The end of empire
The sinking of the Lusitania a 100 years ago this week was one of a series of domino events that dragged the US into WWI. America would go on to become the dominant power of the 20th century, but does it have the military or moral capacity to be the world's policeman in this new age of uncertainty, asks Notre Dame historian Robert Schmuhl
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
Even though more than 125 Americans perished when the Lusitania was attacked a century ago, US President Woodrow Wilson kept his nation's powder dry, maintaining his policy of neutrality.
Refusing to let deadly provocation drag the States into war, Wilson used a speech three days later to stand his ground: "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right."
Despite such lofty rhetoric, America wasn't completely isolationist in outlook. Former president Theodore Roosevelt, with an eye to seeking the White House again, left little doubt where he stood in this post-Lusitania thunderclap.
"It seems inconceivable," Roosevelt stormed, "that we can refrain from taking action in this matter, for we owe it not only to humanity but to our own national self-respect."
Pursuing re-election in 1916, Wilson made no effort to run away from a campaign slogan someone proposed for him: "He kept us out of war."
Wilson won, yet a month after his inauguration in March of 1917, the US declared war on Germany, motivated by unrestricted submarine attacks that started earlier that year.
The theatre of war brought America front-and-centre to a leading role on the world's stage. The designation of "the Great War" is rarely used in the US. It's more commonly known as "World War I" - where the valour of Yank "doughboys" in the American Expeditionary Forces contributed mightily to the Allies' cause.
For someone who tried to avoid what Thomas Jefferson called "foreign entanglements", Wilson staked much of his second term and historical legacy on emphasising American power and influence globally.
Though difficult to comprehend today, the president spent most of 1919's first six months at the Paris Peace Conference, which decided the terms of peace and several other matters at the war's end. Having the nation's chief executive on foreign soil so long told the world that America wanted a say (and a dominant one) about what might happen in the future.
Interestingly, as the US was slow to get involved in World War I, the same was true for World War II. Britain and France declared war on Germany in 1939, but the US waited until after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 to join the Allied effort.
This time, however, President Franklin D Roosevelt took a much different approach from Wilson's. During a radio broadcast in late 1940, he vowed that the US stood ready to assist opponents of the Axis powers with munitions and armaments.
"We must be the great arsenal of democracy," he asserted, and each word carried rhetorical and planetary throw-weight. "We" (the united US), "must be" (definite imperative), "the great" (singular force), "arsenal" (war-making might), "of democracy" (rule of law and electoral freedom).
Looking back to the years from December 1941 to the summer of 1945, writers have affixed titles to books, defining the times and people involved. One such, The Good War, expressed what most Americans thought of World War II - in contrast to the much more controversial Korean or Vietnam conflicts - and the men and women who served in the early 1940s were known, simply, as The Greatest Generation.
The aftermath of 'The Good War' was very different from the Great War - Wilson's dream of US participation in the League of Nations was dashed because of Congressional opposition - and the US didn't face the massive rebuilding programmes required in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
Although the Cold War began shortly after hostilities ceased on the continent and in Japan, the States emerged from the nation-uniting war in a climate of let's-all-get-back-to-work unity. This attitude extended to a hardy feeling of bi-partisanship in Washington best expressed in a then-popular phrase "politics stops at the water's edge."
Democrats and Republicans - in the White House and Congress -worked to keep brickbats and brass knuckles out of their arsenal of inter-party feuding, at least on international issues. Maintaining a united front meant the president spoke without a chorus of criticism to challenge the message.
This situation continued until the (undeclared) Vietnam War started to divide and roil the country in the late 1960s. In fact, in recent years it would be more accurate for an American observer to say, "Politics never stops - at the water's edge or anywhere else."
Non-stop jousting for partisan advantage has become so severe now that the US government is in a constant state of stalemate and gridlock. Increasingly, it's difficult to be perceived as a substantial (or even "super") power worthy of the admiration of others, when political paralysis leads to the government itself shutting down (for 16 days in 2013).
Since the disputed presidential election of 2000, settled by the Supreme Court with George W Bush the victor, American politics has kept spiralling downward, resulting in talk of dysfunction at almost every turn.
