When considering the rise of the United States of America, in the past 100 years in particular, one of the most crucial facets of American foreign policy has been overseas trade (Malchow 2016). Americans have associated themselves first and foremost with the principle of democracy and the right to democratic government since the founding of the United States under the U.S. Constitution in 1789 (Foner 2017). As a direct result of this democratic system, capitalism and free trade have emerged as the dominant economic policies of the United States that have in turn been included in foreign policy as America attempts to expand these values abroad (Johnson 2005). At the core of these efforts, especially during the late 19th and early 20th century, was the policy of expansion in an effort to obtain new territories on the continent and eventually overseas. American combination of foreign policy and business interests has lead the United States to pursue ambitious expansionist strategies since its inception and will continue to use the same strategies in the future (Cobbs Hoffman 2013).
Despite many arguments that American expansion resulted from popular demand and enjoyed support from the majority within the nation, one can hardly ignore the economic influence and the influence of businesses on the decision to expand the United States. Initially, this expansion focused on ‘westward expansion’ and the efforts of the United States to create a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts (LaFeber 1963). While many Americans individually sought to move west into the newly purchased Louisiana territory, the government influenced their decisions heavily as it attempted to create new states and markets in the newly expanded lands. These efforts gave subsidies or directly invested in the movement of white settlers to entice them to move west from the east coast. Furthermore, railroad companies became some of the largest businesses in the U.S., as they were often the only means for transporting goods and people across the nation (LaFeber 1963). This in turned lead to strong support from the federal government that hoped to use the rail companies to facilitate the spread of goods and people west. To this end, the government provided huge tracts of land to these companies to entice them to expand west and to subsidize the costs of their expansion, which would in turn lead to new markets in the U.S.
Once Westward Expansion was realized in full and the United States was connected from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the United States turned south and abroad as it began to expand the border even further (Colby 2011). This period lead to the most significant period of expansion abroad in American history after victory in the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War that lead to massive land concessions to the United States (Colby 2011). One can argue that American efforts during this era that lead to the creation of the state of Panama and the construction of the Panama Canal represent the most ambitious expansion in American history (Missal 2008). Not only did the United States support a military lead coup to establish a new state, it also funded and completed one of the largest most expensive and projects in history; one that the French Empire had already failed to complete. While American expansion and the influence of business on the government did not stop here, this project represents a seemingly blind support of initiatives to promote both business and trade through the full support of the American government for international trade (Missal 2008).
Following the opening of the Panama Canal and the expansion of American trade in the Pacific, the United States was involved in the First and Second World Wars that eventually lead to the end of the colonial era across the world and loss of popular support for expansion (Johnson 2005). This lead to efforts by the U.S. government to establish new means of projecting power abroad to ensure that the values of democracy and free trade continued to allow business to succeed across the world. As a direct result of the massive military expansion during the wars and eventual bipolar Cold War with Russia, the United States began to negotiate for and establish bases across the world to counter the Russians and protect American interests (Johnson 2005).
Today with over 700 active bases around the world, the United States continues to project power on every continent and seeks to promote American interests through these satellite military installations (Johnson 2005). It remains up for debate whether or not this policy of ‘base-ing’ constitutes a modern American Empire or something entirely new; however, the values this policy attempts to promote remain the same. Through the projection of force from the bases themselves and the use of carrier fleets to rapidly deploy force in areas where bases do not exist, the United States has the ability to project their values on every country in the world almost instantaneously (Cobbs Hoffman 2013). While some scholars claim that this influence has created a modern empire, others such as Cobb Hoffman argue that the exorbitant military spending of the United States has propelled it into the role of ‘international umpire’ serving to prevent international conflict rather than world domination. More specifically, Cobbs Hoffman argues that operations such as Freedom of Navigation patrols and deployment of carrier fleets to the Arabian Sea seek to support allies and democracies in their respective regions while also protecting the free trade through these vital regions (Cobbs Hoffman 2013).
Since its inception, the United States has valued democracy and free trade domestically. Following success at home, American business and economic interests quickly searched for new markets and sought to expand the United States to ensure access to new regions on the continent and abroad (Foner 2017). This legacy continues to persist today, despite the end of colonial expansion, through the use of the U.S. military to protect American business interests abroad by supporting free trade (Johnson 2005). While these ideals are largely accepted around the world, nations such as China and Russia often question the legitimacy of American action abroad and condemn the use of military force in regions the claim as their own, such as the South China Sea. Considering the consistent support for these principles through massive spending on the military to maintain fleets and bases abroad, the U.S. most consider to what extent these policies remain successful and cost effective, especially in areas so far from the U.S (Cobbs Hoffman 2013).