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The U.S. role in world affairs: what is America's duty as the world's only superpower?

"Yesterday, six U.S. soldiers were killed after an attack by guerrilla fighters in Iraq ..."

Such news reports have become all too frequent in recent months. Last March, U.S.-led troops invaded Iraq after President Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with United Nations (UN) weapons inspectors. Although no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, people are grateful that Hussein, a brutal dictator, has been overthrown.

But the attack on Iraq and the war in Afghanistan have raised an important question: What role should the U.S. play in world affairs?

Defending the Free World

For nearly 50 years after World War II, the U.S. made defense of the "free world" the primary aim of its foreign policy. From 1945 to 1991, America was locked in a bitter struggle with the Soviet Union, a country that U.S. President Ronald Reagan once called an "evil empire." Each of the two nuclear military powers sought to spread its influence--one democratic, the other Communist--across the world. This struggle was known as the Cold War.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War. Suddenly, the U.S. was the world's only "superpower." America's foreign policy shifted, from one of containing Communism to promoting international cooperation.

Today, the U.S. makes its presence felt--militarily and economically--across the globe. It criticizes nations that do not encourage freedom and human rights. It also extends help to countries facing civil unrest, epidemic diseases, and economic crises. But that doesn't mean U.S. foreign policy is always without controversy.

No Consensus

Because of the potential threat that Saddam Hussein posed, President George W. Bush ordered what has been called the first preemptive (preventive) war in U.S. history.

"The [U.S. and its allies] will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder," President Bush said of Hussein's Iraq.

The UN and several countries, including France, Germany, Russia, China, and Canada, criticized the U.S. invasion. Many said the U.S. should not attack Iraq without first getting an international consensus (agreement).

Muslim nations were also angered by what they called "a war on Islam." A U.S. attack on Iraq, said Iran's Foreign Minister last February, would help "people like [Osama] bin Laden preserve their popularity and become a hero, especially among the youth in the Islamic states."

The formal war against Hussein ended in April, but U.S. troops and officials remain in Iraq to help rebuild the country and its government. In recent months, they have faced increasing hostility, with an average of 30 attacks a day.

Violence in Afghanistan

In November 2001, U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Now, Al Qaeda terrorists and former Taliban leaders have begun to launch attacks against remaining U.S. troops and the UN-backed government of President Hamid Karzai (KAR-zeye). The violence has caused many people to wonder if we have committed enough resources to helping this war-torn nation.

Last month, Congress approved an $87.5 billion package for Iraq and Afghanistan; $22.8 billion of the money will be used for reconstruction projects and to help the Iraqi and Afghan people. This represents the largest U.S. aid package since the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II.

"We will not leave the Iraqi people in chaos," said Senator Ted Stevens (R, Alaska), "and we will not create a vacuum for terrorist groups to fill."

The Bush Doctrine

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. adopted a foreign policy known as the "Bush Doctrine." According to this set of principles, the U.S. will need to attack terrorists and hostile nations--before they attack us.

"We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best," President Bush said in 2002. "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge."

Some critics have likened the U.S. policy to a "hunting license" that disregards international law and diplomatic relations. People also fear that preemptive military strikes could result in retaliatory attacks against American interests at home and overseas.

War on Terrorism

The centerpiece of the Bush Doctrine is the U.S.-led war on terrorism. U.S. troops currently seek out and fight Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other Central Asian nations.

Last month, President Bush urged several Middle Eastern nations, including Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, to promote democracy throughout the region.

"As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish," the President said, "it will remain a place of [decay], resentment, and violence ready for export."

One Jordanian official says that he supports the call for democracy, but only if "it is to be applied equally to all states and not [used as an excuse] to change unfriendly regimes."

Despite such criticism, U.S. leadership and resources remain key elements in resolving global issues. The U.S. role as mediator (referee) in the Middle East is crucial to establishing peace between the Palestinians and Israelis, for example.

"There will be no peace [in the Middle East] without the U.S.," a European official said last spring. "Peace treaties signed between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan were possible because of courageous leaders supported by [the U.S.]."

President Bush is also working to halt the nuclear-weapons programs in Iran and North Korea. So far, both nations have resisted U.S. calls for cooperation.

With American troops stationed in 136 countries, many people worry that our armed forces are overburdened. The Bush administration has struggled to persuade other countries to contribute military support in Iraq. The United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, and other nations have supplied troops.

But Turkey, Pakistan, and India have recently turned down requests for military reinforcements. Even the International Red Cross and the UN have scaled back their presence in Baghdad, Iraq's capital, because of growing violence.

Some observers say that lessons learned in the Vietnam War (1964-1975) should be applied to U.S. involvement in Iraq. About 58,000 U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, and Communist forces won the war.

Despite a growing number of casualties in Iraq, President Bush remains determined to complete the U.S. mission there. "The strength and will of free peoples is now being tested before a watching world," the President said recently. "And we will meet this test."

In a post-September 11 world, can the U.S. achieve its goals of international cooperation while continuing to act as global policeman?

Words to Know

* Cold War: An intense rivalry that developed after World War II when the Communist Soviet Union sought to spread its influence worldwide.

Your Turn


1. What role should the U.S. play in world affairs?

2. Why might the Iraqi boys above be against the U.S.?



Students should understand

* the U.S. plays a leadership role in resolving many global problems.


Discuss with the class what it means for one nation to be an ally of another. Ask students: "Why do countries form alliances?"


The U.S. dominates the world militarily and economically. The U.S. military defense budget for 2004 will probably exceed the defense budgets of the next 20 top-spending nations combined. The U.S. economy is also the most powerful of all nations. In 2001, the U.S. accounted for 21 percent, or $10.4 trillion, of the world's gross domestic product (value of all goods and services produced in one year).


COMPARE AND CONTRAST: Compare the U.S. foreign policy in the periods from 1945 to 1991 and from 1991 to 2001. (From 1945 to 1991, the U.S. focused primarily on containing the spread of Communism throughout the world. From 1991 to 2001, the U.S. foreign policy shifted toward promoting greater international cooperation.)

COMPREHENSION: How did U.S. foreign policy change after September 11, 2001? (The Bush administration adopted a more aggressive foreign policy that called for preemptive strikes against any group or nation that threatens American interests at home or abroad.)


OVERSEAS U.S. MILITARY MISSIONS: Divide the class into four groups. Assign to each group one of the following world areas where the U.S. is currently involved in military operations: Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, or South America. Each group should write a report or create a time line that details the U.S. military missions in the assigned world region.



* Power, authority, and governance: How the U.S. plays a leading political, military, and economic role in resolving world problems.

* Global connections: How some nations oppose current U.S. military operations, and distrust U.S. leadership in resolving some international disputes.



* Spies, Karen B., Isolation vs. Intervention (Millbrook Press, 1997), Grades 5-8.

* Jenkins, Brian M., Countering Al Qaeda (Rand Corporation, 2002). Grades 5-8.


* United Nations

* U.S. State Department


Decide whether each sentence is true, false, or an opinion.

-- 1. As the world's only "superpower," the U.S. should protect the rights of people everywhere.

-- 2. The Cold War was the intense rivalry between groups of Communist and non-Communist nations before World War II.

-- 3. About $22 billion of the $87.5 billion U.S. aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan will fund reconstruction projects in those nations.

-- 4. The Bush Doctrine calls for pre-emptive strikes against terrorists and hostile nations threatening world peace.

-- 5. The U.S. supports the government of Afghanistan's President Pervez Musharraf.


1. Opinion

2. False

3. True

4. True

5. False
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Author:Landauro, Victor
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 8, 2003
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