Last Sunday, the New York Times reported that the Federal Election Commission, which oversees raising and spending of campaign funds, won't really monitor the 2016 White House race, expected to cost an eye-bulging $10bn (€9bn).
"The likelihood of the laws being enforced is slim," the head of the FEC told the newspaper. "People think the FEC is dysfunctional. It's worse than dysfunctional." Why? The three Democrats and three Republicans on the commission rarely break tie votes to accomplish anything.
More consequentially, you see Republican members of Congress brazenly involving themselves in international affairs without bothering to consult the Democratic White House.
This past March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a joint session of the House and Senate - at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner rather than President Barack Obama - and, right after, a new Republican senator from Arkansas, Tom Cotton, wrote an open letter to Iranian leaders, warning that "your nuclear negotiations with our government" needed approval by Congress or they could be revoked.
The razor-wire partisanship and no-middle-ground polarisation we see today even affects long-established protocol, weakening the standing of the nation's chief executive and how the country is viewed abroad. If the so-called leader of the free world constantly appears challenged and wounded, what does that mean to others looking for guidance, not to say inspiration?
Ever since US military involvement began in Afghanistan and Iraq after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the country has paid a high price in the international court of public opinion.
As slow as America might have been to engage in combat during the major wars of the 20th century, the opposite was true in Iraq.
This time, the US launched a pre-emptive strike, and in the eyes of many, the military hostilities unleashed forces, such as Islamic State, over a decade later cannot be controlled. The numerous, in-full-public-view difficulties the US has endured since 2000 prompts justifiable concern whether America is a waning superpower, even a country in decline.
Certainly the huge commitment of military forces and resources in the Middle East for well over a decade is draining psychologically and economically at home and perceptually abroad.
During Vietnam, an oft-quoted (albeit false) assessment assured people of "light at the end of the tunnel." In the Middle East, it's difficult to glimpse the light or find the tunnel.
This is not so much military incompetence-the US Defence Department will spend nearly $600bn (€530bn) in 2015, while China is second at about $130bn, according to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies-as questionable policies by civilians at the start of hostilities and afterwards. The firepower is unparalleled but dubiously used.
Interestingly, in 2008 while competing against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama stressed his opposition to the Iraq War, which Clinton had endorsed in the Senate. He, however, hasn't been able to remove himself from the quicksand there at a serious cost to his worldwide reputation. Moreover, his practice of speaking boldly without following-up with decisive action (as in Syria or Ukraine) has caused head scratching among people near and far.
The debate over American decline occurs periodically and encompasses worries about economic conditions, domestic concerns, and international predicaments. Back in 1987, the historian Paul Kennedy in his study, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, wrote that "the United States now runs the risk... of what might roughly be called 'imperial overstretch'."
But Kennedy's argument lost force with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union and the economic boom of the 1990s, which resulted in a federal budget surplus following three decades of red ink.
More recently, the extreme political partisanship and the inability of government to solve problems (such as the yawning gap in inequality, deteriorating infrastructure or persisting racial tensions) resurrected American anxieties. Two book titles target the current mood: The Betrayal of the American Dream and Who Stole the American Dream?
Insecurity abounds in the home of the brave. A not-so-facetious question worth pondering in the wake of notorious police activity (in Missouri, Maryland and elsewhere) this past year: How can the United States be considered the world's policeman when there are so many problems with the police in American cities?
Despite all the legitimate angst and hand-wringing over what lies ahead for the US, please name another country with the necessary power and resources to intervene in righting a wrong, politically, militarily or humanitarianly.
Does China get the call, with its free-market economy yet police-state Communist controls? How about Russia, with its modern-day tsar and his appetite for territorial expansion?
Resilience has always been one of America's defining characteristics. Rebuilding after the Civil War. Recovering from the Great Depression. Regaining strength after the one-two punch of Vietnam and Watergate.
The United States now faces the test of repairing its broken political system to embark on a path that will help, in Abraham Lincoln's phrase, "to bind up the nation's wounds."
Debating how to accomplish Lincoln's 19th-century hope in its 21st-century context should occupy centre stage in the 2016 presidential campaign. Americans, and citizens across the globe, will be watching to see whether the country shifts out of reverse to go forwards anew.
Robert Schmuhl is a professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame