If one were to draw a curve charting the number of American interventions over a 200-year span, it would begin at a fairly low point, reach a peak roughly at the center, then move sharply downward and rebound after World War II. The curve would show several lesser fluctuations during the years of ascent and descent. The major rationale for this ebb and flow of interventionism is the change in perceptions about the security of U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
The United States has intervened in the affairs of other nations, or seriously considered intervening, primarily to prevent or foil anticipated attempts by powers on other continents to gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere from which they might mount an attack on the United States. It has also intervened to maintain power balances among nations in Europe and Asia so that no single nation or combination of nations might become strong enough in these regions to launch an assault on the Western Hemisphere from abroad. Occasionally, the United States has also intervened to establish American strategic and economic bases abroad in order to protect its vital connecting routes to other parts of the world.
When challenges to hegemony were deemed minor, or when interventions were urged for goals not clearly involving the protection of hegemonic interests, the United States has generally shunned intervention. A major exception has been the policy of intervening on behalf of U.S. citizens abroad whenever their lives and property were threatened by political events in a weak foreign country. American statesmen have generally viewed the protective aspects of such actions as paramount and the interventionist aspects as strictly subordinate. Protective interventions, if limited to safeguard Americans, were ordinarily not counted in the record of interventions, at least not by American officials. Of course, the target country often viewed the matter differently.
Humanitarian interventions are another exception. They are viewed primarily as attempts to help suffering human beings whose lives are endangered, rather than as attempts to challenge or interfere with the political situation in the states where these individuals happen to live. In fact, the United States has resisted protecting people from violation of many of their economic and social rights stipulated in human rights conventions, claiming that such interventions would constitute illegal interference.
The argument that infringements of state sovereignty to achieve humanitarian goals are nonpolitical becomes more difficult to sustain when humanitarian crises are precipitated by political events, as was true in the 1990s for starvation relief in Somalia or rescue of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo from annihilation. States where humanitarian interventions are taking place generally condemn them. They consider all actions taken by a foreign power on their soil against their expressed wishes as intervention, regardless of the motivation for the action. This is why intervening states, including the United States, often supplement the humanitarian argument by claiming that the action is also undertaken because their vital interests are at stake or because extreme human suffering brings instability that endangers international peace.
While protection of the security of the United States has been the major reason for considering interventions as policy options, additional concerns have influenced specific policy decisions. Foremost, particularly in the early years of the country, was the question of capability to intervene effectively. Intervention usually requires substantial military, economic, and political resources. When the United States lacked such resources or was already using them to their fullest extent, it could not spare them for interventions.
The balance between political gains and political disadvantages derived from the intervention is also important. Intervention by one state may spur counterintervention by another. It may alienate the government and people of the state against which it is undertaken. It may antagonize other members of the community of nations. The chances that it will accomplish the objectives for which it was undertaken may be slim. All these factors are weighed in determining whether a particular intervention is advisable.
Policies of intervention, like other foreign policies, also tend to become entangled with events on the domestic political scene. Political competition for the allocation of human and material resources for various goals may lead to strong opposition to spending resources for a particular intervention. In the years before the Civil War, many interventions were appraised within the context of the proslavery-antislavery dispute. Later, the intervention policy became entangled in the debate over the merits of imperialist expansion. Differences in the appraisal of individual situations also are important. Political leaders often disagreed about whether hegemonic interests were really involved in a particular situation and whether intervention was likely to produce the anticipated results. Considering the high economic and political stakes involved in most decisions to intervene or to abstain, heated debates have been the rule. Political partisanship has also played a part in opposing or supporting particular interventions even though the policy of intervention and nonintervention has never carried a party label. Periods of plentiful and of scarce interventions have been unrelated to the partisan orientation of the government.
Public opinion within the United States has also had a discernible impact on foreign policy choices. When the public mood leaned toward isolationism and concentration on domestic problems, interventions were chosen less frequently than when the public mood was expansionist or imbued with the idea that the United States, as a world power, must involve itself fully with external affairs. Such swings in public opinion have been common, often based on reactions to the success or failure of the most recent foreign policies and on the country's economic strength.
The history of U.S. intervention and nonintervention policies can be divided into four periods. The first, in which the stress on nonintervention was greatest, encompasses roughly the first century of the nation's existence. Then followed an interlude of unabashed interventionism during the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. This period ended with the Great Depression years of the 1930s. Third, there were the frustrating decades leading up to World War II, followed by the Cold War era of confrontation between communist and noncommunist power blocs. Hopes for meeting dangers to the national interest through collective interventions turned to dust in the Cold War era. Despite a desire to abandon unilateral interventions, the United States felt compelled to intervene repeatedly to safeguard its national security when American leaders deemed it endangered by the policies of authoritarian governments in various parts of the world. Finally, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era. Humanitarian interventions in ethnic conflicts and interventions to aid countries in creating democratic governments became fairly common interventionist activities, usually after prolonged and heated verbal battles in the halls of government.
