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1.1  From Isolationism to Regionalism & Imperialism

Manifest Destiny & Mahanism

1 December 2016

To be sure, the free world has benefited tremendously from America’s international leadership during the decades following the Second World War. In the face of encroaching communism, the security umbrella provided by the US played an important counterbalancing role that contributed to global geopolitical stability. At the same time, the US-led post-WWII world order also helped to create a transparent and relatively predictable rule-based environment that allowed capitalism to thrive as countries develop economically.

US, however, did not embrace internationalism right from the start.

From Isolationism to Regionalism

In fact, at the early stage of its nation building since its declaration of independence in 1776, US foreign policy was decidedly inward-looking and isolationist. The overriding objective of the government then was to promote capitalism to ensure that dearly won political independence would not be lost because of its economic overdependence on the powers of Europe. Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and Treasury Secretary of the first US President George Washington, argued the US could not become fully independent until it was self-sufficient in all necessary economic products.[1] A strong central government was thus needed to promote science, invention, industry and commerce in order to make the economy of the US strong enough for Americans to determine their own destiny.


Efforts were made, in particular, to stay away from alliances with the European powers. Alliances were forged by the early Founding Fathers not to protect a concept of international order but simply to serve American national interests. During the war for independence from Britain, for example, an alliance with France was enlisted. When the war was over, the US backed away from the alliance just as the French Revolution erupted and France embarked on a European crusade in which the United States had no direct interest.


President George Washington first warned about alliance building in his 1796 farewell address delivered in the midst of the French revolutionary wars. His sentiment was shared by his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who then went on to become the third president. As a fledgling power safe behind oceans, Washington and Jefferson held that the US did not have the need or the resources to embroil itself in continental controversies over the balance of power. They worried that involvement in alliances would lead to costly wars that would not only increase the burden on citizens but also legitimize the influence of powerful interests, such as banking, on US foreign policy.[2] Hence, as long as the Europe maintained its balance of power, it was thought that America’s national interests were better served by a strategy of preserving its freedom of manoeuvre and consolidating at home.


By the turn of the century, to help to expand the national economy, the Founding Fathers began to move towards regionalism focusing on extending the US frontier guided by a policy of continental expansion known as Manifest Destiny. The policy basically argued that it was America’s right of manifest destiny to spread over the whole continent and bring with them their way of life and the principles of democratic government. It was believed that the inherent superiority of American values would be gladly adopted by those with whom they came into contact. During this expansion phase, the Americans forcibly took over land from the Native Americans and acquired colonial land from European imperial powers while also annexing the territories belonging to its continental neighbours particularly, Mexico. In 1803, for example, US doubled its size by purchasing Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803. This was followed by acquisition of Florida from Spain in 1819 and Alaska from Russia in 1867 as well as the annexation of Texas in 1845.


The early 19th century also saw the birth of the Monroe Doctrine. Spain’s Latin American colonies were then struggling for their independence and several broke free. When a group of European monarchs conspired to take over these Spain’s former colonies, President James Monroe announced in December 1823 that America would not tolerate further attempts by European powers to colonize in the New World. They could keep what they already had but everything else was off limits. The hands-off warning, subsequently named as a doctrine after Monroe, constitutes one of the major turning points of American foreign policy. Generations of American presidents after him invoked it when putting forward foreign policies designed to keep “foreign” influences out of the Western Hemisphere.[3]


The first half of 19th century is thus often regarded as a “regional era” with the US seeking to establish itself as a leader in the Western Hemisphere. There are differing views as to whether America, at this stage, was an isolationist timid with respect to foreign entanglements, a pragmatic nation recognizing its limitations, or a regional bully engaging in local expansionist policies. The common line running through those different views is that US still eschewed internationalism.[4]


In particular, the American leaders shunned the European-styled statecraft of shifting alliances, which they perceived as a perverse departure from common sense. They hence remained wary of the Old World’s system of foreign policy and international order. At the same time, they also showed scant interests in colonizing faraway territories while relating to other countries on the basis of mutual interests and fair dealing. John Quincy Adams, the sixth US President (served 1825 – 1829), summed up these sentiments in a speech in 1821:


America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity. … She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own. She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.[5] 


Moreover, because America sought “not dominion, but liberty,” Adams argued that it should avoid involvement in all the contests of the European world:


[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.[6]


As late as 1885, President Grover Cleveland, in his first presidential inaugural speech, described American foreign policy in terms of detached neutrality.[7] By the second half of the 19th century, US’ disdain for overseas forays allowed it to become a great power and a nation of continental scope through the sheer accumulation of domestic power, with a foreign policy focused almost entirely on the keeping foreign developments as far at bay as possible.[8]


Mahanism & the 1898 Spanish-American War


It was only near the end of 19th century that, with the completion of its continental expansion, calls for a “vigorous foreign policy” began to surface as Americans looked increasingly outside for new economic opportunities and markets. Expansion in this phase was inspired and guided especially by the works of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a lecturer in naval history and the president of the United States Naval War College, and Frederick Jackson Turner, an American history professor.


