What Motivates America?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today in one of my seminars I heard it asserted that American foreign policy was motivated by Islamophobia, the fear of Islam and Islamic culture.  This claim struck me as quite slanderous, but it also drew something to my attention–many people in the world do not have an understanding of why my country of origin behaves as it does, and so the motivations are frequently filled in with cheap, easy explanations that mask the complexities of American foreign policy.  So today I shall endeavour to provide an answer that I hope will satisfy readers both foreign and domestic as to why the United States behaves as it does.

So what are the key motivations?

  1. Advancing US economic interests
  2. Advancing US security interests
  3. Spread of US ideological values
  4. Money/Propaganda/Lobbying

Ethically, I would say that numbers 3 and 4 are spurious while numbers 1 and 2 fall within the purview of what is in the real interest of any given state. Every state has the right to pursue what is in its economic and security interests, and indeed every state very much has a duty to pursue those things.

In contrast, the United States often engages in the spread of its ideological values even when doing so contradicts its economic and security interests. Why does it do so? Usually it is under the influence of some lobbying organisation or think tank, or has been captured by idealists.  In other words, money has distorted the state’s ability to perceive its interests correctly.

This is all quite theoretical–let’s apply it. We’ll use two cases in which the United States almost undoubtedly acted against its own interest, the Iraq War and the alliance with Israel.

In the case of the Iraq War, numerous members of the Bush administration were drawn from the think tank Project for a New American Century (Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Wolfowitz all had either been full members or had signed onto one or more of its documents). This organisation used money and influence to push a more aggressive, militaristic foreign policy in the United States, and agitated for a more aggressive stand toward Iraq as early as January of 1998:

Saddam Hussein must go. This imperative may seem too simple for some experts and too daunting for the Clinton Administration. But if the United States is committed, as the President said in his State of the Union Message, to insuring that the Iraqi leader never again uses weapons of mass destruction, the only way to achieve that goal is to remove Mr. Hussein and his regime from power. Any policy short of that will fail.

Now this policy seems, at first glance, to be motivated by #2, the advancement of US security interests. This was, indeed, the way that the Bush administration originally brought forward the case for war with Iraq. The important thing to note here about how US foreign policy goes wrong is that American foreign policies must be justified in terms of economic and security interests even when they seem (or indeed even prove, as Iraq did) to have nothing to do with them. Once it came to light that Iraq posed no threat to US security interests, the alternate justification came up, one of “spreading democracy“, an appeal to ideological values:

It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

Spreading democracy is justified intellectually by democratic peace theory, which holds that democratic states are peaceful, friendly, capitalist, and in various other ways, natural allies of the United States. This idea is really an excuse for the emotional angle of the US foreign policy that has existed since the founding of the country–the desire to share the things about the American political system that Americans are proud of with other people, so that they can enjoy them too. To achieve this messianic mission of spreading good political practise, America often endeavours to increase the number of liberal democratic capitalist states. Of course, despite this, foreign democracies regularly elect leaders unfriendly to the United States and very often regimes that, by virtue of their capitalism, receive backing from the US government, face deep unpopularity at home and eventual expulsion through revolution (Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, many examples). Despite these clear flaws, this thinking is supported by a propaganda apparatus made up of think tanks, lobbying groups, and the media which reinforce the policies and legitimate them in the eyes not only of Americans but of the government itself.

The important thing to note however is that everyone is well meaning–no one, at least no one actually exercising political power in the United States (there may be a few individual citizens here and there, but there are crazy people everywhere) is actually malevolently trying to harm other countries or other societies. There is no racist or Islamophobic motivation, no “war on Islam”, none of that silliness. These world views are cop-outs from people who want to take short cuts and have no interest in truly understanding American behaviour or policy; they merely wish to dismiss it.

The same can be said in the case of Israel–supporting Israel actively damages America’s security and economic interests through the backlash it produces in Muslim countries, yet it continues anyway not because policy makers are involved in some sort of Jewish or Islamophobic conspiracy, but because they have been led to believe that Israel must be supported because it is a democracy and that doing so furthers the spread of ideologies friendly to the United States (and, in the eyes of those who hold the view, better for the people of the societies in question as well). Supporting Israel is not in the US national interest, but it is believed to be so because of the American attachment to spreading ideology. It is important to emphasise that Americans do not merely spread democracy, capitalism, and liberalism because they believe countries with these traits are more friendly to America, but because they believe these ideas to be good for the people of the countries to which they are spread. This can be labelled paternalist, but it is nonetheless done with the best of intentions. Where do Americans get the idea that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East” and the one true hope for the region’s salvation from? Western guilt over anti-Semitism and the holocaust sustained and furthered by the consistent lobbying of financially able groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

As a result, Americans often take on certain political ideas that do not work in practise, and the failure of these ideas is concealed from them through the influence on the public discourse exercised by those groups determined to further the ideas in question. The important thing to note, however, is that these financial organisations did not just spring up out of the ground–they are made up of people who do genuinely believe in these absurdities. There is no malevolence in the American political system, just vast incompetence. Note Hanlon’s razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

So yes, there are a lot of things the United States does that it should not do–not only because those things harm other countries and societies, but because they harm the United States itself. I readily admit as much, and am happy to discuss all the various policy failures and what perhaps should be done in their stead. What I will not tolerate, and what I hope none of those reading this would tolerate, is the insinuation that America is deliberately trying to bring suffering and harm on other people for its own gain or out of pure hatred. Don’t make a boogie man out of the United States. In addition to being intellectually childish, it does nothing to solve the problems or reverse the misconceptions that maintain the bad policies, and that is what we should be trying to do when we discuss US foreign policy.