The First Century During the first century of the nation's history, numerous interventions were undertaken to consolidate control over the American mainland and adjacent regions. Territories held by European countries or in danger of being taken over by a European country were acquired or kept from passing under the control of a European rival or changing hands from a weaker to a stronger European ruler. Several major interventions to acquire Spanish Florida and minor meddling in Texas and California are examples. However, while the country was still weak compared to strong European powers, and during the turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction, interventions were undertaken only if the outcome seemed highly promising and few dire consequences appeared in the offing. For instance, intervention to acquire Canada was ruled out because of fear that it might bring war with Britain. Diplomatic activities to acquire Cuba were kept short of intervention lest they embroil the country in war with Spain and its allies. Likewise, intervention to annex the Dominican Republic was scotched by Congress.
Intervention was also considered repeatedly during this period in order to keep European powers from intervening in the affairs of independent Western Hemisphere states. But few of these plans bore fruit. Internal weakness kept the United States from pursuing its policies through intervention on a number of occasions when, at a later period, it would have intervened. For example, the United States did not stop interventions by France in Mexico and Haiti to collect debts, nor did it halt incursions by Britain into Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Argentina. Verbal protests were made repeatedly. The United States objected to France's intervention in Mexico to support a monarchy, to Spain's intervention in Peru and annexation of the Dominican Republic, and to Britain's acquisition of parts of Honduras.
The United States also attempted to strengthen American influence in areas threatened by European intervention by expressing a strong interest in the fate of these regions. But the United States could do little more. Powerful influences in Congress and among the public opposed preventive interventions that various presidents had suggested to restore public order in Mexico and the Caribbean area or to overturn military dictatorships and thereby forestall corrective measures by European powers. The United States even kept largely aloof from the efforts of European colonies in the Western Hemisphere to free themselves from control by their mother countries.
Interventions by the United States in revolutions outside the Western Hemisphere were also kept to a minimum, although many revolutions were taking place in Europe to replace absolute monarchies with democratic governments. Two centuries later, the support of democratic factions and countries against absolute governments of a different sort would be deemed sound reason for intervention by the United States, but that time had not yet arrived.
The United States did intervene in China, Japan, and Korea to coerce them to grant trade privileges to American merchants, beginning with a government trade mission in 1844 headed by Commissioner Caleb Cushing. At the time, such missions were the usual practice when foreign nations wanted to trade with Asian countries. The eagerness of the United States to have its citizens participate in the spoils of trade in the Far East was explained as much by strategic as by economic considerations. American leaders feared that the European powers would divide the Far East, particularly China, into spheres of influence from which other powers would be excluded. Land bases in China would give them control over the shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean. The United States, unless it supported retention of control by the weak Asiatic powers or secured spheres of interest of its own, would be deprived of Pacific outposts to protect its access routes to Asia. The United States therefore pursued a twopronged policy in the area: it protested against increased domination by European powers, and it intervened to acquire trade privileges for itself and to lay the foundations for ultimate acquisition of a number of naval bases in the Pacific.
The Imperial Period The heady philosophy of the interventionist phase of American foreign policy is epitomized by Secretary of State Richard Olney's claim in 1895 that the United States had become master of the American continent "practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers." Consequently, "its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition." Within the next decade the United States would satisfy all its remaining territorial ambitions, largely through interventions and war with Spain. Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam came under its control, as well as Hawaii and Samoa. Nonetheless, even during this period, reluctance to intervene did not disappear entirely. For instance, President Grover Cleveland's administration resisted pleas for intervention in Cuba although intermittent civil strife on the island was deemed hazardous to American security.
From the standpoint of intervention policy, the most crucial territorial acquisition during this period was the Panama Canal Zone. It was acquired through interventionist policies that assured that the Panama region would break away successfully from Colombia and would grant ample concessions to the United States for construction and protection of an isthmian canal. The United States regarded the canal as a lifeline permitting its naval units to shuttle rapidly between the East and West coasts to guard against dangers emanating from Europe or Asia. To protect this vital route, the United States appointed itself policeman of the Western Hemisphere who must and did intervene frequently to restore political order in the small countries near the canal. American political leaders assumed that political unrest automatically spelled danger to the canal area, warranting intervention. No specific proof was required in a particular situation that an attack on the canal was imminent. In a number of Caribbean countries, the United States even secured treaty rights of automatic intervention in case of unrest. The most famous advance authorization for intervention was the Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution, which was in force for more than thirty years.
In areas farther from the canal, interventions were undertaken with more restraint. During this period, Mexico was a source of great concern to American policymakers because of constant internal turmoil, a succession of brutal dictatorial governments, and serious attacks on American citizens and their property in Mexico. The United States used a number of pressures, particularly economic sanctions and arms embargoes, to control turmoil in Mexico, but refrained from full-scale military intervention despite domestic pressures.
