Fareed Zakaria, “The Myth of America’s ‘Free Security’ (Reconsiderations),” World Policy Journal, Vol. 14, no. 2 (Summer 1997)
In fact, American foreign policy has always been driven, in the first place, by an awareness of American strength and the search for greater influence over the international environment. What changed at the turn of the century was not American intentions but American capabilities. Liberal realists have always been uncomfortable with the sheer magnitude of American power because it brings with it aspirations to worldwide influence and the abandonment of the need for restraints. We see it today; the United Sates may or may not be pursuing a wise foreign policy in various parts of the world. The dominant reality, however, is that it has a large margin of error. Many wish it were more constrained.
By the 1890s, the United States had grown so strong and had so many resources at its disposal that its behavior came to resemble that of other great powers. It enlarged its military and diplomatic apparatus; it annexed territories; it sought basing rights; it participated in great power conferences. It sought influence beyond limited security aims because it was strong enough to do so.
This shift in behavior did not represent a qualitative change in the tradition of American expansion. American statesmen had led the spread of the country across the continent – the Louisiana Purchase, Texas, California, the Oregon Territory, Alaska. Throughout the nineteenth century, they had their eyes on Cuba and Mexico to the south and Canada to the north. Theodore Roosevelt’s one-line interpretation of American foreign policy is closer to the truth than the volumes of liberal realist writings: “Our history has been one of expansion…. This expansion is not a matter of regret, but of pride.”
This article is adapted from a paper presented at a conference, “American Mythologies,” sponsored by Bard College, November 2-3, 1996. A revised version will appear in the author’s forthcoming book, Strong Nation, Weak State: The Rise of America to World
- Boston: Little Brown, 1943, pp. 3, 30, 49.
- Historians often use the word “expansionist” to mean imperialist. I use it in a more commonsense way to mean an activist foreign policy. Thus the Soviet Union could be termed expansionist in the 1970s even though it did not annex parts of Africa and Asia.