The average American citizen has little or no interest in foreign affairs. Aside from what they read in the newspaper or see on TV, the comings and goings of other countries and their governments go unnoticed in the lives of most of us. And why not? After all, the federal government handles all of our international relations, as prescribed by the Constitution. Unless America gets attacked (again) or our economy starts to tank, we assume that the government is presenting and protecting America’s interests abroad. We’ve been brought up to believe that as the worlds leader of democracy, other nations will bend to our will and seek to emulate us because we are righteous and pure in our desire to spread freedom.

But what we are told and what really happens are often two different things. A brief look at this nations foreign policy illustrates a constantly changing attitude regarding the proper role of America among the world’s countries. Running the gamut from isolationism to pro-active aggression, American foreign policy has had as many facelifts as an aging beauty queen. In some aspects, this is probably as it should be, especially when comparing the goals of a fledgling country to that of a world superpower. But at the heart of American foreign policy has always been the belief that America’s interests were best reflected and represented by the promotion of personal freedom, democratic government, and economic growth.

The trick then becomes how to promote those ideals around the world. America has experimented with many ways to achieve these means, from the Monroe Doctrine and its protectionist attitude towards the western hemisphere to Teddy Roosevelt’s policy of direct intervention as a regional policeman to Wilson’s 14 Points of Light which led eventually to the United Nations. Each of these, and many other policies, sought to impress American ideals onto other cultures for our benefit, without looking at the cost or benefit for the nations we purported to help. In many cases, our might became our right, and once our objectives were achieved, we either picked up and went home or sucked the land and the people dry. In either case, our stated ideals of promoting personal freedom, democratic government, and economic growth fell short of the mark and the people took notice.

World War II solidified America’s place in the world order and our foreign policies reflected our newfound status. Having saved the world from the Nazi’s and the Japanese, we figured that the world owed us and it was time to get our due. Sure, we would still advance our concept of freedom in our rhetoric, but from a practical standpoint, it was time for the world to pay up or be put out. Communist expansion allowed for a new common threat to freedom, and in our fight to stem its tide, we began to apply new methods to our foreign policy. Adopting a “containment” theory allowed the U.S. to install military bases around the world, and our “roll-back” actions provided support for any would-be government that opposed the code of communism, regardless of their commitment to the ideals of freedom.

Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have stood up to the Soviet Union and it’s perverted adaptation of a communistic idea. Communism, as it has been practiced, is the exact opposite of our system of government and our core of ideals. But our single-minded goal of stopping Communist expansion blinded us to all other aspects of what a good foreign relations policy should entail. And instead of making real friends in the world community, we ended up creating relationships that were based on the weakest of bonds and the basest of values. We adopted the theory of “the lesser of two evils” and so turned a blind eye to what our “allies” were doing at home while we publicly denounced these same actions by the “enemy.” This hypocrisy was not lost on the citizens of the world and has led us to the point where we are today.

So then how do we go forward from the mess we are in? As the worlds last remaining military superpower, we have the might to force our way on many issues. But this attitude only further increases enmity from the people we would hope to embrace. America is not always looked at as a bringer of hope. To many, we are viewed as a pillager of prosperity and a culture of greed. If we ever hope to increase our security through the promotion of freedom, we have to find ways to advance these ideals through means beyond the bomb. We can’t continue to do one thing while saying the other and we have to recognize that to have good friends, one needs to be a good friend.

To begin with, we should have a real heart to heart talk with our “allies.” We need to make clear, in no uncertain terms, that our goal is to help create a world that guarantees people the rights of freedom, the rights to have a representative government of their making, and a chance at prosperity as they define it. We, along with our other allies, should offer them all the technical, practical, educational, and financial assistance to help bring them up to developed standards. We should listen to their methods and ideas regarding “social growth” and incorporate them when practical. We need to be willing to share life-changing advances with other governments and ensure that they use this knowledge for their people. In exchange, we need to make clear what we expect from them in return: a quick transition towards a stable, elected representative government that provides for its people’s needs as defined by the people and an atmosphere of personal freedom and responsibility. And then, perhaps most importantly, we must lead by example. We must show our sincerity by including these countries and their people in the changes rather than just throwing money to American companies with a mandate to “fix the place.” We must clean up our act here at home and we must embrace actions that show the world that we are committed to world peace above capitalist profit.

By changing the way we deal with our friends, our foes would have less political ammunition to use against us and their people would see the advantages of being our friend had actual results. And instead of creating temporary alliances for only our benefit, we would forge friendships that improved the lives of our fellow man and increased our own security by reducing the economic disparities that breed resentment.

Our world today is unstable and our military will still play a great role in foreign relations for some time. But military actions should be options of last resort. Diplomacy with a willingness to give, honoring our agreements, and demanding that our allies honor theirs should always get the first crack. But strength has its place too, and my next essay will talk about that. As with any relationship, consistency is the key. I know not every nation has raw materials we need or sits at an advantageous geographical position for us, but in creating world stability, these things should not be the primary litmus test for determining whom we reach out to. Our ideals of personal freedom are not conditional for us; they belong to all people of the world. This is what we believe. This is what we profess. This is what we should offer. The question to ask isn’t “Why should we?” The question is, “Why aren’t we?”