During the interventionist period the United States protested more strongly than ever before against European incursions into the affairs of the hemisphere. Boundary difficulties between Venezuela and Britain in the 1880s provide a good example. The United States intervened in the dispute, contending that it had a general right to interpose in any conflict in which the political or territorial integrity of an American state was threatened by a non-American power. It claimed that it could insist on arbitration and the enforcement of the arbitration award, even if one of the parties opposed the award.
By nonrecognition of an undesirable government, the United States also intervened repeatedly, although not consistently, to overthrow authoritarian regimes, particularly military dictatorships that had come to power in Latin America. Regimes that had ascended through unconstitutional means and represented authoritarian philosophies were deemed potential sources of instability. They might produce internal unrest, encouraging foreign intervention that would threaten the hegemonic interests of the United States. It was hoped that nonrecognition would make it so difficult for the unrecognized government to conduct its political and economic affairs that it would be weakened and overthrown by democratic forces. While potential danger to the security of the Western Hemisphere usually was the motivating force for nonrecognition, at times the policy was used on purely ideological grounds. Several instances occurred during the Woodrow Wilson administration because President Wilson was loathe to recognize governments that had come to power by force or ruled undemocratically.
Major challenges to the international balance of power continued in Asia during this period. European nations and Japan were establishing spheres of interest at the expense of China. More assiduously than before, the United States aimed to prevent this by means of an Open Door policy for China. This involved securing pledges by European nations and Japan to refrain from closing any part of China to access by other powers. The United States protested whenever other powers violated the policy, which it regarded as a guarantee of China's territorial integrity and independence. When protests failed, the United States did not usually attempt stronger pressures for fear that they might lead to war.
The United States did intervene in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) to prevent Russia and Japan from encroaching on China's sovereignty. Later it refused to recognize damaging concessions extorted by Japan from China in the vain hope that this would produce a policy change on Japan's part. The United States also continued to engage in intervention designed to strengthen China economically and politically and to assure an American presence in the area to checkmate European power plays.
The peak of interventionism, if one judges by the frequency of interventions and the number of countries involved, was reached during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Besides numerous interventions in the Western Hemisphere and Asia, this phase included U.S. intervention in World War I on behalf of the anti-German coalition. Ultimately, intervention led to full-scale American participation in the war.
In the postwar years, the number of interventions declined. The weakness of European powers after World War I was one major factor. They no longer presented a real threat to the hegemony of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. No European power was strong enough to assume control over Europe or the tottering Chinese empire. Another major factor was the realization that many goals that the United States had tried to accomplish in the course of interventions in the Western Hemisphere could not be achieved through intervention. For instance, it had been impossible to lay the groundwork for politically stable, economically sound, and democratically governed states in the Caribbean area, despite lengthy U.S. military interventions. Attempts to establish economic influence abroad and to use it for political purposes (known as dollar diplomacy) had also largely failed.
Lastly, interventions had aroused a great deal of opposition from other countries, particularly the nations of the Western Hemisphere, and from groups within the United States. The policy was attacked on legal, moral, and practical grounds as improper coercion of the weak by the strong for the selfish aims of the strong. Behind such charges lay a changing climate of world opinion that placed greater emphasis on the sovereign rights of small nations and condemned coercive diplomacy, particularly the use of military force, to achieve national objectives.
The Collective Security Phase The dominant feature of American intervention and nonintervention policies after the end of the openly interventionist years was the desire to make interventions—particularly those involving the use of military force—collective enterprises of the world community or regional groupings. Dangers to the vital interests of the international community that would justify protection through intervention were to be carefully defined in advance. The United States hoped that they would encompass all the circumstances that had hitherto tempted it into individual interventions. In addition, the United States expected to influence the policies of other countries through conditions attached to its economic and military aid policies. It did not consider such conditions interventionist. Rather, they were deemed the right of the donor to dictate the terms of a grant.
Unfortunately, the goals set for conditional aid policies were rarely achieved. The stipulated conditions often proved impossible to implement or failed to produce the desired results because of unstable internal conditions in the recipient nations. Fraud and corruption were major problems worldwide. In many cases, the conditions attached to the aid were flouted. Occasionally, the prospective recipient refused the aid because the conditions were deemed interventionist, destabilizing, or insulting.
The goals set for collective interventions fared somewhat better, but also fell short on many occasions. Prolonged negotiations over many years made it possible to organize a moderately effective collective intervention system in the Western Hemisphere. Spurred on by the United States and its supporters, the system was activated repeatedly to curb Axis and communist influence in Latin America. Strong objections by countries such as pro-Axis Argentina and Chile and procommunist Cuba, Guatemala, and their supporters were overruled. But efforts to use the system failed frequently when the goal was to control major political problems endemic to Western Hemisphere countries.
On the wider international level, the League of Nations Covenant, and the United Nations Charter and interpretive resolutions thereafter, also contained provisions for collective intervention to protect the vital interests of members of the community of nations. But agreement could rarely be reached on the kinds of menaces to which this machinery should respond. Nations could not even agree during international gatherings or when faced with specific situations on what sets of circumstances should be considered threats to world peace.
