Beginning with the U.S. entry in the Spanish-American War, America experienced a shift of diplomatic and military isolationism from European affairs to one of internationalism and brief imperialism. It is important to note that no single event or person can explain U.S. foreign policy behavior entirely. American foreign policy is the result of a combination of causes and events, including the influence of several sources. These influences include five major categories to the making of U.S. foreign policy, including the following: external sources, American societal norms, the make-up of the U.S. government, the roles of individuals and institutions and lastly, the effect that individual people have in contributing to the foreign policy making process.
America’s “splendid little war” with Spain in 1898 provided the US with a colonial empire almost overnight. These newly acquired, or annexed, foreign lands, and the accompanying responsibilities thereof, included the Phillipines, Puerto Rico, Guam, Hawaii, and Cuba. One of the primary reasons that America went to war in 1898 was Spanish meddling in the affairs of Cuba, contrary to the Monroe doctrine. This American doctrine, however, did not preclude America itself from meddling in Caribbean affairs, or meddling in the affairs of any Western Hemisphere country for that matter. Spain had a massively larger army, but its navy was in disrepair. The U.S., on the other hand, had modernized its Navy under the direction of Alfred T. Mahan. This naval supremacy was the tipping point in the Spanish-American war between the two nations – the New World vs. the Old World.
When the US defeated the Spanish navy at Manila the victory propelled the US onto the world stage as a true and tested global actor. Up to that point, the US had been isolationist in nature, still recovering from the horrific American Civil War in the 1860’s. Some scholars believe that once U.S. western expansion was completed in 1880 and industrialization had come full bore after the Civil War, the American capitalist machine turned its eye to new markets in Latin America and the Far East.
The first openings of the Chinese market in the Far East put the U.S. in direct competition with the European powers, particularly Britain, Spain, France and Russia. There was a rush by the great powers at this point into the Chinese markets. The U.S. did not want to be left behind because this was a large market for U.S. industrial goods and source of seemingly infinite raw materials. John Hay, President McKinley’s Secretary of State summed up the U.S.’s awkward position at this juncture in history: “…we do not want to rob the Chinese ourselves, and our public opinion will not permit us to interfere, with an army, to prevent others from robbing her…”
The US, therefore, developed an Open Door Policy toward China, meaning that the US would not tolerate the division of China into “spheres of influence,” insisting that its territorial integrity be respected. This was a bold move on America’s part because it had little more than morality on its side, not a vast army, and only a small navy compared to European powers. This American “policy” had little effect because the United States was not prepared to support the Open Door policy with force. Successive administrations to the 1940s, however, considered it the cornerstone of their Far Eastern policy.
At the same time, the US was active in the external affairs of many Latin American countries. Of particular interest to US foreign policymakers was Panama and the isthmus canal project there. The US became directly responsible for Panama’s break from Columbia. Panama’s independence from Columbia secured America’s ability to connect the Atlantic and Pacific markets via the Panama shipping canal – a triumph of American economic and foreign policy.
Other external sources that influenced the U.S at this time included continued warfare between the great powers: The Russo-Japanese War; the British, German and Italian blockade of Venezuela; the clashes between Germany and France over French North Africa; the British-German naval arms race for control of the seas and the world’s commerce; and the growing tensions in the Middle East, where oil had been discovered. These were all inputs into America’s foreign policy decision-making process which pulled it from isolationism to internationalism. America was now vying with Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan for what future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt called “the domination of the world.”
Societal sources also had their unique impact on American foreign policy. Domestic beliefs were transferred to the international sphere. For example, America has always had a sense of exceptionalism – the belief that America is a superior country in every way and that American beliefs and forms of government should be exported to other nations. One scholar put it this way: “The United States (s)hould transform other nations into communities that shared America’s political and social values and also its religious beliefs.” This is reminiscent of Democratic Peace Theory, which is still in vogue today as seen by America’s continuing attempt to export liberal democracy and free markets to other nations.