The United States has a lot of strengths as a nation. It’s in a large, resource-rich and geographically advantageous location — isolated from potential threats by great oceans. Despite exorbitant education costs, it is still home to the vast majority of the world’s best higher-learning institutions. It has the oldest, and one of the most impressive, constitutions in the world. Thanks to these factors, and a host of others, the United States is a global superpower. However, the United States’ foreign policy, both historically and in the present day, has done nothing but undermine the United States’ tactical and economic strengths, hindering its ability to act as a world leader. U.S. foreign policy in the 20th and 21st centuries has hurt international development and growth, as well as the United States’ own standing in global geopolitics. Through an aversion to multilateral cooperation, the United States has disregarded alliances it could (and should) have utilized, irritating other nations and diminishing its own power. As China and other nations rapidly develop, it’s time for the U.S. to make a long-overdue foreign policy shift from an adversarial lone wolf to a cooperative coalition leader.
Perhaps nothing embodies the United States’ adverse relationship with multilateralism more than the League of Nations. In the wake of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson (correctly) theorized that a large organization promoting international cooperation was needed in order to maintain lasting global peace. With this in mind, Wilson introduced the idea of a “general association of nations,” an organization aimed at both resolving inter-state disputes diplomatically and preventing war through collective security. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson was able to convince nations around the world to join, and, on Nov. 1, 1920, 41 nations convened in Geneva for the League of Nations’ inaugural session.
There was only one problem: The United States was not one of the 41 nations present. Despite creating the League of Nations himself, Wilson was unable to convince a stubborn, isolationist U.S. Senate to agree to join. While the League of Nations was not designed to be particularly strong — for instance, it lacked armed forces with which to enforce its decrees — the United States’ decision not to join rendered the organization useless. Understanding how irrelevant and powerless the League of Nations was, Germany and Japan both withdrew in 1933, and six years later, Wilson’s worst fears were realized: Unable to cooperate, nations around the world had once again plunged into conflict alongside the rise of Adolf Hitler.
Following the Second World War, it seemed that the United States had finally begun to understand the benefits of multilateralism. The U.S. became a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949 and appeared willing to work with its Western European allies. However, less than 20 years after joining NATO, the U.S. began to (again) ignore the desires of its own allies, much to their chagrin. At the 1964 North Atlantic Council Meeting, the United States had attempted to convince its NATO allies to launch an offensive against Vietnamese communists. However, the U.S.’s European allies declined, criticizing the mission as an unwinnable war in an area they did not see as a major threat and as one that would only take resources away from defending their own borders. Undeterred by NATO’s resounding disapproval, the U.S. deployed troops to Vietnam in 1965, beginning a lengthy and fruitless U.S. military campaign. Harlan Cleveland, the U.S. representative for NATO, even admitted the U.S. viewed itself as above the alliance, saying the U.S.’s approach to working with NATO primarily consisted of “consent building notifications after the event.” Ultimately, the U.S. left Vietnam in 1975 after an unsuccessful and drawn-out campaign, which had done nothing but antagonize their own allies and destabilize the United States’ relationships.
Thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a mere 16 years after the Vietnam debacle had concluded, the United States became, indisputably, the most powerful nation in the world. Despite this golden opportunity to promote peace and prosperity around the globe, it only took the U.S. until 2003 to once again bewilder and enrage its own allies. In February of that year, Colin Powell, the U.S. Secretary of State, delivered a speech to the United Nations Security Council advocating for an invasion of Iraq, based on the false claim Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. With the exception of the United Kingdom, all U.S. allies staunchly disagreed with the invasion. In response to the U.S.’s plan, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said, “We think that military intervention would be the worst possible solution.” Germany agreed with France’s assessment, and French President Jacques Chirac said he and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder would do everything they could to prevent a conflict. Backed only by the U.K., the U.S. decided to invade Iraq anyway, resulting in a war that destabilized the region horribly, killed more than 650,000 people and found no weapons of mass destruction. Once again, the U.S. had gone against the wishes of its own allies, acting not like a global leader, but rather an overzealous war machine.
Even today, the consequences of the U.S.’s aversion towards collaboration have direct consequences on world affairs and hinder American effectiveness. For example, the U.S. recently sent aid to Venezuela to help the country’s deprived citizens during the nation’s period of mass unrest. Seizing on the U.S.’s history of politically motivated foreign aid missions in the Americas and politically charged tweets by President Donald Trump’s administration, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro justified blocking the aid, saying it was intended to prop up his opponent, Juan Guaidó. Whether or not the U.S. had genuinely been acting in good faith (which is highly debatable), Maduro had successfully used the United States’ past actions as an excuse to limit aid to his own people.
However, no current issue highlights the world’s desperate need for a cooperative U.S. more than climate change. In 2016, 195 nations around the world signed off on the Paris climate agreement, an agreement aimed at limiting (and eventually reducing) the emission of greenhouse gases. Crucially, the Paris agreement relies on the good faith of the member nations: It is up to each country to determine how they plan to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Unsurprisingly, different nations showed varying levels of intent — Nicaragua initially didn’t even ratify the agreement, arguing it didn’t go far enough. On the other end of the spectrum is the United States. Despite being the second biggest producer of carbon dioxide (and the biggest per capita producer), the United States withdrew from the Paris agreement in 2017, with Trump saying it would undermine the U.S. economy. With an opportunity to take the lead on a critical global issue, the United States decided to shirk responsibility, ignoring the destructive consequences of its actions.
Unfortunately for the U.S., rectifying their past missteps in foreign policy will be a difficult task that cannot be completed overnight. However, the U.S. can still begin by displaying a fundamental change in attitude. The U.S. may have a larger military than its allies, or a bigger economy, but neither of those factors justify continually strong-arming our allies, something the United States should acknowledge and apologize for. Going forward, the United States should rejoin the Paris climate agreement and UNESCO and stop constantly antagonizing its own allies. An overhaul of U.S. foreign relations doesn’t necessarily need to involve introducing new large-scale international treaties, but rather simply working with the nations the U.S. claims to already be allied with and fulfilling its responsibilities on global issues such as climate change. Ultimately, the U.S. has not thrived because of an aggressive, individualistic foreign policy, but rather in spite of it.
While the Trump administration will surely not be the one that fixes this, that doesn’t mean the situation is a lost cause. Hopefully, the United States’ future leaders will work collaboratively with leaders around the globe to form coalitions aimed at promoting peace and prosperity, understanding the things that benefit both the United States and the world as a whole.
Zack Blumberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.