The notion of honor in foreign affairs runs deep in the American psyche, even if recent controversial tactics such as prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib and secret drone attacks in Pakistan contradict the ideal for some. This high-minded U.S. ambition derives from the country’s Anglo-American heritage and the belief that with power comes responsibility. The principle, however, often fails in practice. Why? This article analyzes one reason: the very genesis of the lofty impulse.
The beginning of U.S. military, political, and financial clout dated to the end of World War I, with the armistice in November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. U.S. influence grew after it helped Allied forces, spearheaded by Britain, France and Russia, defeat Germany and Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Fresh from victory, a growing economy, and a perception of its elevated rank in the postwar order, the U.S. lent money and offered advice to devastated countries across Europe. This abetment created an opportunity for America to challenge Britain as the new global hegemon.
But the U.S. did not completely throw off the British mantle. Instead, leaders including President Woodrow Wilson remained influenced by the aims that had guided Britain’s internationalism during the height of its dominance in the I9,h century. Part of that inheritance was the insistence that honor and responsibility inform geopolitics. In other words, WWI, which commenced 100 years ago this summer, became the initial test for America to act abroad on its values.
During the war, the killing of more than 1 million Armenian civilians by the Ottoman Empire outraged the West.’ Europe’s Great Powers declared it a “crime against humanity.” This first large-scale extermination of a people in the 20lh century demanded a legal and humanitarian response.
Outrage over the Armenian Genocide of 1915 did not come out of nowhere. Antecedents traced to 19”’-century Great Power politics, when Britain had asserted its prerogative as a defender of minority rights.’ The outcry over the “Bulgarian Atrocities” of May 1876, when Ottoman soldiers killed thousands of civilians on the eve of the Russo-Turkish War, set the standard for Britain’s burgeoning duty to protect persecuted minorities.’ The 1878 Treaty of Berlin that ended the conflict made Britain the primary protector of Christian minorities in the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire. Nations such as Russia and France joining with Britain in the Concert of Europe understood that a social conscience was integral to transnational governance.4
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