On August 7th 2014 the US launched airstrikes against Islamic militants in Iraq. The purpose of the operation is to prevent the increasingly real threat of genocide in the north of the country. It demonstrates once again that the US is willing, but also perhaps needed, to take on a huge responsibility in securing stability around the world. However, the operation has ignited a response that America is becoming increasingly used to: a contrast between gratitude and anger.

Many lay the blame for the current crisis at America’s door. Their 2003 invasion is seen to have been the crucial destabilising factor, while the legality and intentions of the operation are themselves heavily questioned. If we are to accept that the US played a role in causing this crisis, how should they go about rectifying their own mistake? To do nothing would be seen as turning their back on a mess they created. To do too much would be seen as a failure to learn from their mistakes. Have the Americans doomed themselves to this fate?

America has long been in a debate over what role it should play in the world. It is under huge domestic and international pressure to be both more interventionist and more isolationist: an impossible and contradictory task. There have been numerous occasions when US intervention has been deemed a failure, but perhaps as many occasions where their inaction has also led to disastrous consequences. The decision makers certainly have a lot of history to contend with.

The conflict between the US’s own interests and its responsibilities is another huge issue. How far should it go to protect its own security and prosperity? How far should it go to protect the security and prosperity of others?

In the aftermath of the First World War, US President Woodrow Wilson proposed his fourteen point plan for lasting peace. Despite the establishment of the League of Nations, which Wilson had outlined in his plan, by America’s allies, America itself was not involved in the process. The institution proved to be incapable of restraining the axis powers. American involvement in combating the advancing aggressors did not come until 1942, when the US was attacked on its own ground. By this time much of Europe and Asia had already fallen to the Germans, Italians and Japanese. It is difficult to assess how history could have been altered, but it is clear that the isolationist sentiment in the US at this time did aid the efforts to secure peace.

In addition to that lesson from history, recent failures have further strengthened the interventionist cause. The international community has failed to prevent atrocities in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Kosovo and several other areas in the last two decades. Intervention has often come too late or not at all, but any intervention is met with at least some derision.

The US has recently suffered from embarrassing revelations, which have negatively affected some of its diplomatic relations. It has been found spying on the leaders of several of its allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The sort of mistrust that the US has displayed in its operations is unnecessary – though recent reports have suggested that the German government was itself eavesdropping on US officials – but hugely worrying. If acting honourably, the US should not have reason to be suspicious of its allies. As Robert McNamara warned, if we fail to justify our actions to nations with comparable moral standards, we should reassess our actions. He was referring, many years after the event, to the Vietnam War. It is concerning that parallels can still be drawn with mistakes made nearly half a century ago.

The US is seen by many as a declining superpower. Economically, it was already on the way to being overtaken by China before the 2008 financial crisis. Now this seems years, rather than decades, away. It is likely to remain the strongest military force in the world, however, while it has unparalleled soft power. US influence in global institutions, like the IMF and World Bank, is perhaps unrivalled, while its diplomatic relations still grant it much respect and leverage in the world. Regardless of what many people think of American foreign policy, few people are convinced that China would be a responsible superpower in the future. It could be the case that we come to rely on the US to restrain China. It could also be the case in the more distant future that we look back on US superiority more fondly than on the Chinese superiority of the time, should that ever come to fruition.

America has to realise that, while it does have priorities, it has to lead by example. Military action is not always the answer. It often leaves a dangerous and long-lasting aftermath. The US must condemn illegal and immoral actions wherever they have occurred. This means acknowledging its past mistakes. It also means speaking out against its allies when they do wrong, in addition to putting diplomatic pressure on them. If it appears that an international organisation favours America above those who need the most help, it must address this. These actions would improve the world’s vision of the US, helping it to carry out the responsibilities it truly does have. Anti-US sentiment is unhelpful and unnecessary.

There is more to behaving as a responsible superpower than the US government seems to understand. They must recognise this before it is too late to make a true difference to the world.

By Dom Lawson