ratify the statute of the Permanent Court of International Justice. Nearly forty years after World War II, American support for its successor, the International Court of Justice, would be dramatically reversed when the Reagan administration in 1984 rejected the court's authority in a celebrated case brought against the United States by Nicaragua. To accentuate the retreat from internationalism, Washington then formally repudiated the court's compulsory jurisdiction in all cases involving U.S. interests unless specifically mandated by treaty. Nevertheless, inconsistency triumphed here, too, as the United States joined with other countries at the end of the century to create the International Criminal Court with authority to try defendants charged with genocide and other violations of the law of war.
Arms negotiations offered another version of the same story. The development of atomic weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union during and after World War II dramatized the need for arms reduction and limitation. Internationalists helped to negotiate and ratify a number of agreements, most notably the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the bilateral accords negotiated with the Soviet Union during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s (SALT I, the 1972 ABM Treaty, the 1987 International Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as START). In 1997 the Clinton administration, with some support from Republican nationalists, persuaded the Senate to ratify a comprehensive chemical weapons ban. But other treaties, including SALT II, signed by the Carter administration in 1979, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996, and a 1997 treaty prohibiting the use of land mines, failed to win Senate approval, the latter two supported by more than one hundred governments. Indeed, in 2001 the administration of George W. Bush not only ended efforts to have the Senate ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996, but to terminate the 1972 ABM Treaty despite strong objections from America's European allies.
The theme of inconsistency also applied to the subject of international economic cooperation. During the late stages of World War II, the United States had initiated efforts to create international financial institutions that would economically stabilize the postwar world and prevent another Great Depression. The most important such institutions emerging from the war were the World Bank, to provide bank-sponsored development loans, and the International Monetary Fund, to grant government loans to stabilize currencies.
The last half of the twentieth century also witnessed tariff reduction, long applauded by internationalists. The General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs dates back to 1947; the agreement involved numerous conferences held over decades. GATT addressed the hopes of Wilsonians, who continued to argue that economic nationalism was a powerful cause of war. But here, too, internationalists met increasing resistance at home. Labor unions, fearful of losing jobs to low-wage workers abroad, joined forces with (generally) small businesses fearing foreign competition, nationalists, environmentalists, and neoisolationists to pass measures like the 1988 Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act undermining the free-trade aims of internationally oriented businesses and banks. For the most part, the legislative record from 1962 to 2001 favored the free traders. The North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993, membership for the United States and its trading partners (most controversially, China) in the World Trade Organization (GATT's successor), and the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations' support for the Free Trade for the Americas Treaty (not yet finalized in 2001) exemplify this trend.
Inconsistency also characterized international cooperation regarding the environment. Internationalists successfully promoted modest environmental reform, such as the creation of a UN Environment Program that emerged out of the 113-member UN Stockholm Conference of 1972, and two agreements (Vienna in 1985 and Montreal in 1987) limiting the release of ozone into the atmosphere. However, the Senate refused to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty negotiated between 1972 and 1982, the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity negotiated at Rio de Janeiro, and the 1997 Kyoto Accords limiting carbon dioxide emissions negotiated at the UN Conference on Climate Change. Indeed, by the early twenty-first century, American environmentalists were themselves aligning in opposition to internationalism, fearing that looser environmental standards abroad would undermine environmental protections at home.