Analysis & Opinions - War on the Rocks

The Psychology of Stickiness: What America Can Learn from Its Annexation of the Philippines In 1898

| May 05, 2022

The moment the United States became a major military power in Asia can be traced to a single day, Oct. 28, 1898. It is a story about the difficulty of letting go, and it teaches us an important lesson: An everyday psychological bias can lead to years of entanglement. Foreign policy commentary is awash with debates about why one region or another is more or less relevant to U.S. national interests. Those debates are important, but they miss a general point. It is always hard to let go.

It is well-known that the United States manages some 514 military sites overseas and deploys more than 170,000 active-duty personnel across 150 countries. Every president in recent memory, Republican and Democratic, either promised a reduction in military force abroad or criticized prior interventions as distractions (or both). But overall troop deployments have either increased or stayed the same.

Few, of course, foresaw shocks to the system, such as 9/11, that required a response. But a majority of Americans supported a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan back in 2011, and it still took another ten years to leave. Why is it so hard to reduce that military footprint, even when public opinion is in favor of doing so?

Understanding stickiness helps us understand our world today. The future of the United States and Asia may be the most important strategic question of our time. Yet the trajectory of U.S. power and interest in Asia is a product of stickiness. Where did the major U.S. presence in Asia come from, and what can we learn from it?

William McKinley's Decision to Annex the Philippines

In the arc of U.S. relations with East Asia, Oct. 28, 1898, should rank as one of the most consequential days in U.S. history. That day, U.S. President William McKinley ordered the annexation of the Philippines, leading to U.S. colonization of a country with a population of 9 million, the size of Arizona, 7,000 miles from the California coast, for over four decades....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Mukharji, Aroop.“The Psychology of Stickiness: What America Can Learn from Its Annexation of the Philippines In 1898.” War on the Rocks, May 5, 2022.

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