The weaknesses of the collective intervention machinery encouraged the United States to continue to determine unilaterally whether its security was menaced by particular international developments. When protective interventions seemed necessary, it would then try to initiate collective action. If this failed, or if the collective machinery could not be put into operation quickly and decisively enough to halt the danger, the United States claimed and continued to exercise a right of unilateral intervention.
Two major dangers, similar in nature, roused the United States to a large number of verbal, economic, political, and military interventions during this and the preceding period. The first was the attempt of right-wing authoritarian regimes in Europe, and later in the Far East as well, to destroy the balance of power in Europe and Asia and to establish their own hegemony. The United States first intervened in World War II in Europe and Asia by verbal attacks and warnings directed against the dictators. It tried to engender and support policies by neutral powers that would be harmful to the dictators' aims, and it gave economic and military aid to the dictators' enemies. Along with other countries in the Western Hemisphere, it interfered with the rights of belligerent powers to conduct hostilities on the high seas surrounding the Americas in a band 300 to 1,000 miles wide. To protect the hemisphere from Axis footholds, the territorial status of European possessions in the Americas was declared frozen in 1940. Inter-American machinery was established to administer the possessions of subjugated European countries. All of these verbal, political, and economic interventions failed to halt Axis advances. The United States then entered the war in 1941 in response to Axis war declarations and attacks on U.S. territories.
The victory of the Allied powers in World War II ended the menace to American security created by rightist totalitarian imperialism in Europe and Japanese empire building in Asia. New challenges to hemispheric safety soon arose from attempts by the Soviet Union and other communist powers to spread their ideology and political and even territorial control over a widening circle of countries in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. American leaders believed that the United States had a legal right to intervene to halt communist advances because its own survival as a democratic country was deemed at stake. Every addition to the communist coalition diminished the potential of the United States to defend itself successfully against communist subversion and military aggression.
Interventions by the United States to halt or prevent the spread of communist control throughout the world explain most of its far-flung operations during the latter four-fifths of the twentieth century. In almost every case in which the United States had identified a situation as potential or actual communist intervention, it tried to work through collective action. These efforts failed frequently because other countries disagreed that communist intervention was imminent or because they feared the consequences of the spread of communism less. Moreover, struggles by national liberation movements to free their countries from foreign control or domestic tyranny and corruption had often become so entwined with insurgency by procommunist forces that it was hard to fight communism without destroying liberation and reform movements. When the United States intervened unilaterally, claiming to act in the name of collectively approved principles to maintain established governments in power, its reputation as a champion of popular, honest government often suffered serious damage at home and abroad.
The United States intervened to prevent the ascendancy of communist governments in Eastern Europe by means of a policy of nonrecognition and economic pressures. It tried to checkmate Soviet influence in places like Iran, Turkey, and Greece. It aided anticommunist nations in the Middle East, particularly the new state of Israel, as well as pro-Western Jordan and Lebanon in their struggles against covert and overt attacks by Soviet-supported Arab nations. The United States sent aid and rescue missions to assist anticommunist forces in the Congo and, to a lesser extent, Angola. It used a number of interventionist tactics to bring about black majority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Namibia, in hopes of preventing racial warfare in southern Africa that might provide a cover for further expansion of Soviet influence in the area. It also used such tactics to keep Soviet influence in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf at bay.
To strengthen noncommunist governments faced with strong domestic opposition from communist parties, and to support governments fighting against communist insurgents, the United States intervened in widely scattered parts of the globe, such as Central and Western Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. In the Far East, intervention was used to prevent the expansion of communist control over much of Southeast Asia, particularly South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and over South Korea. In Korea, the United States intervened unilaterally in 1950 until a United Nations force could take over. The bulk of military power that was made available to the United Nations for collective intervention had to be furnished by the United States because other powers gave only verbal support. The Korean intervention and other interventions undertaken to stop the advances of communism made it clear that gains won on the battlefield could not be maintained without permanently stationing noncommunist military forces in areas coveted by communist powers.
The most protracted and costly intervention to halt the advance of communist-controlled forces occurred in Vietnam. There the United States and a number of its allies attempted to support noncommunist governments against attacks by procommunist forces eager to reunite North Vietnam and South Vietnam under a communist government. The fierce controversy over the legality and wisdom of the Vietnam intervention led to serious political cleavages within the United States and within the international community. Opponents of the intervention claimed that the situation involved a domestic struggle between procommunist and anticommunist Vietnamese that did not seriously involve U.S. security interests. Proponents disagreed and their views prevailed. The United States finally withdrew its military forces from Vietnam in 1973. Economic and military aid to the South Vietnamese government was discontinued in 1975. By that time, communist forces had assumed full control of the country and further resistance to the spread of communism in Southeast Asia appeared hopeless.
