American interests are represented everywhere in the world, and the American public doesn’t seem convinced that the cost of this sometimes burdensome luxury is worth the price. After going trillions of dollars into debt and losing thousands of servicemembers to win the war on terror only to find itself abandoning Afghanistan and struggling to fight off a pandemic imported from its largest trading partner, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to appreciate why former President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy resonated with so much of the American public.
No matter what the global headlines are, we can be sure that the story that follows will discuss how America either caused, or will be impacted by, the subject of the headline. Some of this makes inherent sense, after all we live in a globalized world and America still has the world’s largest economy by a substantial margin. More than that though, America has actively sought to expand its influence and physical presence around the world and voluntarily become the de facto guarantor of much of the security, diplomatic, and financial infrastructure that enables the modern world. The story of how America rose to this position by capitalizing on its economic and military might after WWII and eventually besting the USSR in the cold war is well known.
However, the why behind the decision to accept the risk of becoming involved in an infinite number of distant matters large and small is often glossed over. From the founding of our nation American neutrality and a pervasive avoidance of becoming overly involved in what President Washington referred to as “foreign entanglements” was the widely accepted and unquestioned bedrock of our foreign policy. Now we have become what Secretary of State Albright repeatedly described as the world’s “indispensable nation”, constantly engaged by necessity around the world. So what happened? The turning point came during World War I under the tutelage of President Woodrow Wilson.
From Neutrality to Engagement
Woodrow Wilson’s tenure as president presided over one of the most consequential reformulations of what constituted American national security in U.S. history. The far-reaching nature of the war amongst European powers imposed significant costs on every global power, including the U.S., challenging traditional notions of neutrality in the international system. It also led to a reformulation of the role of the federal government in ensuring national security before, during, and after a conflict and a corresponding expansion of the resources granted by congress to the executive branch to fill those roles. Additionally, it changed perceptions about the effect the domestic politics of foreign nations could have on the international system and America. Although Woodrow Wilson’s ambitious plan to have America join the League of Nations failed, the ideas that led him to advocate for such a move did successfully permeate the national security establishment in the interwar years and cemented the shift from global neutrality to persistent engagement as the new basis for American national security.
More Money, More Problems
Following the rapid expansion of domestic production and international trade during the industrial revolution and gilded age, the war that broke out in Europe in 1914 touched the American homeland in new and unavoidable ways. Traditional foreign policy thinking at this time held that maintaining the status of a neutral power, with well-established rights under international law, allowed the U.S. to honorably avoid getting drawn into armed conflict while benefiting financially from trading with all sides. However, the scale of the war in Europe, relying on the mass mobilization of entire populations and drawing resources from the entirety of the industrial bases of its participants challenged the notion that nations could interact “neutrally” with warring powers.
This caused Germany to consider targeting American merchant ships carrying all manner of goods as legitimate and necessary to the conduct of their war effort. The notion that a polite separation from a nation’s current martial endeavors and its daily commerce could be maintained was shattered. To trade with a warring nation had become the same as siding with it in its conflict with another as a practical matter, despite what diplomatic overtures may accompany such trade. This ensured America would bear significant costs not only in spite of, but because of its declared neutrality. After the war, this led to “the central foreign relations problem that consumed Americans across the political spectrum during the interwar years, namely how the old fail-safe strategy of neutrality should be redefined in an age of total warfare”. 
The response to this changing global landscape led to structural changes in the power of the executive branch and shape of the American national security apparatus. This structural change was symptomatic to the broader acceptance that the international system, and the utility of the laws that underpinned it and supported the otherwise questionable utility of pursuing neutrality as an effective strategy, had gone through a fundamental and irreversible change. This shift in post-World War I American policy has often been derided by historians as isolationist, but it is better understood as an attempt to find a way to apply the old principle of neutrality to a changing world.
Woodrow Wilson was able to use the realization of this change and how it would affect national security to argue for the expansion of active navy and reserve army forces to ensure America could protect its interests and have a legitimate voice in global affairs and was able to convince congress to authorize the funds to support both proposals. This authorization was provided by the same congress that later failed to ratify the treaty which would have brought the United States into the League of Nations. This indicates that while America still had deep reservations about becoming overly involved in, or responsible for, the affairs of other nations it recognized that it did need to retool itself and adapt to a changing environment.
So, What’s the New Plan?
