Contrary to what Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Bush have taught, America’s freedom and prosperity do not depend on democracy taking root in foreign lands.

By Bruce Fein

From the late 1940s to the end of the Cold War, U.S. presidents interceded everywhere in the world in an effort to contain or to defeat the USSR. No country was too small for the United States to believe its alignment with the Soviet Union would be pivotal to American safety, freedom, or prosperity. For the first time, America began to devise a foreign policy for every nation on earth, be it Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Nepal, or Fiji. And this attitude prevailed when no one would have dared an offensive war against the United States—at the height of its power, the Soviet Union flinched in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Two unassailable orthodoxies drove this hyper-interventionism. First was the belief that the national security of the United States was dependent upon the vitality of democracy in foreign lands. Second was the notion that a global military presence, with its ability to ensure international stability and access to resources, was indispensable to economic growth. Both orthodoxies are patent nonsense, yet both continue to dominate American thinking.

Harry Truman gave voice to the first during a speech before Congress on March 12, 1947, when he proclaimed the doctrine that now bears his name. His address sought to win approval of $400 million in economic and military aid to Turkey and Greece, two countries that the executive branch viewed as being endangered by Communist takeovers.

Truman incited alarm by claiming that leftist coups in those countries would allow totalitarianism and despair to sweep through Europe and imperil the globe: “The free people of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world—and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this Nation.” Thus a prime objective of American foreign policy must be “the creation of conditions in which we and other nations will be able to work out a way of life free from coercion,” and the U.S. must ever “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

This was itself a revolutionary doctrine, for democracy abroad had never before been necessary for America’s security. When the United States won its independence from Great Britain, not a single American statesman insinuated that the nation would be made safer by seeking to transform the Ottoman Empire, China, or the Russian and French despotisms into democracies. The United States was a passive onlooker to the wars of independence in Central and South America against Spanish and Portuguese colonialist oppression.

The Founding Fathers knew that democracies may be inclined towards belligerency every bit as much as tyrannies. After independence, the United States was most endangered by Great Britain, which was then the most democratic country in the world. Indeed, Britain provoked the War of 1812 by impressing United States seamen and attacking neutral American ships during the Napoleonic War. By contrast, monarchist France had assisted America during the Revolutionary War.

Truman failed to explain how supporting free peoples resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures would make the United States more secure, freer, or wealthier, or even how he would distinguish between free peoples and unfree peoples. Take Greece and Turkey, the first beneficiaries of the Truman Doctrine. In 1947, neither country was a democracy with competing political parties, fair elections, a free press, and the rule of law.

In Greece, civil war raged between royalists and Communists. The United States backed the royalist side, even though its democratic credentials were slim. Suppose the Communists had prevailed. Greece might still have been a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union, like Tito’s Yugoslavia, or an economic albatross like the USSR’s satellites in Central and Eastern Europe. Greece had no alluring national resources to plunder. Its military was unimpressive. Greece joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952, but never became a formidable military ally or strong economic partner.

Turkey, like Greece, was bereft of the trappings of democracy in 1947. The government had lifted a ban on opposition parties only two years earlier. Martial law remained in force until December 1947. And as with Greece, if Turkey had fallen to Communism, the United States would not have been less safe, less free, or less wealthy. Turkish Muslims, like Muslims everywhere else, would have fiercely resisted the “godless Communism” of the Soviet Union with or without U.S. aid. The Ottoman Empire had regularly fought Russia for centuries before it was vivisected after World War I. Attempts to suppress Islam and Turkish nationalism would have bogged the USSR down in perpetuity. Turkey would have proven indigestible.

The United States could have used the resources saved by declining to assist Turkey to upgrade its defensive posture in the air, on the oceans, and on the ground along its borders. Again, as with Greece, President Truman was unable to explain how rescuing Turkey from a Communist takeover would be relevant to defending the sovereignty of the United States or the liberties of its people.