In many instances, it is easy to refute charges of illegal interventionism by the United States because American policymakers based their actions on treaty rights providing for joint defense against communist attacks or on requests for help by anticommunist governments in various nations. But, as indicated earlier, the moral and even legal validity of these arrangements is often challenged when the agreements were concluded under circumstances that made it practically impossible for one party to decline or when the moral authority of the government to agree to intervention is questionable. A more solid, legal defense for anticommunist interventions is the claim to a right of counterintervention. The United States acted in most instances in response to proved, presumed, or anticipated interventions by communist forces that were intervening around the world to guide politics to their advantage. It can be argued that, akin to the right of self-defense, there exists a right of preventive or curative counterintervention.
While it may seem at first glance that the United States missed no opportunity to intervene against the spread of communism, this was not the case. Many possibilities for intervention were bypassed because the threat of advancing communist influence was comparatively limited, because the costs of intervention, including likely counterinterventions, seemed too high, or because the United States realized that it could not muster sufficient strength in faraway places to engage in effective intervention.
A situation involving all three of these contingencies occurred on mainland China. The United States had initially given some aid to the forces of General Chiang Kai-shek to assist him in wresting control of North China from the communist forces in that country. When it became clear that only massive military involvement would save the Chinese mainland from communist control, U.S. policymakers in the period following World War II, in a highly contested policy judgment, decided against such a major commitment. But limited aid to Chiang Kai-shek, who had retreated to the island of Formosa, continued. Similarly, despite explicit declarations and implicit threats, interventions on behalf of noncommunist factions in Eastern European countries to help them shed communist control never materialized. Insurgents in East Germany in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 received no official help.
Nor did the United States intervene in most instances when left-or right-wing dictatorships came to power in Latin America in the period after World War II, or when governments expropriated the assets of large American businesses without adequate compensation. For example, it failed to intervene in Bolivia in 1952 when a coup d'état supported by Argentina's pro-fascist Juan Perón regime put a radical regime into power. It nationalized the tin mines that supplied tin to the United States and failed to compensate U.S. business interests for losses suffered through expropriations. Major exceptions to this hands-off policy occurred generally only in areas close to the American mainland and the access routes to the Panama Canal. For instance, the United States intervened to topple a left-wing anti-American government in Guatemala in 1954 by aiding exile forces attempting military invasion of their homeland.
The United States also helped to plan and execute an invasion by anti-Castro Cuban refugees in 1961 who wanted to overthrow the communist government of Premier Fidel Castro in Cuba. The attack failed and the tactics of the United States were widely condemned as illegal. Few such charges were made a year later when the United States intervened in Cuban-Soviet relations by demanding removal of Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba. In the Cuban missile crisis, most Latin American states and most noncommunist members of the world community concurred that the security of the United States was sufficiently endangered by Soviet missiles ninety miles from its territory to justify intervention. Subsequently, the inter-American community acted jointly to exclude Cuba from the inter-American system and to embargo the shipment of arms and other goods to Cuba. This fell short of the collective break in diplomatic relations favored by the United States in response to Cuba's publicized plans to subvert other Latin American governments, if necessary by guerrilla violence and civil war. Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia had been singled out as primary targets. When the dominance of the United States over hemispheric relations declined in the 1970s, restrictions against Cuba were lifted one by one.
Another major intervention against a Latin American government was the attempt to forestall a leftist takeover in the Dominican Republic. More than 30,000 U.S. troops were dispatched in 1965 to stop fighting between forces that President Lyndon Johnson deemed procommunist and anticommunist. Ultimately, a right-wing regime prevailed. Although the United States managed to involve the inter-American collective intervention machinery, participation by the Organization of American States did little to erase the bitterness within the United States, Latin America, and other parts of the globe about the initial failure of the United States to abide by its pledge to abstain from unilateral military intervention. Many observers doubted that the Dominican situation had presented a sufficiently serious threat to the security of the United States to warrant major preventive measures.
After costly, often fruitless interventions had soured American policymakers on benefits to be reaped from intervention, a renewed retreat from overt interventionism began in 1969. It was hastened by a policy of détente and bargaining between the United States, the Soviet Union, and mainland China that helped to reduce the climate of mutual fear that had spawned interventions earlier. The ascent of communist-controlled or communist-influenced governments was no longer deemed an ipso facto threat to the security of the noncommunist world. The United States reduced its interventions and military commitments in Asia. It tried to lessen occasions for intervention in the Middle East by pacifying the area and resuming more normal relations with countries that had drawn their support from the Soviet Union. It also took a more aloof stance toward the tumultuous politics of Latin America. Moreover, to avoid the onus of charges of interventionism, a number of interventions were conducted as covert enterprises. The activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, which contributed to the overthrow of the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende Gossens in Chile in 1973, are examples of the types of actions that were undertaken covertly to weaken governments and policies deemed hostile and dangerous to the United States.
