The United States has long seen itself as a very special nation, playing a uniquely noble role on the world stage. While other nations are said to be guided by vulgar self-interest, the United States is supposedly different; the primary goal of American foreign policy is, according to the State Department’s website, to “promote and demonstrate democratic values and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.” But how well does the United States live up to those so-called “democratic values”? Does it in fact promote the cause of a “free, peaceful, and prosperous world”? Let’s look at the facts.
US Foreign Aid and Human Rights
To begin with, the US has a horrific foreign aid record. It seems that American aid is quite a good predictor of human rights abuses, and that this trend goes back decades; according to a 1981 study in the journal Comparative Politics, US aid is “clearly distributed disproportionately to countries with repressive governments… this distribution represented a pattern and not merely one or a few isolated cases.” Indeed, it is quite easy to find examples of the United States supporting vicious repressive regimes (such as Pinochet’s Chile, the Shah of Iran, and the military junta of El Salvador).
Similarly, a 1984 study in the Journal of Peace Research looked at human rights and US aid under Nixon, Ford, and Carter. The authors found that “under Presidents Nixon and Ford foreign assistance was directly related to levels of human rights violations, i.e. more aid flowed to regimes with higher levels of violation, while under President Carter no clear statistical pattern emerged.” They therefore conclude that “the Carter administration did not implement a policy of human rights which actually guided the disposition of military and economic assistance.” In other words, the US attitude towards human rights seems to vary from outright hostility (under more conservative administrations) to mere indifference (under more liberal ones).
More recent studies have painted a similarly bleak picture. A 2008 book by Rhonda Callaway and Elizabeth Matthews found that “both United States economic and military aid have detrimental effects on security rights of the citizens in recipient states.” They note that these results “provide support for those critical of the US foreign assistance program.” The most recent research has continued to back up these conclusions. A 2016 study in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science sampled 150 countries from 1972 to 2008, finding that “US aid harms political rights, fosters other forms of state repression (measured along multiple dimensions), and strengthens authoritarian governance. […] These findings counter the publicly stated objectives of the US government to foster political liberalization abroad via bilateral economic assistance.”
All-in-all, it seems that aid from the United States has a deleterious impact on the human rights situation in recipient nations. It provides military and economic aid to repressive regimes, arming and propping up some of the most vicious dictators on the planet, all in service of its own interests.
The Human Cost of the “War on Terror”
Lest we think that the harm of US foreign policy stops at providing aid to dictators, the United States has also carried out a great deal of violence all on its own. To demonstrate the enormous death toll of US military intervention and invasion, let’s take a look at the post-9/11 “War on Terror,” including the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (among others).
According to a 2019 report from Brown University’s Costs of War project, “between 770,000 and 801,000 people have died” in what the report refers to as “America’s post-9/11 wars.” This tally does not include so-called “indirect deaths,” such as those resulting from displacement and the destruction of crucial infrastructure (e.g. water and sanitation systems). In a 2019 article for the Hill, David Vine (Professor of Anthropology at American University) writes that “total deaths during the post-2001 U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen [are] likely to reach 3.1 million or more — around 200 times the number of U.S. dead.” Others have come to similar conclusions. According to a 2018 report from the Intercept:
In addition to those killed by direct acts [of] violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.
These death tolls are backed up by earlier research. A 2009 article from the MIT Center for International Studies, which looked only at Iraq, found that “we have, at present, between 800,000 and 1.3 million ‘excess deaths’ in this war as we approach its six-year anniversary.” Keep in mind that this is only one of the invaded countries, and that this article was authored in 2009 (more than a decade ago). The current death tolls, when factoring in all nations (as well as the decade of subsequent warfare), are likely many times higher.
The United States government has engaged in a concerted effort to hide the civilian cost of its Middle Eastern wars. According to a 2017 report from the New York Times, the actual rate of civilian causalities inflicted by coalition forces in the Middle East is “more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history.”
In point of fact, US forces often kill more people than the terrorists they are supposedly there to fight; a 2019 article in the New York Times reports that “more civilians are being killed by Afghan government and American forces than by the Taliban and other insurgents, according to a [United Nations] report on Wednesday.” This is not even mentioning the US drone program, which was detailed in a 2013 report from the Intercept. To make matters worse, civilian casualties from US wars have been increasing dramatically since Donald Trump took office, according to a 2018 article from the Washington Post.
While it must be noted that the United States did not personally kill all of the millions of people mentioned above, it still bears a heavy burden for these deaths, having initiated the invasions, and started the entire conflict. In the same way that we hold Hitler responsible for the deaths of WWII (since he was the one who started it), so too should we hold the United States responsible for the deaths listed above. For more information on the civilian cost of US intervention, I recommend The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, a study authored by John Tirman, director of the MIT Center for International Studies.
Coups and Regime Change: The Case of Chile
The United States has a long history of overthrowing governments it doesn’t like, typically then replacing them with brutal dictatorships. There are many, many examples of this, ranging from Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, to Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran (a coup for which the CIA actually admitted responsibility in 2013). In order to understand the horrific effects that these coups often have, it will be helpful to take a particular example: that of Chile, where in 1973 the United States helped to overthrow the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende, replacing it with the right-wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. A 2017 article in the New York Times details many of the documents proving US intervention. As one man put it:
“To see on a piece of paper, for example, the president of the United States ordering the C.I.A. to preemptively overthrow a democratically elected president in Chile is stunning,” Mr. Kornbluh said. “The importance of having these documents in the museum is for the new generations of Chileans to actually see them.”
