Through a network of nearly 800 military bases located in 70 countries around the globe, in addition to an array of trade deals and alliances, the U.S. has cemented its influence for decades across both Europe and Asia. American leaders helped impose a set of rules and norms that promoted free trade, democratic governance — in theory, if not always in practice — and a prohibition on changing borders militarily, using a mixture of force and suasion to sustain the systems that keep its hegemony intact. Meanwhile, although the U.S. generally eschewed direct colonialism, its promotion of global free trade helped “open a door through which America’s preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all the underdeveloped areas of the world,” wrote the revisionist historian William Appleman Williams in his more-than-half-century-old classic, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy”.
That strategy of “non-colonial imperial expansion,” as Williams called it, became the basis for U.S. foreign policy over the past century. For American elites, such a policy has provided remarkable benefits, even if the resulting largesse has not always trickled down to the rest of the country. Thanks to its status as the world’s only superpower, the U.S. today enjoys the “exorbitant privilege” of having its dollar serve as the world’s reserve currency, while U.S. leaders dominate the agenda of international institutions promoting governance and trade. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the successful creation of a global military alliance to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that same year, America’s imperial confidence reached a zenith; President George H.W. Bush publicly declared the start of a “new world order” under American leadership.