However, increased reluctance to engage in interventions and decreased concern about the dangers posed by the ascendancy of Marxist governments in various parts of the world should not be construed as a complete retreat from the use of collective or unilateral intervention to protect the security of the United States from damage caused by attempts to spread communism. For instance, the United States invaded Grenada, a Caribbean island, in 1983 on the grounds that the Fidel Castro's communist government in nearby Cuba had designs on the island.
Overall, the more restrained approach to anticommunist interventionism was gradually counterbalanced by increased interventionism on behalf of humanitarian and civil rights causes. President Jimmy Carter, following policies reminiscent of the Woodrow Wilson presidency, proclaimed in 1977 that the United States would intervene on behalf of persecuted peoples anywhere in the world where states were denying human or civil rights to their citizens on account of race, religion, or political persuasion. Numerous such interventions took place. However, they were neither prompt nor consistent. In a haphazard pattern, influenced by a multiplicity of political and logistical factors, humanitarian interventions were carried out promptly or sluggishly in some situations but forgone in others involving equal or greater human catastrophes.
The Post–Cold War Decades During the Cold War era, most interventions could be defended as counterinterventions that were needed to implement the policy of containment designed to stop the spread of communism. Following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union in 1991, different rationales came to the fore. The new potential dangers to U.S. interests came primarily from an epidemic of violent internal conflicts and human rights violations in formerly communist nations and in developing countries throughout the globe. To justify intervention under these circumstances, U.S. presidents used three major rationales. Most commonly, presidents contended that these upheavals endangered world peace and security in general and hence the security of the United States. This argument served two purposes. It was useful in justifying collective interventions under the United Nations Charter and it weakened complaints by domestic critics in the United States, especially in the Senate, who denied that the country's national security was imperiled and therefore charged that the United States had no business undertaking these foreign interventions.
The second major rationale was the evolving consensus that humanitarian interventions are a moral duty as well as a requirement in the wake of the various human rights declarations. However, this argument has never been considered strong enough to silence influential critics of intervention. Hence, it is usually accompanied by claims that the human rights violations, besides endangering vulnerable populations, also constitute a threat to peace.
The final major rationale—also usually buttressed by individual or collective self-defense arguments—is the claim that the United States is a world power that must protect the world from major misbehavior by members of the international community. The argument was clearly articulated by President Bill Clinton in his Farewell Address to the nation in 2001. He declared that "America cannot and must not disengage itself from the world. If we want the world to embody our shared values, then we must assume shared responsibility." Clinton's plea resembles to a surprising extent the claims made by President Theodore Roosevelt a century earlier. The Roosevelt Corollary that pictured the United States as the world's policeman was never accepted by the rest of the international community. Its modern version is likely to be equally unpopular, especially among small nations that are the most likely targets of intervention.
The argument that international peace and security are endangered by political unrest in a foreign country was used by Clinton's predecessor, President George H. W. Bush, to displace General Manuel Noriega, who headed the government of Panama in 1990 when the country was in turmoil and there were rampant violations of the human rights of Noriega's enemies. Economic sanctions, such as freezing Panamanian assets in the United States and revoking Panama's most-favored-nation trade status, had failed to drive the general from office. As in so many other interventions, the brunt of the suffering produced by these economic sanctions was borne by the poorest segments of the population while the leaders of the country continued to prosper and lead lives of luxury.
On 17 December 1989, President Bush ordered Operation Just Cause to replace Noriega by military force. American troops landed on 20 December. The officially stated "just causes" for the intervention were protection of American lives and property in Panama at a time of internal political unrest, restoration of democracy, the security of the Panama Canal, and brutalities and illegal drug trafficking ascribed to Noriega and his cronies. It remains a matter of controversy whether these were the actual motives or merely cover-ups for more mundane political objectives of the Bush administration. Among other reasons, President Bush, like many of his predecessors and like his successor, President Clinton, may have felt that the "leader of the free world" could not risk his international image by allowing a tin-pot dictator in a tiny country to defy his demands.
The argument that internal domestic conditions in a small country threatened world peace seemed spurious to devotees of nonintervention in the United States and abroad. Accordingly, the Panama intervention led to charges of unlawful intervention by the United States. On 29 December 1989, the UN General Assembly condemned the intervention by a vote of 75 to 20 and demanded that the United States remove its troops from Panama. Likewise, the Organization of American States condemned the intervention unanimously, even though many members detested Noriega and his actions. In defense of its actions, the United States cited the self-defense provisions of the UN and OAS charters, without specifying in what way Panama constituted a major threat to U.S. security. U.S. representatives also argued that the survival of democratic nations was at stake and that all available peaceful means of displacing Noriega had been tried and failed. There was no solid proof for these claims or for the claim that American citizens or the Panama Canal were in imminent danger of suffering major harm. However, public opinion polls by the CBS television network indicated that most Panamanians approved of the intervention and were happy that it had led to the removal of Noriega from government power and from the country.