In 1890, Mahan published “The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783” in which he argued that British control of the seas, combined with a corresponding decline in the naval strength of its major European rivals, paved the way for Great Britain’s emergence as the world’s dominant military, political, and economic power. Mahan thus advocated that for the US to become a great power, it needed to dominate the seas.


Mahan’s insight was followed in 1893 by the work of Turner whose seminal paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” pointed out that westward migration across the North American continent and the country’s population growth had finally led to the “closing” of the American frontier. Turner’s observations were shared by Mahan who believed that the US economy would soon be unable to absorb the massive amounts of industrial and commercial goods being produced domestically. In order for the US to gain access to new international markets, Mahan further postulated that three things were required: a merchant navy to carry American products to new markets; an American battleship navy to deter or destroy rival fleets; and a network of naval bases to provide logistical support for the enlarged navy.


The works of Turner and Mahan, arguing for the “why” and the “how” of US expansion overseas, resonated with many leading intellectuals and politicians concerned by the political and economic challenges of the period and the declining economic opportunity on the American continent. America was by now a major power and no longer a fledgling republic on the fringes of world affairs. American leaders no longer saw the need for limiting their policy to neutrality and they felt obliged to translate the nation’s long-proclaimed universal moral relevance into a broader geopolitical role. Barely a decade after President Grover Cleveland’s speech of detached neutrality, the tone “had become more insistent" with Secretary of State Richard Olney proclaiming in 1895: “Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent, and its fiat is law.” America’s “infinite resources combined with its isolated position render it master of the situation and practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers.”[9]


It did not take long before US saw Mahanism in action. In April 1898, the Spanish-American War that marked the rise of the US as a global power erupted. Spain was in decline by then. Its grasp on its empire was increasingly tenuous amid rising revolts among its colonies. In contrast, the US had consolidated its hold of the American continent and was on the verge of expanding its influence beyond the western hemisphere. In the end, the tensions between the waning incumbent power, Spain, and the rising power, the US, led inevitably to war.[10] The conflict was therefore a classic example of the “Thucydides Trap”, so named because of the writings of Thucydides (400 BC) on the history of the Peloponnesian War in which he detailed the struggle for international dominance between Athens and Sparta. Central to his thesis was the argument that war was inevitable due to Athen’s rising power and the fear it produced in Sparta.


US’ New Manifest Destiny & Imperialism


The spark that ignited the 1898 Spanish-American War was a revolt by subjects in Cuba against their Spanish colonial master. The US was reluctant to see an anti-imperial rebellion crushed on America’s doorstep.  It was also motivated by the conviction that the time had come for the US to demonstrate its ability and will to act as a great power. When the battleship USS Maine exploded in Havana harbour in 1898 under unexplained circumstances, widespread popular demand for military intervention led President McKinley to declare war on Spain.


By the time the five-month conflict ended, US had had ejected the Spanish Empire from the Caribbean and annexed Spain’s former colonies Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. It also occupied Cuba until 1903 and retained a say in Cuban affairs after Washington granted it independence. Naval bases were set up in these newly acquired territories as advocated by Mahan.[11]


President McKinley presented the war as a uniquely unselfish mission: “The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.”[12] But the country’s increased overseas forays sparked domestic debate about the morality of American imperialism referred to by some as the “New Manifest Destiny”. The debate revealed the ongoing American conviction of racial superiority built on the new intellectual foundation of Charles Darwin’s theory on the survival of the fittest presented in his 1859 book entitled “On the Origin of Species”.