Yet the absurdities of Truman’s tenets outlived the Cold War. There is a straight line between the Truman Doctrine and the even more utopian ambitions President Bush revealed in his second inaugural address, when he preached:

We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

… So 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.

Bush’s messianic conception of the national purpose was echoed in President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize address, in which he maintained that the liberties and happiness of Americans depended on the United States bringing the same blessings to every person on the planet.

Yet the Truman Doctrine’s professed purpose of assisting free people in defending themselves against foreign oppressors was honored more in the breach than in the observance. Realpolitik eclipsed concerns for democracy and human rights during the Cold War. The free people of Eastern and Central Europe received no serious assistance from Truman after World War II. Germany and Berlin were divided. Czechoslovakia fell into the Communist orbit in 1948. Hungary had done the same one year earlier. And in Asia, Tibet lost its autonomy to Communist China in 1950. In none of these situations did the United States intervene militarily to prevent the coercion of free people.

The idealistic motives expressed by American presidents during the Cold War were incoherent, and so were the economic arguments they made to justify the quest for global power. The claim that American prosperity pivots on the maintenance of peace and stability abroad—so trade routes and access to strategic economic resources will remain secure—is another Cold War fallacy that is still with us. President Eisenhower once stated it plainly:

From my viewpoint, foreign policy is, or should be, based primarily upon one consideration. That consideration is the need for the U.S. to obtain certain raw materials to sustain its economy and, when possible, to preserve profitable foreign markets for our surpluses. Out of this need grows the necessity for making certain that those areas of the world in which essential raw materials are produced are not only accessible to us, but their populations and governments are willing to trade with us on a friendly basis.

This belief encouraged the United States to establish hundreds of military bases abroad and to deploy a formidable blue-water Navy.

But it is founded on a myth. Neither the United States nor any other nation has ever been deprived of essential goods and brought down by economic warfare. Smuggling, bribery, and middlemen eager to make money invariably evade the tightest embargoes. The Soviet Union effortlessly outfoxed the U.S. wheat embargo following the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 by purchasing greater quantities from middlemen like Spain or Argentina. Penurious North Korea, with its millions of starving citizens, remains defiant in the face of massive international sanctions. Fidel Castro’s Cuba has circumvented more than 50 years of a United States embargo. Despite the expenditure of $44 billion dollars annually and the employment of the world’s most proficient military and law enforcement assets, the United States has been unable to staunch the flow of narcotics flooding across its borders to satisfy millions of American consumers.

The October 1973 oil embargo imposed by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) failed. Oil supplies were already tight before the embargo was imposed: shortages were caused by President Nixon’s price controls and the supply problems confronting independent service stations amid climbing crude prices. By May 1973—five months before the OPEC embargo—1,000 independents had closed. Countries exempt from the embargo increased their purchases from OPEC members for resale to the United States. Even the Saudi oil minister, Sheik Yamani, acknowledged that the embargo “did not imply that we could reduce imports to the United States … the world is really just one market. So the embargo was more symbolic than anything else.”

Rabidly anti-American regimes eagerly trade with the United States. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez maligns the U.S. as the enemy of his country. But Venezuela remains one of America’s top foreign oil suppliers. Bilateral trade between the two countries totaled $50 billion in 2007. Iran, archenemy of the United States, increased American imports tenfold during George W. Bush’s presidency. The Islamic Republic would sell oil to the United States if legal prohibitions were lifted.

American liberty does not depend upon other nations embracing democracy—and never has, even during the Cold War. Nor does American prosperity require bases around the world and military leverage over friend and foe alike. Yet despite their patent falsity, these political orthodoxies continue to be invoked by the American empire to justify its global force projection, endless wars, and national security state.

Corresponding lies or myths were contrived by the Roman Empire to the same ends. As Joseph Schumpeter observed in his 1919 essay “The Sociology of Imperialism”:

There was no corner of the world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were of Rome’s allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest—then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome’s duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs.

Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and The Lichfield Group. This essay is adapted from American Empire: Before the Fall, published by Campaign for Liberty.

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