American Arrogance Overseas Should End

The arrest of the 10-member church group trying to “rescue” 33 Haitian children from the aftermath of the earthquake by smuggling them across the border to the Dominican Republic has wider implications for U.S. foreign policy. The group’s besmirching of the substantial and laudable American humanitarian effort in Haiti is regrettable. But the arrogance of simply ignoring the rule of law in foreign countries is a rich American tradition, practiced by the U.S. government as well as missionaries such as these.

The leader of the group seems to have willfully ignored warnings about taking the children across the border without following the laws of the countries involved. Any argument that the dire humanitarian situation required this flouting of the law stumbles on the fact that more than one Haitian orphanage declined to give up children to the group because it smelled of child trafficking. Also, the group’s credibility was undermined because its leader claimed that all the children came from orphanages and were abandoned, yet many had at least one living parent.

Even if the group meant well—defining this is difficult because one might suspect that the group wanted to eradicate traditional Haitian religious practices from the children’s spiritual menu in addition to merely providing for their physical needs—it arrogantly disregarded laws, even after being warned by an official not to do it. Such arrogance, in the name of “helping” people, has a long history in U.S. foreign policy.

The current U.S. foreign policy of militarized social work—initiated by William McKinley during the Spanish-American War, perfected by Woodrow Wilson in Latin American in the years prior to World War I, and perpetuated by Harry Truman and his successors after World War II—is actually rooted in the missionary tradition of converting heathen peoples to Christianity. Eventually, such missionaries began to request military protection.

Ultimately, the U.S. government took over from the missionaries and substituted instituting democracy overseas for religious conversion. Unfortunately, the arrogance and military aspects of the policy didn’t change.

Now the U.S. government routinely violates the laws of other states to conduct renditions of suspected terrorists (for example, in Italy), to nation-build at gunpoint (for example, in Somalia and Bosnia), and to attack (for example, drone attacks into Pakistan) or invade other nations (for example, Iraq).

ivan-eland.jpgIn these episodes, as in the case of the missionary child-runners in Haiti, even good intentions don’t offset the hubris and the violation of the rule of law. Such behavior destroys any good will toward the United States that even the best of intentions might have generated.

It’s fine for Americans to try to do good deeds overseas—if no ulterior motives are involved (which many times there are)—but arrogance and contempt for other nation’s laws, culture, and customs should be left at home.

Ivan Eland

This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.


  1. Gail Dietrich says

    My husband and I lived in Saudi Arabia for 13 years and traveled quite a bit during that time, returning about 2 years ago. I was fortunate to meet President Obama before he was elected and I stated to him that this problem needed to be addressed. We felt this both as we lived in the Middle East and as we traveled in other areas of the world. We tried to defeat that impresion. President Obama took it all on board and said he agreed with me. I told him that our diplomats also needed to have their attitudes checked and he took that on board also. I believe he did reach out to other countries in a very positive way after he took office. I do think individual Americans need to reach out in more positive ways and fight the “Ugly American” label.

  2. says

    I largely agree with the writer but would add one point. A general arrogance is loathsome and is to be deplored. However, it must be distinguished from a healthy nuanced skepticism on some particular overseas – and also domestic – laws and customs. SOME laws and customs overseas – and also some at HOME – DESERVE to be treated with some contempt (if that’s feasible)- including those abroad which tolerate and thereby promote abuse or serfdom of women, and those at home which criminalize strictly personal behaviors and do so inconsistently at that (e.g. in re possession of marijuana vs alcohol).

    By the way, arrogance abroad isn’t only American, and American federal arrogance toward local law isn’t only overseas. Until lately on med marijuana, the USA feds – and still now the LA County DA – have arrogantly subverted the intent of law and vote of the people of California.

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