An actual handwritten letter, stamped and delivered by the Postal Service, landed in my mailbox recently. That was startling enough, but the content was even more arresting. A reader posed a provocative question.
“Based on your long and wide-ranging experience,” he wrote, “are you able to say whether or not, in your adult lifetime, the government of the United States has ever undertaken a single decent, honorable, or well-intentioned action outside our borders?”
It’s an interesting challenge. Few impartial observers would agree with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s assertion that “every place we go, America is a force for good.” You might think precisely the opposite if you’re an Iranian unable to buy food or medicine because of American sanctions; if you’re a Syrian trying to survive a civil war that was fueled in part by United States; if you live under a repressive regime that enjoys American support, like those in Saudi Arabia and Honduras; or if you’re a Yemeni hoping that a US-made missile won’t blow up your home tonight. Yet even leaving hyperbole behind, the United States can point with justified pride to some of what it has done in the world over the last few generations.
Let’s start with President John F. Kennedy’s establishment of the Peace Corps in 1961. Sure, it was a white-man’s-burden Cold War project designed in part to counter Soviet influence in developing countries. But it also channeled the idealism of young Americans into a genuine and substantial effort to help poor people far away.
In 1977 President Jimmy Carter named America’s first assistant secretary of state for human rights and began taking human rights into consideration when shaping foreign policy. At some points since then, human rights concerns have been hypocritically used to justify all manner of aggression. Bringing those concerns into “the room where it happens,” however, was an important step that saved lives in places as far-flung as Argentina and the Philippines.
A generation later, President Bill Clinton sent a talented emissary, former Senator George Mitchell, to help negotiate an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. In 1998, after three years of painstaking work, Mitchell led Protestants and Catholics to an accord that turned a bloody conflict into a peaceful political competition.
In 2003 Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Since then, PEPFAR has expanded from 15 countries to more than 50 and from an initial commitment of $15 billion to a total of $80 billion. It has saved millions of lives and remains one of the most successful humanitarian projects in modern history.
President Barack Obama eased sanctions on Cuba, leading to a remarkable revival of small-scale capitalism there, and capped off his triumph with a historic visit to Havana. Then he reached an accord with Iran that promised sanctions relief in exchange for verified commitments that Iran would never build nuclear weapons. Both of those initiatives were trashed after Obama left office, but they stand as examples of America’s ability to pursue reconciliation with countries we long considered enemies.
Sometimes the United States wages peace not by acting but by declining to act. After the US Marine barracks in Lebanon was bombed in 1983, leaving more than 200 dead, President Ronald Reagan responded with ritual vows of revenge. Soon afterward, though, he realized that chasing down the attackers would involve American troops in a possibly endless civil war, so he changed course and withdrew them instead. President George H.W. Bush also allowed reason to outweigh emotion when he expressed outrage at China’s suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest but nonetheless continued to nourish the budding relationship between Washington and Beijing.
These praiseworthy steps showed the United States as we want to believe it is: a force for global stability and peace. Lamentably, they do not wipe away the other side of the ledger. Kennedy ordered the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and began military escalation in Vietnam. Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by leading the United States into a quagmire there from which we have still not emerged. Reagan unleashed the dogs of war in Central America, invaded Grenada, and embraced murderous dictators. Clinton pushed nuclear-armed NATO forces onto Russia’s doorstep and plunged into civil war in Somalia, culminating in the ill-conceived “Black Hawk Down” mission that cost the lives of 19 servicemen. George H.W. Bush invaded Panama and opened US military bases in Saudi Arabia — a decision that Osama bin Laden later cited as the reason he ordered attacks on the United States. Bush’s son responded to those attacks by invading Iraq and declaring a “global war on terror” that has since cost $6.4 trillion, led to over a million deaths, and forced an estimated 37 million people to flee their homes. Obama bombed seven countries, launched more than 500 drone attacks in which nearly 4,000 people were killed, and helped lead the fire-and-fury campaign that plunged once-prosperous Libya into chaos and misery.
The United States has brought much good to the world. It has also wreaked much havoc. Which outweighs the other? It is a question for each of us to answer according to our own scale of values. Whichever path future presidents choose, they have plenty of history on their side.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.