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Xenophobia at the Roots of US Foreign Policy

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174 years ago, the United States declared war on Mexico and proceeded to conquer forty percent of its territory in a barely-disguised land grab. Yet despite capturing Mexico City, xenophobia led US leaders to annex only the sparsely-populated region from Texas to California, notably refusing to pursue populous southern Mexico.

As I describe in The Picky Eagle: How Democracy and Xenophobia Limited U.S. Territorial Expansion, xenophobia was a major reason why the United States rejected this and other opportunities to annex neighboring societies in Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean: US leaders broadly considered populations in those areas alien and unfit to share in their self-government.

Then and Now

When I began researching this subject back in 2011, xenophobia ironically felt like a foreign concept—a misguided notion from the bygone era of race-based slavery that had been overcome by civil rights and globalization. During hundreds of hours spent poring over historical documents, I often found government leaders saying things that felt surreal—how could such words have been openly declared on the floors of Congress? How could they possibly have sounded persuasive even to contemporaries?

I often found government leaders saying things that felt surreal—how could such words have been openly declared on the floors of Congress?

Such disbelief was surely the product of a privileged and internationalized upbringing—so self-assured that racism was wrong as to feel a cognitive detachment from the evidence of its prevalence and skepticism that it could be a major driver of US foreign policy. The evidence eventually grew overwhelming, and now readers can see it and judge for themselves— especially in Chapters 6 and 7 on US opportunities to annex territory in Mexico and overseas.

Openly xenophobic political rhetoric has seen a dramatic resurgence during the past four years, making this aspect of The Picky Eagle unfortunately timely. Spurred by President Trump’s well-documented inclination to portray any problem as a foreign problem—from blaming asylum seekers for crime and drugs to pretending that halting immigration can protect against the domestic spread of disease—the current domestic political atmosphere will likely leave few readers surprised to learn of xenophobia’s importance in shaping US territorial ambitions.

The current domestic political atmosphere will likely leave few readers surprised to learn of xenophobia’s importance in shaping US territorial ambitions.

Nevertheless, it may yet be provocative to learn how central it was to US leaders’ decisions not to conquer their remaining neighbors, arguably the most fundamental aspect of portrayals of the United States as a benevolent actor on the world stage.

Xenophobia, Annexation, and Exceptionalism

The Picky Eagle reveals how xenophobia combined with democratic politics to limit US territorial ambitions. In short, US leaders repeatedly targeted sparsely-populated lands that could be filled with domestic settlers but rejected even profitable opportunities to annex neighboring societies that they saw as too alien for US citizenship.

The Picky Eagle reveals how xenophobia combined with democratic politics to limit US territorial ambitions.

Their democratic system of governance ensured that every annexation would have distributional consequences for the domestic political balance of power, and it created a dilemma without a solution—how to absorb territories inhabited by large numbers of people they didn’t want in their country. Between 1774 and 1898, US leaders confronted opportunities for annexation on a case-by-case basis, ruling out those they saw as undesirable until no attractive targets remained.

75 years ago, US negotiators were busy leading the San Francisco conference that founded the United Nations, its charter declaring among other things that conquest had become prohibited under international law. The willingness of the United States to foreswear further territorial expansion even as its power grew to unprecedented heights (and to repeatedly spend blood and treasure deterring and reversing other countries’ potential conquests while refraining from its own) are signatures of American exceptionalism. Yet even exceptional trees can have dirty roots.


Richard W. Maass is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Evansville, where he teaches and researches on US foreign policy, international security, terrorism, and international law. Follow him on Twitter @richardmaass.


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