Sunday, February 22, 2009

On the Course Towards Becoming a World Power

In the course of history, becoming a world power has often been associated with some form of territorial expansion since in the past holding a significant part of global power and being able to influence the course of world affairs was generally associated with having an extensive sphere of influence. A large sphere of influence generally manifested itself in large territorial holdings or claims, often also referred to as colonies. While this may no longer hold true in today’s globalized world, it certainly influenced the ideology of nineteenth century imperialism.

The most successful in implementing this strategy was Great Britain, who had an empire so large that “the sun never set” on it. British territorial expansion in far away parts of the world sparked a general wave of imperialism among other European nations as well as the United States. Having been a country that focused inward rather than outward, the United States now looked abroad, particularly in the Western hemisphere. The desire to limit British global influence, as well as the desire to guard national security by preventing other powers to establish spheres of influence too close to the United States, coincided with “the end of the frontier,” a development that created a further drive for American imperialism. Firmly rooted in the belief that the frontier had been essential to the realization of the American dream of a self-made man, many people feared that the end to the availability of new territory endangered American economic growth and democracy. Adherents of this theory therefore openly advocated and welcomed American expansion into the Latin American hemisphere, where they believed America could find new frontiers.

The American imperialist push into Latin America began in the 1890s with the Spanish-American War. The United States intervened on behalf of Cuba, which they saw as oppressed by Spanish colonial rule. By intervening on behalf of Cuban rebel forces, the United States’ aim was to push Spain out of Latin America. Its goal of ousting Spain from Latin America would further be realized by the acquisition of Puerto Rico, Spain’s last territorial holding in the region. The US would also come to control Guam and the Philippines. While initially some of these expansionist policies were disguised under the fight for global democracy (such as in the case of Cuba), United States policies such as the Platt Amendment of US support for non-democratic leaders showed that imperialist ideals triumphed over democratic or idealistic goals. The Platt Amendment could serve as an example of an overt US imperialist policy, since it placed rigid conditions on Cuban independence and secured continued US control over Cuban foreign policy and military bases.

However, not all American imperialist policies during the era were as overt as the case of Cuba. Some policies fared very well in hiding the United States’ desire to enlarge its sphere of influence. One such example was the “open door notes” to China. These notes asked the world powers holding territory in China to open their respective spheres of influence to American trade and grant merchants reasonable harbor fees and railroad rates. While these diplomatic do not openly express an American desire to intervene in the Asian region, they represent an expansionist and imperialist desire to open other parts of the world to American business and United States economic expansion.

Nonetheless, the United States course to becoming a world power could not have been completed by territorial and economic expansion only. As one of the best-known imperialists of the era, Alfred Thayer Mahan, noted, any world power depended on its capacity to control the seas. The United States complemented its imperialist policies by building up a navy that would be suitable for a world power. It would soon become a strong naval power able to rival other nations. Striving to project this naval power around the globe, Roosevelt send the “great white fleet” on a world tour. Combining territorial expansion with wise military spending on a strong navy allowed the United States to become a dominant world power in the first half of the twentieth century.

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