First we gave a new argument against interventionism, namely that for awhile we have been incapable of imposing our will and enjoying some kind of spoils of war, whether they are material or geopolitical -- not just kicking some ass and destroying some buildings. Then we reviewed the history of our successful use of force, from the early settler days through WWII.
That long phase of using force to expand our sphere of influence ended after we subdued Japan with atomic bombs. Let's look at the record by region. We'll save the Middle East and North Africa for a follow-up post, since it's more recent and well known, and more topical to current foreign policy debates. This post is still more of a history.
The first hint of our decline came with the Korean War of the early 1950s. Our main geopolitical goal was to make the Korean peninsula a bulwark against the rising Communist government in mainland China, along with Japan that we had already conquered and occupied. While we did manage to get half of Korea into our sphere of influence, we lost the other half to China's sphere, and the stalemate remains unresolved to this day, with the South and North still at war.
Today we are even less capable of imposing our will on the Korean peninsula for our own material or strategic benefit, compared to the government of Truman and Eisenhower's day. Withdraw our troops, however gradually, and knock off our provocative military exercises on the border in the meantime, and we won't have a Korean military problem at all. The countries in the region might -- fine, let them worry about it themselves (and during that unstable period, their manufacturing might suffer and have to be re-located back to the good ol' USA).
Worse still was the Vietnam War of the 1960s and early '70s, meant to incorporate it into our sphere and keep it out of the Chinese Communist sphere, where it did in fact end up. That was an even greater disaster than Korea, since in Indochina we didn't even get half of what we'd come for, and we spent far more time, blood, and treasure. And with such "best and brightest" minds guiding the plans, this was the first real wake-up call that we could no longer impose our will and gobble up another territory to enjoy the spoils of. At first, the elites just assumed it was a horrible fluke -- you never win 'em all, let's try harder in the next match. But the pattern was becoming clearer.
We have tried to impose our will only on Afghanistan, leaving the larger nations of India and Pakistan alone. This began in the 1980s when we began using the Mujahideen as proxies against the Soviet Union, and although the Soviets did eventually leave, it was not the United States that would take over the region. Instead it was the jihadists themselves, with the Taliban being backed by regional power Pakistan rather than doing the bidding of their American patrons of the Reagan years. After 15 years of occupation and war, we still cannot beat back the Taliban insurgency, who control more territory over time. We have managed, however, to distract the jihadists well enough for mineral extraction companies of our rival China to swoop in and dig out tons of mineral wealth in Afghanistan.
After Korea, the next rude awakening for the WWII generation was the loss of Cuba, which we had earlier incorporated after the Spanish-American War during our period of successful interventions. But as our capability to impose our will weakened during the 1950s, Cuba revolted and joined the Soviet sphere of influence instead. We did try to quickly intervene to crush the revolution and impose our puppet again (Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961), but it failed, and even after decades of crushing economic sanctions against the Castro government, we never did recover it into our sphere.
A "Second Cuba" could have taken hold in the Dominican Republic in 1965 when a civil war broke out between factions loyal to the old American-installed dictator and socialists / reformists. The US invaded directly and put down the revolt, with another American puppet taking the presidency in '66. That success proved brief, however, and by 1978 the DR would be governed mostly by the two parties that came out of the socialist / reformist side of the Civil War, rather than American puppets.
This makes you wonder, even if the US had re-installed Batista or another puppet in Cuba, would that have lasted forever? Probably not, judging from similar cases. Maybe he would've coasted through the '60s, but there would probably have been another revolt or an election that would have brought a watered-down socialist into power, lasting through today.
In Haiti, we invaded in 1994 to re-instate the winner of the election who had been sent into exile by a coup (not engineered by the CIA). The coup leaders stepped down once they saw our armed forces on the way, and it was bloodless. However, what was the point? The elected president, Aristide, was not our puppet or anti-Communist (he came from a liberation theology background). He was not going to send material spoils of war flowing up north to America for getting him back in office. It was just a publicity stunt so that Clinton could show he was on board with the neo-con project of using the US military to spread or uphold democracy abroad.
We did invade Grenada successfully in 1983, but we didn't get any spoils from this pointless little island, whether material or geopolitical. It was a PR morale boost coming two days after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut.
This region had come firmly under our control during the so-called Banana Wars of the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s. However, a major test of our dominance there arose during the 1980s. During the Reagan years, civil wars erupted throughout Central America, where peasant guerrillas revolted against the military strongmen who represented the landed interests.
We supported the military governments and their paramilitary squads -- funds, arms, training, and diplomatic and propaganda cover. Although we may not have invaded directly, these groups were proxy forces of ours. We wound up on the losing side, however, and these countries have become generic third-world socialist countries that would presumably have fallen under the Soviet sphere if it had been several decades earlier. Not in our sphere, at any rate.
