Intervention and Nonintervention - Doctrine versus practice

How does this record of numerous American interventions over two hundred years of national history square with the claim that the United States has always upheld the principle of nonintervention? How does it accord with the frequent declarations that nonintervention is the official policy of the United States? The answers require putting intervention policies into the perspective of available options, and also discussing the role that political doctrines play in the conduct of foreign affairs.

Countries, like individuals, rarely act with total consistency. Champions of peace do go to war; a preference for free trade may yield to protectionism when circumstances make protectionism highly advantageous. One generally characterizes a country's policies by prevailing trends within the policy and within the international community. As discussed, in the case of American intervention policies, the large numbers of interventions are matched by an even larger number of occasions when the United States eschewed intervention, although it was a viable and potentially beneficial policy alternative. This was particularly true during the first century of the nation's existence when it first proclaimed that nonintervention would be its preferred policy. Whether it will again become true in the twenty-first century remains an open question in the wake of many disappointing results of intervention policies, the high costs of such ventures, and competing domestic claims on available national resources. One thing is clear however: choices of intervention and nonintervention in particular situations will always be controversial. Proponents will claim that they are necessary and legal while opponents will argue the reverse.

Throughout American history, whenever intervention was the preferred policy choice, it has always been pictured as a last, undesired option. Nonintervention has been hailed even when the country's practices were clearly interventions. One may call this hypocrisy and denounce it. Or one may recognize that the belief in a country's right to freedom and independence from outside interference runs strong. After all, that was the legacy left to Americans in 1796 when President George Washington warned that "History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government." Therefore, "it must be unwise for us to implicate ourselves … in the ordinary vicissitudes of [other nations'] … politics."

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