A less political, and initially less controversial, intervention took place in Somalia in 1992. It began as a purely humanitarian venture to provide starvation relief and stop human rights abuses in that African country. No strategic, economic, or drug trafficking issues were involved, and Somalian leaders had not seized territory illegally. However, the country was in the throes of a civil war without an effective government in place. Proponents of the intervention argued therefore that it made no sense for foreign powers to ask anyone's permission to enter the country. The United Nations, with strong member support, had approved the mission after it had become impossible for relief agencies to function in the war-torn country. The United States then dispatched 37,000 troops to Somalia to keep food relief supplies out of the reach of the feuding warlords and distribute it to the starving population. The initial plans called for completing the mission within five months.
But, as often happens in unstable areas, the various UN forces involved in the mission, including the American contingents, soon became embroiled in the civil war, changing the nature of the venture in unforeseen and unplanned ways. It had become obvious that effective delivery of aid to the people required bringing about at least some semblance of political order. In the wake of political efforts to pacify the country—which turned out to be futile—Somali soldiers attacked the relief teams, inflicting heavy casualties. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were among the dead. After some hesitation, President Clinton withdrew U.S. forces in October 1993, in the wake of the killings. Pictures of the corpse of an American soldier dragged along the streets of Somalia's capital city had outraged the American public and led to angry recriminations in Congress about the wisdom of undertaking the mission.
The Somalia intervention, besides souring the U.S. government's taste for humanitarian interventions, gave rise to the belief that ample television coverage of human disasters throughout the world can arouse the anger and compassion of the American public. In turn, the public may then pressure the national government to intervene to stop human suffering. This putative phenomenon was dubbed "the CNN effect." As evidence that such an effect had spawned the initial intervention in Somalia, scholars pointed out that graphic pictures and reports about atrocities, starvation, and devastation in Somalia had been widely aired on CNN television. Pressure groups, so it was alleged, had then forced the government, against its better judgment, to airlift relief supplies and later send U.S. troops to Somalia. Other scholars denied this sequence of events and contended that relief plans for Somalia antedated the CNN publicity by more than a year. They claimed that government officials, including members of Congress who had visited Somalia, had inspired the action.
It is impossible to prove that the pressure by government officials would have been sufficient to lead to the decision to intervene—and to withdraw when the bodies of dead soldiers were shown—if the decision had not been supported by media-induced public pressure. Hence, media buffs continue to believe that the CNN effect exists. They argue that graphic coverage of human suffering is an important determinant of whether or not a particular disaster will generate U.S. intervention. In general, public-opinion polls show that the American public supports purely humanitarian interventions by a substantial margin, especially if there are no American casualties. The same holds true when the public becomes convinced that the intervention seeks to subdue an aggressor eager to attack the United States, injure its vital interests, or damage its citizens. The public is far less supportive of interventions that seem designed to change another country's politics when there appears to be no immediate threat to vital U.S. interests.
Many interventions that involve important humanitarian concerns serve multiple purposes, of course. For example, the intervention in Haiti in 1994 combined humanitarian and democracy-building objectives with an exceptionally strong emphasis on restoring democracy to a country where a democratic election had been aborted. Because of Haiti's proximity to the U.S. mainland, large refugee flows into Florida were quite likely. Rumors suggested that more than 300,000 Haitians were eager to leave their country, most of them heading for the United States. Similarly, the 1989–1990 Panama intervention, besides stopping humanitarian outrages and supporting democracy in Panama, became a cog in U.S. efforts to stop the inflow of dangerous recreational drugs into the United States.
The policy of intervention to support democratic governments was originally part of the policy of containment of communism. If a country had a strong democratic government, presumably it would not succumb to an authoritarian ideology. After the Cold War ended, supporting or even creating democracies was viewed as an aid to international peace on the dubious assumption that democratic countries rarely go to war with other democratically governed states. Hence, the United States could argue that its intervention in Haiti was justified under the UN Charter to maintain world peace. The claim was bolstered by the fact that the United Nations had officially sanctioned the intervention.
As if to underline the importance of sponsoring the growth of democratic institutions worldwide, the U.S. State Department created a Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs during the Clinton years. The bureau's mission was defined as promotion of democracy throughout the world and formulation of human rights policies, including those relating to labor issues. In addition, the Clinton administration, like several of its predecessors, used the granting or withholding of economic resources as a weapon in the fight to democratize the nations of the world.
It has always been easier to claim concerns about the security of the United States as reasons for intervention when the location of the trouble is close to America's shores. This is the U.S. "sphere of influence," designated as its prime concern and fief since the days of the Monroe Doctrine. Reluctance to become entangled in conflicts outside of the Western Hemisphere, especially when international organizations are available with authority to handle such situations, explains why the United States initially tried to avoid intervention in the civil strife in Bosnia that entailed major human rights violations. But the combined pull of a number of motives—humanitarian concerns, the importance of U.S. support for NATO involvement in the Balkan situation, and the desire to maintain U.S. influence in European affairs—finally persuaded the Clinton administration in 1995 to join its NATO partners in air strikes to try to end ground fighting in Bosnia.
