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Revisiting the American Dilemma after the Cold War

by SKeira Mar 06, 2015
When Mar 14, 2002
from 6:00 PM to 7:00 PM
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Associate Professor of African and African American Studies

Keynote Speaker, 
Ethics: The Inaugural Symposium of the Rock Ethics Institute
Conference, March 14-16, 2002 
Nittany Lion Inn

Revisiting the American Dilemma after the Cold War

Cary Fraser, Director, Penn State Africana Research Center, studies the history of international relations to demonstrate the economic and “imperialistic” motives underlying the international and domestic policies of the United States. His publications include an examination of the involvement of the U.S. in the West Indies as a case-study in international policy and an investigation of the controversy over school desegregation in Arkansas as a case-study in domestic policy.

Fraser traces a shift in the attitude of the United States to West Indian independence that reflects the nature of American international interests: the United States was supportive of the decolonization of the West Indies only insofar as this change would further its own aims to become a greater world power. Through the “Bases-for-Destroyers” agreement made with Britain in 1940, the U.S. provided military materials to Britain in exchange for permission to set up military bases in the British colonies of the Caribbean. Establishing these bases was done in part to enable Britain to withdraw from its role as a colonial power in the area; thus, this agreement was initially seen as confirming U.S. support for the development of an independent West Indian government. Yet, when the British finally withdrew from the West Indies, American resistance to ceding the bases indicated that the U.S.’s support for West Indian nationalism was directly tied to its interests in gaining influence and control over the very countries that were attempting to secure their independence from colonial rule. This self-interested motivation can also be seen in the U.S.’s hindrance to the rise of Communist government in the West Indies in the 1960s, demonstrating its lack of support for the development of independent governments. Thus, “rather than validat[ing] American anti-colonialism, the decolonization process in the Caribbean and the wider world revealed the fundamental ambiguity of American claims to be a champion of self-determination” (1994, p. 208).

In his analysis of the desegregation controversy in Little Rock, Arkansas, Fraser argues that key decisions in American policy—this time regarding domestic issues—were driven by the country’s desire to continue its rise as a dominant international force. Fraser traces the growth during the1940s and 50s of international censure of U.S. policies of racial segregation both at home and in countries such as South Africa. By 1957, when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus attempted to prevent the desegregation of a Little Rock high school, international criticism of America’s policies on domestic race relations was too great to be overlooked. Fraser maintains that Eisenhower ordered military troops to support the desegregation of the Little Rock school in large part to quell the growth of this international criticism. He gives evidence of U.S. attempts to underplay the volatility of the Little Rock desegregation in order to assure the international community that racial relations in the U.S. were not as contentious as the episode in Little Rock may have suggested. At this time, the U.S. also increased its support for U.N. programs aiding Third World countries. Before the Little Rock episode, Fraser argues, the Eisenhower administration had assumed it could ignore international pressures regarding American race relations and that it could involve itself in countries with segregationist policies, such as South Africa, without suffering from international condemnation; but this attitude was checked when the Little Rock crisis made it clear that America was not safe from international criticism. Thus, Fraser writes:

In the wake of the Little Rock crisis, the United States discovered that it needed to devise a solution to the issues of racial inequality and the politics of exclusion at home in a way that would make its championship of democracy and anti-colonialism abroad a credible foreign policy (2000(b), p. 249).

Failure to do so would have threatened America’s interest in developing its financial and political power in the international community.

Fraser’s analysis of these two affairs in American history supports his general claim that “...’empire’ has been at the nexus of both American domestic and foreign policies in the twentieth century...” (2000(a), p. 232). In both situations, the crafting of U.S. policies was directly tied to American interest in expanding its influence in the world arena. In the first case, the U.S. shifted its support of independent government in the West Indies based on its own desires for political and financial involvement with these territories; in the second case, the U.S. tailored its response to a domestic crisis to ensure its ongoing acceptance in the international community.


Fraser, Cary. “Afterword.” In The United States and Decolonization: Power and Freedom, ed. D. Ryan and V. Pungong. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

“Crossing the Color Line in Little Rock: The Eisenhower Administration and the Dilemma of Race for U.S. Foreign Policy.” Diplomatic History 24, No. 2 (2000), 233-64.

Ambivalent Anti-colonialism: The United States and the Genesis of West Indian Independence, 1940-1964. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.

Recommended Reading

For a copy of the following article, contact the Rock Ethics Institute: rockethics@psu.edu

“Crossing the Color Line in Little Rock: The Eisenhower Administration and the Dilemma of Race for U.S. Foreign Policy.” Diplomatic History 24, No. 2 (2000), 233-64.

Kirsten Jacobson prepared this summary.