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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchHistory Lessons: Five Myths about America's Rise

History Lessons: Five Myths about America’s Rise

Author: Gregory Mitrovich 

Affiliation: Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University 

Organization/Publisher: The National Interest

Date/Place: April 2, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Article

Word Count: 2410


Keywords: Myths of America’s Rise, China’s Rise, Great Britain, European Colonial Powers, History Lessons, and the Hegemony over Western Hemisphere 


With China’s huge rise in the Eastern Hemisphere, Chinese leaders argue that there is no significant difference between the current geopolitical situation of their country in its regional sphere and the situation in which the US found itself during its emergence as a power in the early 19th century, when it announced the Monroe Doctrine, expelled Britain and the European powers from the Americas, and rose as a unique regional power in the Western Hemisphere to lead the world after 1945 as a global superpower. In this article, the author refutes five basic perceptions related to the general geopolitical situation of the 18th and 19th centuries, the limits of American power, and its complex relations with the Europeans, especially Great Britain, describing these misperceptions as “myths”, emphasizing that the Chinese misunderstanding the complexities of that era, ignoring its lessons and making false comparisons between the model of its rise and the American model in the 19th century would harden the Sino-American rivalry in the 21st century. The first myth is the belief that the US was the most important rising power in the 19th century. According to the author, the US’ rise was not the central story of the 19th century, rather it was Great Britain, with its expanding empire that established a global economic system, in which its bankers funded 75% of global investments. Also, it brought all of Latin America and East Asia to its “informal empire” and imposed an era of peace as a commercial maritime power between 1815 -1939. It took two world wars to shake the foundations of British power and open the door to the United States. Many believe that the Atlantic Ocean protected the young United States from other European powers, and it is the second most enduring and bizarre myth in American history. The geographical location was neither safe nor protective of the US throughout most of its history, as is commonly believed, as the European powers were keen to limit the expansion of the American nation. The US was not surrounded by weak neighbors but was bordered from the north by “British North America” (Canada today), from the south and the west by the Spanish Empire, which, along with France, had military naval bases very close to the American coast, with a great ability to blockade American trade and attack American coastal cities. Thus, throughout the 19th century, the US was exposed to blockade and the possibility of its coastal defenses being destroyed until the beginning of the 20th century when Roosevelt built a military naval deterrent. The author also denies that the Monroe Doctrine has established American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere at the beginning of the 19th century. This is a third myth that he refuted. The US announced the Monroe Doctrine on December 2, 1823, and offered to leave Europe to the Europeans if European powers do not intervene against the newly emerging republics in the Western Hemisphere. The US also considered any European effort to restore Spanish power or demand new colonies in the Americas “a hostile act against the United States.” Thus, the US declared the “new world” as a sphere of its influence, ending centuries of European domination there. This was not the case, as the author argues, as Great Britain was the main factor in US domination over the Americas and the exit of Spain and France from there, not the Monroe Doctrine and American power. Since 1812, Britain has developed a strategy in which its European allies (Russia, Austria, France, and Prussia) have been involved, based on the non-interference of Europeans to help Spain regain control of its empire in the Americas. This is what has already been done. The Monroe Doctrine did not come until the year 1823 as a continuation of this strategy that allowed Britain to expand its commercial influence and network of investments in Latin America. Britain remained the first and most influential power there until the Great Depression and World War II. The fourth myth is the belief that Americans were united in their support of the “Manifest Destiny” in opposing Britain. The slogan “Our Manifest Destiny” emerged in 1845, and could be abbreviated in the slogan “America for the Americans.” It was based on rejecting the British and French intervention of the United States’ efforts to annex Texas and Oregon territories, then justifying the American territorial conquests towards the Pacific Ocean. There was no American consensus regarding this slogan, but rather a division among the nation between northerners and southerners until the Civil War broke out between them in 1861. The fifth myth says that America forced Britain to retreat during the Venezuela crisis in 1895, by expelling it and forcing it to recognize the US’ regional influence and affirming its hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. Instead, the author argues that a consensus was reached between the US and Britain at the time to share the burden; while Britain turned its attention to the European arena with the threatening rise of Germany, the US bore a greater responsibility in defending the interests of both nations in Latin America. Britain remained the most powerful power in Latin America until World War II when the US took the lead and truly became a hegemon power in the Western Hemisphere. After refuting these myths, the author wonders about the real lessons that China should draw from the US, especially those related to how the latter has dealt with Great Britain. First, never underestimate the existing great power. Second, the rising power must avoid unnecessary hostilities with the hegemon if it truly desires to rise peacefully. Third, China should follow the example of Britain in providing a comprehensive and not exclusive sphere of influence, as Britain has never sought to close its empire to any nation, as it encouraged South Americans, for example, to overcome their anti-American feelings and motivated them to trade with Washington in the 19th century. Finally, the author expresses his disappointment with the Chinese, who do not want to absorb these lessons because “they are convinced of America’s decline and increasingly demand obeisance from other states within East Asia, including US allies, which in turn will only harden the Sino-American rivalry in the 21st century.”

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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