In El Salvador, we backed the military government that lost to the guerrilla movement. The upshot of the peace accords in 1992 was to de-militarize the government, leaving it impotent to implement the will of Uncle Sam, and to empower the guerrilla interests into a disarmed political party. Although the landed interests party initially enjoyed power, that began to weaken by the 2000s, and as of 2009 the party of the former guerrillas (FMLN) controls the presidency, the majority of the legislature, and the majority of mayoralties.
In Guatemala, we staged a coup in 1954 against the elected reformist president (Arbenz), largely at the behest of the United Fruit Company, who lobbied the government about Guatemala otherwise falling into the Soviet sphere of influence. Even after a successful coup, and decades of American puppet dictators, United Fruit became less and less profitable, ultimately getting rid of all of their Guatemalan holdings by 1972. There is little of geopolitical significance to Guatemala -- hence the term Banana Republics, rather than Bulwarks Against Communism -- so with the end of United Fruit, we lost most of what mattered there. Successfully keeping our puppets in place during the 1980s, and finding Right governments afterwards, is little consolation prize, with no bigger picture in mind.
In Nicaragua during the late 1970s, the Sandinistas overthrew our client regime (the Somoza family), and took control first as a military junta and then as the winners of an actual election. We supported the Contras (armed rebels made up of anyone against the Sandinistas). After a decade of war, both sides were disarmed, and a series of elections beginning in 1990 brought the Right parties into power. That anti-Sandinista coalition soon fragmented into splinter parties, and as of 2006 the Sandinistas have regained the presidency (in landslide victories), and a vast majority of the legislature. Seeing the Right victories of the '90s and early 2000s as a respite between Sandinista rule going back to the late '70s, Nicaragua has been outside our sphere of influence for some time and has become another third-world socialist state.
The clearest sign of our imperial decline in Latin America, though, is Panama -- there's a major canal there you might have heard of, one that we built when we had control over the country during our imperial ascent (early 1900s). In 1977, the US signed the Torrijos-Carter Treaties, by which we agreed to voluntarily give up control over the major maritime path between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. By 1999, the transfer of the canal to Panama became complete.
I know, you're thinking, "Panama... didn't we launch that successful invasion and toppling of Noriega?" In 1989, yes we did replace Noriega, who was a military dictator doing the US' bidding during most of the decade. He got too uppity and we replaced him with a Right candidate who ran in an election. However, that was still a loss because Noriega was not just a generic Right candidate -- he was a military dictator on the payroll of the CIA running drugs and arms to the other American client forces in the region. His replacement was no Noriega. Again, why did we use our military to depose a dictator rather than seize back full control over the Panama Canal, like a strong empire would have done?
Even during our imperial heyday, South America was not within our sphere of influence like the Caribbean and Central America were. There were a series of socialist and similar revolts, and military counter-revolutions, beginning in the 1960s and '70s. We sided with the military, but it was more of lending a helping hand to fellow travelers since they were not our client states with American-installed puppets, who would not survive without our involvement, and whose armies were mere proxy forces of Uncle Sam. This includes Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia.
I mention these non-examples to show that some major cases you may have heard of about "CIA coups" -- like Pinochet in Chile -- were more of an endogenous process that we merely helped out, if the countries lay beyond our sphere of influence.
Since we have failed to impose our will on these countries for geopolitical strategic gain, have we at least gotten something out of them economically? As already discussed, the answer is "no".
What, then, do the economic trajectories of these countries spell for the fortunes of the American people?
During an expansionist imperial phase, newly acquired territories serve at best as plantations or other resource bins to be exploited. Sugar cane, bananas, coffee, and so on. That's how the British empire used its colonies -- have them do the lowest-level economic activity, and do the higher-level stuff yourself. The last thing you'd want to do is have conquered peoples and places acting as rivals to your homegrown high-level economy.
But that's exactly what we've done with the regions that used to be under our sphere of influence, especially in Latin America after NAFTA and related trade agreements. These "developing nations" are replacing our manufacturing, whether it's clothing or automobiles, rather than remaining banana and coffee plantations. Our sphere of influence in East Asia (Japan and South Korea) are killing us even more in replacing our high-level economic activity, rather than just sending us seaweed and rice.
The process over the past several decades looks more like decolonization than continued imposition of imperial will. Not only are we no longer pulling the geopolitical puppet strings in these countries, we have encouraged them to form their own domestic industrialization programs to take them beyond plantation economies. That's like India after the fall of the British Empire during the two World Wars, not India during the Victorian era.