Foreign policy shouldn’t forget the important role of economic development.
The people, in their millennial and revolutionary march toward manifesting here on earth the dignity that is in every human soul, hold as their credo the Four Freedoms enunciated by President Roosevelt in his message to Congress on January 6, 1941. These Four Freedoms are the very core of the revolution for which the United Nations have taken their stand. We who live in the United States may think there is nothing very revolutionary about freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom from the fear of secret police. But when we begin to think about the significance of freedom from want for the average man, then we know that the revolution of the past 150 years has not been completed, either here in the United States or in any other nation in the world. We know that this revolution cannot stop until freedom from want has actually been attained.
…Some have spoken of the “American Century:” I say that the century on which we are entering—the century which will come out of this war—can be and must be the century of the common man. – Henry A. Wallace, 1942
In his recent address to the American Legion, and in numerous other pronouncements he has made about U.S. foreign policy, Mitt Romney has called for the establishment of “an American Century.” In such a century, he argues, America must have “the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world” in part because “without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties.”
The notion of the establishment of an “American Century” is not new. Such sentiments have been around since the establishment of the Republic, but the phrase itself gained common currency during World War II when Henry Luce, the founder, publisher, and editor of Time, Life, and Fortune Magazine, published a widely read and somewhat controversial article under the same title in February 1941.
To Luce, the American century meant “a sharing with all people” the U.S. Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. He also insisted that the U.S. must share “our magnificent industrial products [and] technical skills.” He had little doubt that the world would accept American leadership because, unlike 19th century England and other imperialist powers, American prestige was based on the world community’s faith in “the good intentions” and “ultimate strength and intelligence of the American people.”
It is important to remember that Luce’s call for the establishment of an “American Century” was inspired in part by his backing of FDR’s call for greater U.S. support for the British struggle against the Nazis, especially through the establishment of the program known as Lend-Lease, which was passed by Congress a few weeks after his article was published. It is also important to remember that in doing so, Luce had joined FDR and other internationalists in trying to kill off American isolationism (or what perhaps may be more accurately defined as a policy of non-intervention) once and for all.
Viewed in this light, Luce’s call for the establishment of an American Century renders his but one voice in a growing chorus calling for greater U.S. participation—and leadership—in the mid-20th century struggle against the twin evils of fascism in Europe and militarism in Asia. But Luce’s emphasis on the promotion of “an American Century,” with its implicit suggestion that the United States should impose its values on the world, made some of his contemporaries uncomfortable, and to a certain extent distinguished his vision of American leadership from those of FDR and other key members of the Roosevelt administration.
In sharp contrast to Luce, for example, FDR’s vice president, Henry A. Wallace, in what is widely regarded as one of the most important speeches to come out of the war, called not for the establishment of an American century, but rather for the establishment of “the century of the common man.” His was a century where “no nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations,” where “older nations will have the privilege to help younger nations get started on the path to industrialization,” and where there “must be neither military nor economic imperialism.”
Wallace also insisted that “when the time of peace comes, the citizen will again have a duty, the supreme duty of sacrificing the lesser interest for the greater interest of the general welfare.” For, like FDR, Wallace firmly believed that above all else the Second World War was caused in large part by the global economic crisis that brought on the Great Depression and the concomitant rise of fascism. It is for this reason that both he and President Roosevelt placed such a great emphasis on the need to rid the world of poverty and despair. Viewed from this perspective, FDR’s call for “freedom from want” and Wallace’s call for “the century of the common man” take on a much greater meaning and weight than Luce’s call for the establishment of the “American Century.” To promote American values and institutions was not enough. To truly make the United States secure—even at a time when the United States possessed unparalleled military power—the American people and government would have to concern themselves with the basic health and well-being of all peoples, “everywhere in the world.”
Unfortunately, since the onset of the “War on Terror,” U.S. foreign policy has largely turned away from this emphasis on humanitarian assistance and instead become increasingly militarized. As a result, we have de-emphasized the role of international development and adherence to the rule of law in our foreign policy and in the process have placed an enormous burden on America’s armed forces, who are now expected to not only engage in combat, but also to engage in nation-building—a task traditionally carried out under the auspices of the State Department.
Moreover, thanks to our relentless drive toward what historian Andrew Bacevich has called our “mindless pursuit of military supremacy,” we have neglected developing a more nuanced and sophisticated approach to the international challenges America faces in the world today. This emphasis on the pursuit of military—as opposed to “soft “—power has in many respects reduced our influence on world events and ironically rendered the United States something of a bystander in the drive for human rights and democracy in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.
This is unfortunate, for after 10 years of engagement in the “war on terror,” strong evidence has emerged showing that one of the root causes of contemporary terrorism remains economic deprivation. Equally important, the same empirical data suggests that the widespread use of military force as the primary instrument in the American struggle against terrorism has given the most at-risk populations a greater motivation toward terrorist acts—the same economically deprived populations that would benefit substantially from an increase in U.S. foreign aid.
Yet the use of foreign aid in the execution of American foreign policy is rarely mentioned by either political party (one suspects because of the widespread misconception that approximately 25 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, when the actual figure is less than 1 percent). Instead, we hear endless calls for the maintenance and expansion of American military power, based on the idea that “when America is strong,” as Mr. Romney says, “the world is safer.”
Both Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace would surely agree with this statement. But they also understood that the development of military power and the promotion of freedom abroad are not enough to render the United State secure. As FDR observed in his Second Bill of Rights speech, the long years of depression and war brought us to “a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Surely the same thing could be said today about the social and economic conditions that have helped give rise to the religious and political extremism that stands at the root of our struggle against terrorism. If this indeed is the case, should we not be placing a greater emphasis on the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of education, and the need to foster economic self-reliance in the execution of U.S. foreign policy? Instead of promoting an “American Century,” wouldn’t it be better to promote the “century of the common man”?
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.