The American Burden: Police the World or Keep Our Own House in Order
With the assassination that started World War I being a hundred years old now, it is easy to see how almost all of our current geo-political problems seem to stem from the fallout of both World Wars, although WW II would have never happened if not for WW I. Still, a close reading of the history shows that during this time it was the British, who had been the dominant global power for centuries, took the lead on many of these issues, such as carving up the Middle East into countries with no regard for the tribal lives of its inhabitants.
This can lead many Americans, especially those with short memories, to ask: Why then does it always fall on us to fix the world’s problems? A quick look at American politics and government today reveals that with our own house in such disarray, how we could even presume to stick our nose into the world’s business.
In 1946, Winston Churchill spoke at Westminster College, in Fulton Missouri not Cambridge, giving the speech that kicked off the Cold War. While the Fulton speech is most famous for its talk of the “Iron Curtain” descending on half of Europe, it is more lastingly remarkable because of the larger implication in Churchill’s statement, “the United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power.”
The U.S. was tasked with bearing the full weight of the (now much-reviled) thought of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden.” If we detach the racism and sexism in the phrase from the sentiment behind it – as such, the “burden” of those in power to care for, educate, and ultimately better the lives of those without power – this codifies the U.S. position then and now.
During the Cold War, the tunnel vision of United States foreign policy lead to toppled governments and dictators that oppressed their own people, because it was more important to the U.S. to have allies against Communism than stable governments across the world. This shortsightedness created theocratic Iran and how, ostensibly, our war in Afghanistan was a war against ourselves 40 years ago. Perhaps we failed in the task Churchill gave us or perhaps success was simply never possible.
However, there is no other power for us to pass the torch to, like Churchill did with us when we were drunk on our victory in WW II. While possibly tough for many to accept, this may be a good thing. The reason that Kipling poem needs so many caveats, because despite its accuracy in depiction the balance of power at the time, it is steeped in the kind of racial (and later economic/military) superiority that creates more problems than it ever solves.
Photo by Abbie Rowe, via Wikimedia Commons
*Which was written specifically to the United States imploring them to annex the Philippines, but has since come to symbolize the Imperialist attitudes of the 19th and 20th Centuries.