Democracies, Human Rights, and Collective Action

| March 12, 2009
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In 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt founded an American civic organization called Freedom House to support the engagement of the United States in the monumental struggle for the survival of free nations against the oppressive forces of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan. Summoning fellow citizens to such a role was extraordinary. The United States was still familiar with John Quincy Adams’s warning that we should not “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

These two expansionist and authoritarian powers threatened the future of the world community. Yet, as a continental power separated by two oceans from the intrigues of Europe and Asia, the United States had long insisted on stout isolationism. Even after we were saved by the intervention of the French fleet in the American Revolution, we supposed that our safest course was to avoid the power politics of Europe and declared that we preferred to be left alone. We sidestepped the continental wars between Britain and France, and avoided the fight against Napoleon by the Holy Alliance, entering into conflict with the British only after blockades and the seizure of U.S. ships stymied our global commerce. American democrats in the early nineteenth century may have rooted for revolutionaries—Henry Clay was called “Harry of the West,” and likened to Simon Bolivar and to Byron resisting the Ottomans in Greece—but as a matter of official policy the United States was hors de combat.

This inward gaze changed some during the American Civil War, when both sides worried that Britain and France might enter the mortal conflict. Liverpool merchants abhorred slavery, but were hungry for cotton. But U.S. involvement in the struggles of great powers did not really begin until the First World War, when we chose to reinforce the exhausted troops of France and Britain in the deadlock of trench warfare against the Kaiser. Nonetheless, with the war’s close, American attention again turned inward. The security mechanisms of the new League of Nations seemed entangling to a skeptical Senate, and the American military was diminished to a size that could not begin to intimidate any rising powers in Asia or Europe. Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of the Fourteen Points still resonated, but this was a hope, not a policy, and we did not think hard about the potential misuse of a right of self-determination as a goad to violent nationalism. Not even the rise of Hitler and the diabolical acts of the Nazi regime against German Jews in the 1930s persuaded the United States to part with its isolationist views. It was only after the surprise attack by Japan that the United States was brought to act as an open ally of the beleaguered states of Europe and Asia.1

This background of hesitation makes America’s role after the Second World War appear all the more extraordinary. The attempt to reconstruct an international system of trade, finance, and political collaboration, and to transform the cultures of Germany and Japan, was not a task Americans were accustomed to. But the change in America’s posture was crucial to the evolution of the postwar world, where a policy of generosity toward enemies proved far more effective in winning the peace than any punishment or reparation. So, too, the willingness to counter the outward thrust of Russian Communism was informed by the lesson taken from our slumber during Fascism’s rise. The United States was willing to accept that a two-ocean continental power had unique advantages in policing the commons, for the restoration of peace and commerce, and the protection of democratic freedoms.

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Category: Issue 23.1, Roundtable: Can Democracies Go It Alone?

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