*Last week I summarized some of the military actions in American history. In most cases that have become part of the American story this country can claim the moral high ground; that is, we were forced into war or a war-like situation. I argue that since this trope has taken hold in our country it is assumed that any military action the country undertakes is automatically morally justified.
There are two important consequences of our country having gained the benefit of the doubt with regards to the moral high ground in military matters . First is that this benefit extends to all aspects of foreign policy. Second is that this benefit seems to be never-ending.
When the United Nations was created after World War II the security council was established with five permanent members. One of those permanent seats was/is held by the United States. The result is that the United States has a perpetual voice in deciding when the world gangs up on a country. In other words the United States is presumed to have the moral high ground when building coalitions. Also the United States gets a pass on any influence it exerts on the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. Essentially the United States is presumed to have the moral high ground when suggesting which countries are good candidates for economic growth.
Having the benefit of the doubt in both of these situations translates into the United States being above reproach by most countries in the world but especially developing countries because to criticize the United States is to jeopardize their national security and possibly their financial network. More generally this perpetual assumption of American impartiality unrealistically ignores the fact that the United States has self-interest.
As I touched on last week, not all military actions in which American forces has been involved in since the end of World War II have been cases in which we were clearly forced to fight. This is directly a result of American self-interest being mistakenly understood as public interest in the international arena. The reality of the Vietnam War in which we incorrectly assumed that China was directing the north Vietnamese actions, erroneously applied the domino theory, and ultimately got involved in a doomed guerilla war with native Vietnamese, all combine to show that the United States was not operating from the moral high ground. Nevertheless the international community and the American public (for the most part) continue to assume pure motives on the part of the United States decision makers.
Of course all of this is ultimately acceptable because the United States is the country in western civilization that re-introduced democracy and the United States, even if not from the moral high ground, only pursues altruistic goals. The problem with this is that such a concentration of power may seem innocent while it is being used for goals that we agree with; but that same power can be re-directed.
Ironically many American conservatives who complain about the size of the federal government and the increasing amount of control the government has in the domestic arena, are also very happy to see the size and role of our government grow immensely in the international arena.
To go back to the consequence from part 1 of this series, when you combine the blank check that the American people are giving our government because of the assumed moral high ground with the blank check of the international community, the outcome is American tentacles all over the world. Which unnecessarily strains our resources and puts us in a position to be attacked.
It’s nice to have the moral high ground. But we do not have a monopoly on it. And not having it can help us understand which decisions might not be the wisest, and consequently what policies might need to change.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.