The debate surrounding the efficacy of neutrality as a way to protect America’s national security led to a shift in understanding about America’s role in the world. Woodrow Wilson viewed America as the one country that could credibility mediate the conflict and create a “peace without victory”. He viewed this as necessary to prevent the war ending without leaving the victors with a false sense of confidence in their own power and legitimacy which would spur them to new martial endeavors, while also avoiding leaving those who lost with deep seated grievances that would spur them to seek their own revenge. He was concerned with the security dilemma created in an anarchic system where each country had to view each other country as a potential threat to its sovereignty, and as such maximize its domestic preparedness for war as a deterrent against aggression and an assurance of survival, creating two issues which threatened America.
The first was that the persistent need of great powers to create enough military power to ensure security from aggressive neighbors would itself create a reciprocating effect in neighbors. This would increase the likelihood of a war being started, and the nature of the scale of modern warfare given the industrial and population capacity of large states meant it would invariably impose costs on America. Wilson’s conclusion was that some type of global governing body was necessary to manage relationships and deter armed aggression between states. Without it, the nature of great power politics and the wars that resulted would not change and would lead to greater cycles of destruction. This became a key concept behind his argument for the necessity of the League of Nations.
The second was that a rise of militarism inside the United States would destroy America’s national identity by creating a reliance on conformity, subservience to the group and concentrating meaningful power in the hand of military professionals predisposed to use it to justify its necessity. The changing nature of warfare among powers, would make it increasingly difficult and less efficacious for America to avoid involvement and would necessitate such a military to ensure its own survival. However, the very presence of such a large, standing military would threaten the civic norms that underpinned American democracy and potentially lead to its downfall from within. To avoid this the idea developed that America had to be proactive in the world and attempt to shape global politics to reduce the likelihood of great power war.
Time to Call the Boys in For a Sit Down
Wilson saw the League of Nations as the mechanism for America to do this. Although the Senate ultimately failed to ratify joining the league, this should not be seen as a sign that America rejected the idea that the nature of war and geopolitics had fundamentally shifted, and America needed to adjust its national security strategy and international posture in response. Evidence of this can be seen in the anti-bolshevist sentiment that grew after the war and became ensconced in the State Department. After the war it was determined that America needed a professional cadre of diplomats trained in diplomacy and statecraft to man diplomatic missions abroad, leading to a reorganization of the State Department and the creation of a permanent Foreign Service School. This was a result of a campaign by State Department officials, outside academics, and approval of funds for the project by congress, indicating broad acceptance of the notion America needed to be more fully engaged abroad.
One of the key features of this larger, more professional Foreign Service was a strong anti-bolshevic sentiment. There was broad agreement that the rise of Bolshevik communism, especially the international committee dedicated to its expansion following the revolution in Russia was a threat to America at home and to its commerce abroad. There were fears that the spread of bolshevism would cause America to lose access to lucrative trading partners and that it might irreversibly degrade American identity at home, leading to the collapse of our civic institutions. America became concerned with any sign that bolshevism was taking hold in countries going through political turmoil domestically, particularly in Latin and South America. This represented a change from previous approaches to dealing with countries in America’s perceived sphere of influence, where the specific nature of their domestic political system, and not only their ability to productively engage in commerce and resist European control, became key to how America engaged with them.
The Genie is Out of the Bottle
America’s experience in World War I led to a fundamental shift in how it perceived its national security interests and how to pursue them. Woodrow Wilson envisioned America as uniquely situated to guide world affairs among great powers and create the institutional framework needed to attempt and rein in the anarchic nature of the international system. Although America ultimately rejected the full measure of his ambition at the time, it did accept the idea that America had to fully engage in world affairs and had a vested interest in the internal affairs of other countries. The idea of neutrality as the preferred national security doctrine had been thoroughly discounted, and the debate over the structure and substance of America’s newfound approach to engagement began in earnest. America must now revisit this debate as it seeks to chart a course through the 21st century and preserve the national character it finds under threat from abroad and within.
 Blower. Brooke L. “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919-1941.” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 345
 Blower. Brooke L. “From Isolationism to Neutrality: A New Framework for Understanding American Political Culture, 1919-1941.” Diplomatic History 38:2 (April 2014): 352
 Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 8-9
 Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 30
 Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 3
 Kennedy, Ross. “Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security,” Diplomatic History 25:1 (Winter 2001): 31
 Little, Douglas. “Antibolshevism and American Foreign Policy, 1919-1939: The Diplomacy of Self-Delusion.” American Quarterly 35:4 (Autumn 1983): 379-80.
 Little, Douglas. “Antibolshevism and American Foreign Policy, 1919-1939: The Diplomacy of Self-Delusion.” American Quarterly 35:4 (Autumn 1983): 380