Theodore Roosevelt & His Redefinition of America’s International Role


This Darwinian rule-of-the-jungle concept was ardently embraced by Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901 - 1909), who assumed the presidency in 1901 when McKinley was assassinated. In his correspondence with British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice, Roosevelt wrote:


It is … a melancholy fact that the countries which are most humanitarian, which are most interested in internal improvement, tend to grow weaker compared with the other countries which possess a less altruistic civilization … I abhor and despise that pseudo-humanitarianism which treats advance of civilization as necessarily and rightfully implying a weakening of the fighting spirit and which therefore invites destruction of the advanced civilization by some less-advanced type.[13]


Roosevelt shared his compatriots’ assessment of America’s special character that, as a great nation, the US had the divinely ordained obligation to spread of principles of liberty. He also believed that humane values would be best preserved by the geopolitical success of liberal countries in pursuing their interests and maintaining the credibility of their threats. Where they prevailed in the strife of international competition, civilization would spread and be strengthened.[14]


Unlike his isolationist predecessors, however, Roosevelt adopted a generally skeptical view of abstract invocations of international goodwill. Asserting that “our words must be judged by our deeds,”[15] he avowed that America could do more harm to make grand pronouncements of principle if it was not in a position to enforce them against determined opposition. He was convinced that to fulfill its calling, the US needed not just moral principles but also the propensity to use power to influence the course of events. Roosevelt thus advocated not only building a large navy composed of a full proportion of powerful battleships able to meet those of any other nation but also, more importantly, demonstrating a willingness to use it.


Roosevelt was thus the first president to derive the systematic implications of America’s world role amidst its growing power. He saw the need of American foreign policy to balance global power discreetly and resolutely, tilting events in the direction of the national interest. As the only country without threatening regional competitors, Roosevelt envisioned US as both an Atlantic and a Pacific power capable of intervening to preserve an equilibrium of forces in every other strategic region, hence making US the decisive guardian of the global balance and international peace.


During the Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904–5, Roosevelt marked the beginning of an American role in managing the Asia-Pacific equilibrium by mediating between the two superpowers. His mediation, which culminated in The Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first American to be so honoured.


Roosevelt initially welcomed Japan’s victories over Russia because of the latter’s eastward advance into Manchuria and Korea which he perceived as harmful to American interests. But he was soon worried by the potential threat posed by an expansionist Japanese Empire. To maintain a balance of power in the Pacific, the treaty limited Japanese expansion while prevented a Russian collapse so that the two countries would have a moderative action on each other. At the same time, to remind Japan of the US’ overwhelming naval power, Roosevelt also dispatched sixteen battleships on a practice cruise around the world. The peace mission was intended to be a show of force to warn the aggressive faction in Japan that any military actions would be met with force from the US.


Likewise, in the Atlantic, Roosevelt was also becoming increasingly apprehensive with Germany’s rising power and ambitions. Backed by a large naval building program, Germany was set to overwhelm countervailing force from Britain, thus upsetting the latter’s command of the sea and reducing its ability to maintain the European equilibrium.


Unfortunately, Roosevelt missed the opportunity to influence events in the Atlantic and to chart America’s course of actions in the impending Great War when he lost the 1912 election for a third term to Woodrow Wilson, an academic turned politician.

NEXT: 1.2 The Two World Wars & Cold War (Heartland Theory & Rimland Theory)



[1] See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 220

[2] See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). pp 285

[3] See Hastedt, Glenn. (2004). “Monroe Doctrine” pp 333; May, Ernest. (1975); Smith, Gaddis. (1994).

[4] See Mead, W. R. (2001); Akis Kalaitzidis & Gregory W. Streich (2011).

[5] See John Quincy Adams, “An Address Delivered at the Request of the Committee of Citizens of Washington, 4 July 1821” (Washington, D.C.: Davis and Force, 1821), 28–29.

[6] Ibid

[7] See Grover Cleveland, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1885, in The Public Papers of Grover Cleveland (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 8.

[8] See Kissinger. (2014). Pg 142.

[9] See Thomas G. Paterson, J. Garry Clifford, and Kenneth J. Hagan, American Foreign Policy: A History (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1977), 189. Quoted in Kissinger. (2014). Pg. 145.

[10] See Kyle Mizokami. (2017).

[11] See “Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History: Securing International Markets in the 1890s.” Office of the Historian.

[12] See Kissinger. (2014). Pg 146.

[13] See Roosevelt to Spring Rice, December 21, 1907, in The Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt, ed. H. W. Brands (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 465.

[14] See James R. Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt and World Order: Police Power in International Relations (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2007), 10–13, 68–74. Quoted in Kissinger. (2014). Pg. 149.

[15] See Theodore Roosevelt, “International Peace,” Nobel lecture, May 5, 1910, in Peace: 1901–1925: Nobel Lectures (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 1999), 106. Quoted in Kissinger (2014). Pg, 150.

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