From its inception to the present, the US rarely distinguishes between diplomacy and war. Today, it has ambassadors working in one-third of the world’s countries, but has special force operators active in three quarters of them.
“They make their rules to be broken. The United States has broken every rule it has ever made, from its first treaty with France to every treaty with us [native Indian tribes], to their last treaty with Iran. They only hold others to their rules. They make war when they want, where they want; they take what they want. Then they make rules that keep you from taking it back.”
– A dialogue from season 3 finale of Yellowstone, a neo-Western cable TV series starring Kevin Costner
These days, the best dramas in North America are usually not from the silver screen, which is populated by comic characters generated by CGI effects. Instead, it’s streaming TV if your mental age is older than 17. The conversation quoted above pretty much captures the history of the US conquest, both on the continent and then around the world. Since last week, I have been bingeing on Costner’ superb Yellowstone, about ruthless fights over land in modern-day Montana.
Though a dramatic dialogue, the statements made can actually be supported factually and statistically.
“The United States has broken every rule it has ever made, from its first treaty with France to every treaty with us native Indian tribes …”
Between 1778 and 1871, the US government made more than 500 treaties with numerous indigenous nations or tribes. Of these, nearly 370 were ratified by the US Congress and signed by the president of the day. Historians disagree on whether all or most of them – the exact number is under dispute – were broken. But there is no dispute that a majority of such treaties were broken, unilaterally altered or simply nullified.
Common treaty features were: a guarantee of peace, a definition of land boundaries, preservation of hunting and fishing rights, and provisions for protection against domestic and foreign enemies. But they were not worth the paper they were written on, except for their primary provision, which in most cases, was the signing over of land on which the tribes had lived for generations. On this, the US faithfully enforced with the full force of modern arms.
But that’s not all. Many of the treaties were signed under duress. (We Chinese would call them “unequal treaties”. Compared to North American Indians, the Qing mandarins were lucky to have never known what “unequal” really meant.) Others, which tribal leaders thought of as treaties, were relegated to temporary pacts or no deals at all. In this way, tribes in what is California today lost all their original land without a single treaty recognised, so far as Washington was concerned.
But why did the treaty-signing era end after 1871? The US Congress prohibited signing any more of them thereafter. A decade after the Civil War, the powerful reunited white nation that emerged no longer considered Indian tribes “nations”. Therefore, they were unqualified for state-like sovereignty. While most of the constitutional framers were willing to consider the natives as forming “nations”, by the mid-19th century, they were little better than savages. At most, they were a race or races that were heading towards extinction. And of course, the US government would do all it could to help them along the way with its genocidal “Indian war” – a series of military campaigns and massacres – lasting until 1890.
“They make war when they want, where they want; they take what they want.”
A paper titled “Introducing the Military Intervention Project: A New Dataset on US Military Interventions, 1776–2019” was published early this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Conflict Resolution. The massive database has been developed at the Centre for Strategic Studies of Tufts University.
According to the database, “the US has undertaken over 500 international military interventions since 1776, with nearly 60 per cent undertaken between 1950 and 2017.
“[O]ver one-third of these missions occurred after 1999. With the end of the Cold War era, we would expect the US to decrease its military interventions abroad, assuming lower threats and interests at stake. But these patterns reveal the opposite – the US has increased its military involvements abroad”.
What does this say about the balance between peaceful diplomacy and the use of force? Unlike practically all other countries in the world, the US prefers a militarised diplomacy or what the authors and directors of the database call “kinetic diplomacy”, or “diplomacy solely via armed force”.
“As traditional diplomacy withers away, growing in its place are shadowy special operation missions, drone strikes, and/or readily utilised conventional military deployments,” they wrote.
Here’s a fascinating and – to me – very scary fact. “As of this year, while US ambassadors are operating in one-third of the world’s countries, US special [force] operators are active in three-fourths,” according to the database.
In other words, the US was even more militant after the end of the Cold War – because it could. After all, it was and still is the only real superpower.
The authors continued: “Perhaps as we [Americans] exclusively focus on maintaining our military might, we elevate the usage of force over other strategies of international policymaking, to the detriment of our own interests. As it stands, the US seems to operate without any clear guidelines for when it employs force abroad, and the consequences of such interventions remain blurred and contradictory.”
More specifically, after the end of the second world war, 34 per cent of 392 military interventions were against countries in Latin America and the Caribbean; 23 per cent in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific; 14 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa; and 13 per cent in Europe and Central Asia.
The vast majority of such operations have no basis in international law or even multilateral support. It’s often claimed that no two democracies have ever gone to war. That is actually untrue or at least disingenuous. The US had overthrown many democratically elected governments across the developing world in the last century, but these were invariably too weak to wage war against Uncle Sam. After the regime change, a pro-American puppet – whether a dictatorship or military junta – was almost always put in place.
Today, the US is active as ever, fighting proxy or low-intensity wars and drone warfare from Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria to Pakistan and Yemen, as well as in many undeclared countries.
We may soon add Taiwan to the list.
Published with permission from the South China Morning Post