Overall, when U.S. policymakers weigh the options in situations where intervention is under consideration in the post–Cold War world, several factors seem to weigh especially heavily in favor of becoming involved. They are the location of the trouble spot, the relative size and power of the country in question, the degree of defiance of U.S. requests displayed by the local rulers, and the chances of a successful outcome. Given these criteria, Western Hemisphere locations, especially if they are close to the United States, are most likely to elicit intervention, provided the country is small and headed by an arrogant, democracy-defying ruler, and provided the United States is ready and willing to commit sufficient resources to carry the intervention through to a successful conclusion.
Other important factors are the magnitude and viciousness of human rights violations, the effectiveness of mass media in depicting them to large audiences, the impact of unrest on American citizens in the country in question, and the likeli-hood that an exodus of refugees will seek asylum in the United States or allied nations. While absence of most of these conditions explains why the United States abstained from intervention in numerous major human rights tragedies in the post–Cold War era, U.S. policies have not been entirely consistent. The complex international and domestic environment that surrounds foreign policy decisions has always made it impossible to predict specific political actions with certainty.
A number of the interventions mentioned thus far are examples of cooperation between the United Nations and the United States. When interventions have been undertaken under UN auspices, the organization has repeatedly encouraged one nation to take charge of a collective intervention enterprise. For example, it entrusted the United States with major responsibilities for the conduct of UN interventions in the Persian Gulf War, in Somalia, and in Haiti. In such cases, the leading country is expected to take control of the operation and to foot most of its expenses. Other UN members contribute personnel and material resources.
The Gulf War of 1991 is the best example of the United States working effectively with the United Nations to implement a policy that seemed in its own as well as in the collective interest. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, destabilizing the balance of power in the Middle East and threatening the uninterrupted flow of oil, the UN Security Council condemned the aggression and imposed economic sanctions. When these measures failed to persuade Hussein to withdraw his troops, President George H. W. Bush threatened U.S. military intervention. The U.S. position was legitimized and strengthened by a Security Council resolution that authorized "all necessary means," including the use of military force, to get Saddam out of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm, which was launched in 1991 with full control by the U.S. military, thus became a UN operation supported by a coalition of twenty-seven nations. The drawback to the collaborative arrangement was that U.S. freedom of action in the military operations and the peace settlement that followed the brief span of hostilities was limited by political pressures to include coalition members in decision making and make concessions to their wishes.
Initially, the U.S. foreign policy establishment was bullish about the usefulness of interventions conducted within the UN framework. But the euphoria about collective action was short-lived. Disillusionment set in during subsequent crises in Somalia and Bosnia when disagreements between U.S. and UN policymakers hampered the United States in structuring and executing the missions. It was difficult, for example, to make threats of military intervention credible when the United States could not act without first securing UN approval.
Problems incurred in orchestrating interventions in the Balkans with the help of members of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) were blamed for delaying subsequent U.S. intervention until after massive killing and ethnic cleansing had already occurred. Similarly, the failure of the Somalia intervention allegedly scotched all plans for intervention in the Rwanda genocides, which were the next major humanitarian crisis in Africa. Observers of U.S. diplomacy therefore believe that Americans have little patience with policies, especially when they involve military force, when these policies do not produce quick successes. Failed policies become a barrier to future action in the same vein. Like most generalizations, this is only partly true. The slogan "No More Vietnams" after the failed Vietnam War presumably precluded future military interventions but only for a while.
Still, in light of these policies of self-restraint whenever obstacles occur, it seems unlikely that the United States will make ample use of its proclaimed duty to act as the world's chief law enforcement power. This is especially true because the experiences of the Bush and Clinton administrations with a number of interventions have made it clear that interventions carry high personnel costs. Airpower alone, even if massively deployed, will not generally displace violent governments or end brutal civil wars. But fighting on the ground risks large numbers of casualties. Such losses are both humanly and politically extraordinarily painful. Many members of Congress are very unwilling to become mired in interventions and resist them with all of the means at their disposal. Their opposition, often via claims that the 1973 War Powers Act has been violated, is a potent political deterrent to interventions, especially when they seem problematic for other reasons as well. High on the list of deterrents is the difficulty of coordinating multinational ventures that involve widely diverse nations and public-as well as private-sector organizations.
Opponents of policies involving military intervention often recommend economic sanctions as an alternative to constrain international troublemakers. Unfortunately, the occasions when such policies have worked are few. The breakdown of apartheid policies in South Africa is often cited as a most conspicuous success. However, even in that situation, it remains controversial what the precise influence of economic sanctions was, compared to other factors in the breakdown of apartheid. Unfortunately, failures of even prolonged sanctions are easier to demonstrate, such as the defiance of sanctions by Fidel Castro's Cuba and by the despotic rulers of Haiti, Panama, Somalia, and Bosnia, where interventions followed failed sanctions. Another galling example of the impotence of sanctions was the political survival and prospering of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the face of massive sanctions imposed by the international community and maintained for more than a decade.