Maxwell Counihan is an undergraduate student studying International Relations with a focus on Foreign Policy & National Security at the American University School of International Service. He is part of the Model United Nations team and serves as the executive director of the American University International Relations Society.
The United States has long been the biggest promoter of democracy on the international stage, from both JFK and Reagan proclaiming America to be the “shining city on a hill,” to fighting wars devoted to combatting fascism and communism. We have toppled dictatorships, both openly and by funneling arms and aid to rebels, such as in 1986 Iran-Contra Affair. World War II was fought against imperialist Japan and the fascist Third Reich, the Vietnam War against communist dictator Ho Chi Minh, the Korean War against the totalitarian Kim Il Sung, and the Iraq War against dictator Saddam Hussein. Hardly a single wartime enemy of the US has been democratic, while US politicians continue today to spout democratic ideals, promoting equality and liberty wherever they may travel, especially to conflict zones around the world.
Sensing a trend? It’s obvious that America sort of loves its democracy. That’s sarcasm- Americans, especially our elected representatives, love our democracy, and our country (#Merica!).
The Founding Fathers of the United States founded the United States on principles of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” a common saying today, originally inscribed in the Declaration of Independence. An emerging large proponent of democracy, the democratic leaders of the US had fought the British to gain independence and would in the future fight to preserve their way of life and defend their allies. A long history of fighting for democratic principles has become coupled with a shorter history of providing aid to our allies, both to help them out in times of economic or physical distress, or to underlyingly promote our own democratic principles in the process. This aid can take the form of monetary funds to be put toward infrastructure programs or military equipment, or humanitarian aid, often in times of physical distress, such as after the 2011 Japanese tsunami. Being traditionally viewed as an economic powerhouse, America has been able to rather easily afford this, with $15,684.80 billion in GDP, representing just over 25% of the world’s economy, according to the World Bank Group.
However, in the wake of the security disaster of the 9/11 terror attacks, many are beginning to question true intentions of American foreign aid. On 9.11.2001, America’s identity on the world stage, and arguably more importance, their security, was put into question. It is evident that the United States has used others as proxy states, in massive networks of alliances, as exemplified by the G8, G20, NATO, and others. Does the United States provide international aid to other nations in hopes of preserving and promoting democracy, or retaining our own security? Ever since 9.11, the US has upgraded domestic security policies (going so far as to implement the Patriot Act), as well as turning to its allies abroad both for help in fighting the War on Terror and preserving American security, while thousands of our sons and daughters are facing danger abroad.
Contrary to the traditional promotion of democracy by the US throughout the world, today the US can be observed coercing its allies into helping them preserve American security interests abroad through the provision of foreign aid. In retaining the right to supplement or retract aid whenever desired, the US keeps the power and keeps the image that they are only providing aid for the good of the beneficiary and the promotion of democracy. An apt example of this occurred when US Secretary of State Kerry withdrew all military aid to Egypt directly after the coup d’état against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in November 2013. The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Mendez, stated, “assistance however, is not a blank check…”
Assistance is not a blank check? This makes it evident that when the US helps out its allies today, something is expected in return. And this isn’t the first time this pattern has emerged. Upon the commencement of the Marshall Plan, the nearly $13 billion aid package given to war-torn England after WWII, the US demanded free trade be spread throughout the affected region (the majority of Europe). When we give something, we expect benefits in return. By providing economic support for victims of wartime devastation after WWII, we wanted long term financial trading partners to which we would have easy access to trading with. While we love the idea of our democracy, the American government uses taxpayer money to enforce our own security interests through foreign aid to our allies abroad, rather than promote democratic ideals being the main reason. Is this a bad thing? Not my call to make, but remember what your government really means when it keeps spouting speeches about its democratic ideals.
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