As if this were not enough, in a 2014 interview with the Atlantic, Jack Devine (a former CIA agent who was in Chile at the time of the coup) confirmed that the Nixon administration was directly instructing the CIA to support the coup. According to declassified documents, Nixon had previously ordered Henry Kissinger to “make the economy scream,” in an effort to rally support for the right-wing forces. The United States also attempted to prevent Allende from being inaugurated after his election, and provided support for state-terrorist campaigns after the coup. Now that the US role has been established, let’s look at what Pinochet did once in power.
To begin with, Pinochet killed, tortured, and “disappeared” tens of thousands of people. According to a 2011 article from the BBC, the “total of recognized victims” numbers over 40,000, including more than 3,000 who were killed or forcibly disappeared. The rest were kidnapped, tortured, exiled, or some combination of the above. Pinochet was one of the most vicious dictators in the history of Latin America, and the United States played a direct role in propping up his regime.
In addition, Pinochet introduced hard-line neoliberal reforms, which did immense damage to Chile’s economy. A good study on this was published in 1990 in the journal Critical Sociology. The authors note that growth rates under Pinochet were remarkably unimpressive:
The Pinochet model produced growth rates well below the Chilean average established over the 1950–72 period. The average yearly GDP rate of growth in the latter period was 3.9 percent, while the Pinochet regime averaged 1.4 percent over the 1974–83 period… overall growth throughout the 1980s has been far from miraculous: GDP per capita grew at a 1.2 percent average rate between 1980 and 1989, below the 1.7 percent average yearly rate for 1950–72.
In addition, the authors charge Pinochet with “creating a great deal of poverty,” noting that unemployment “rose dramatically after the coup,” while real wages fell. At the same time, social expenditures were reduced, and “infectious diseases readily associated with poverty, overcrowding poor hygiene, and inadequate sanitation underwent explosive growth.” This assessment is echoed by a study in the International Development Planning Review, which found that “the radical neoliberal policies and structural adjustment of the 1970s and 1980s during the Pinochet regime had severe negative effects on the poor and middle class.” The poverty rate itself increased dramatically; according to a report from the North American Congress on Latin America:
The number of poor Chileans doubled during the Pinochet regime. By 1989, 44% of Chileans lived in poverty.
In addition, it seems that Pinochet’s privatizations also helped to create enormous corruption. According to a study in the Journal of Economic History, “firms were sold underpriced to politically connected buyers.” This had predictable consequences:
These newly private firms benefited financially from the Pinochet regime. Once democracy arrived, they formed connections with the new government, financed political campaigns, and were more likely to appear in the Panama Papers. These findings reveal how dictatorships can influence young democracies using privatization reforms.
All of this goes to show the horrifying impact that US intervention in regime change had on Chile. One can only imagine the combined suffering of the people in all of the nations that the United States has “intervened” in over the last several decades.
This has been only a very brief summary of the crimes committed abroad by the United States government. Some of the very worst offenses (most notably the Vietnam War, as well as US support for the Pol Pot regime) have been omitted, if only because they are so egregious as to require their own post. Hopefully this has given a general introduction to the topic, which will spark the reader to make their own investigation into the issue. Useful reading includes Killing Hope by William Blum, as well as Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower, by the same author.
- U.S. Department of State | About Page
- Comparative Politics | U. S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions
- Journal of Peace Research | Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Assistance from Nixon to Carter
- Routledge | Strategic US Foreign Assistance: The Battle Between Human Rights and National Security
- Quarterly Journal of Political Science | Does Foreign Aid Harm Political Rights? Evidence from U.S. Aid
- Brown University | The Cost of the Global War on Terror: $6.4 Trillion and 801,000 Lives
- The Hill | Reckoning With the Costs of War: It’s Time to Take Responsibility
- The Intercept | It’s Time for America to Reckon With the Staggering Death Toll of the Post-9/11 Wars
- MIT Center for International Studies | Bush’s War Dead: One Million
- The New York Times | The Uncounted
- The New York Times | U.S. and Afghan Forces Killed More Civilians Than Taliban Did, Report Finds
- The Intercept | The Assassination Complex: The Drone Papers
- The Washington Post | Middle East Civilian Deaths Have Soared Under Trump. And the Media Mostly Shrug.
- MIT Center for International Studies | The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars
- CNN | In Declassified Document, CIA Acknowledges Role in ’53 Iran Coup
- The New York Times | Documenting U.S. Role in Democracy’s Fall and Dictator’s Rise in Chile
- The Atlantic | The Other 9/11: A CIA Agent Remembers Chile’s Coup
- National Security Archive | Chile and the United States: Declassified Documents Relating to the Military Coup, September 11, 1973
- BBC | Chile Recognizes 9,800 More Victims of Pinochet’s Rule
- Critical Sociology | The Chilean “Economic Miracle”: An Empirical Critique
- International Development Planning Review | Land of Miracles? A Critical Analysis of Poverty Reduction Strategies in Chile, 1975–2005
- NACLA | In Pursuit of “Growth With Equity”: The Limits of Chile’s Free-Market Social Reforms
- Journal of Economic History | The Privatization Origins of Political Corporations: Evidence from the Pinochet Regime
- The New Statesman | How Thatcher Gave Pol Pot a Hand