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.
McKinley made that decision in the aftermath of the War of 1898, when the United States defeated Spain (which held the Philippines) in less than four months. During the peace negotiations that followed, Spanish representatives ultimately acquiesced to McKinley’s demand — which also included Guam and Puerto Rico — for the price of $20 million. The peace treaty was signed in December and approved by the U.S. Senate two months later, passing with a margin of one vote.
This decision has shaped U.S. policy in Asia since. Annexation turned the United States into a major power in Asia and required a massive expansion of the U.S. military. It also changed the relationship between the United States and the Pacific Ocean, transforming a security blanket into a vulnerability by drawing the United States into a global imperial competition half a world away.
This impacted U.S. interests and activity in East Asia. First, it enabled greater U.S. military action far from home, because U.S. forces and assets were stationed so close by in the Philippines. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, drew on U.S. troops in the Philippines when he intervened in the Russian Civil War. Second, annexation heightened the sensitivity to security threats in the region, leading to more frequent and longer deployments of force. After all, China had become a next-door neighbor. The United States had to care.
Presence, Then Interest
McKinley’s interest in annexing all of the Philippines followed, instead of preceded, his deployment of force in the war effort. Unlike many other leaders, in 1898, McKinley was not an insatiable trade expansionist who craved access to the fabled China market. At the time, McKinley was generally skeptical of overseas markets, often calling them fickle and unreliable. Furthermore, an intelligence report McKinley ordered painted only a lukewarm economic outlook of the islands. The report also noted the potential growth of Filipino exports, something the author believed would harm U.S. labor and industry. Overseas commerce was not the primary driver of McKinley’s decision.
Before the war, McKinley did not like the idea of any U.S. involvement in Asia. Consider this anecdote: In March 1898, the British ambassador asked McKinley if he would publicly support open trade with China in the event that other European powers began restricting it within their imperial spheres of influence. McKinley supported the British position, but he politely rejected the request. He wanted to “[avoid] any interference or connection with European complications.” U.S. interests in Asia, McKinley decided, were not even worth announcing.
A month later, on April 11, 1898, McKinley requested the authorization to use force against Spain, which Congress soon granted. Though the impetus of the war was Spanish oppression in Cuba, Spain held many overseas colonies (including the Philippines), and McKinley wanted to neutralize Spain’s Pacific fleet. Various war plans drawn up by Naval War College leaders suggested the attack on the Philippines. The first battle of the War of 1898 thus took place in Manila Bay, when Commodore George Dewey smashed the Spanish fleet in a matter of hours. Over the summer, McKinley deployed 11,000 additional troops to wrest Manila from Spanish control, as he consolidated control over Cuba, Guam, and Puerto Rico in a series of overwhelming U.S. victories. On Aug. 12, 1898, Spain agreed to a peace protocol, ending the War of 1898. U.S. forces had been in the Philippines for less than four months, but the seeds of stickiness had been planted.
The fate of the Philippines was decided during the following peace negotiations, held in Paris throughout the fall of 1898. In mid-September, ahead of the negotiations, McKinley wrote his Secretary of State, William Day, about the reasonable chance of Spain holding on to some of the Philippines. McKinley knew he wanted something — the main island of Luzon, for instance — but he was still unsure about his goals. As a further signal of his uncertainty, McKinley appointed Day — who opposed full annexation — to lead McKinley’s negotiating team. McKinley went back and forth with his negotiators, who were split on the issue. Three supported annexation. Day argued to keep only a portion. A lone fifth commissioner wanted nothing. On October 28, unable to let go, McKinley ordered his commissioners to demand the whole archipelago.
Historians have proposed many explanations for McKinley’s decision. The most focused analysis of McKinley’s decision, undertaken by historians such as Ephraim Smith and Philip Zelikow (Zelikow’s study being the most detailed and thorough to date), have stressed McKinley’s strategic thinking and a version of mission creep. They argue that McKinley knew he wanted to hold on to a coaling station, a valuable resource for expanding shipping radii in the age of steam. This led him to keeping Manila, which then led him to keeping the island of Luzon, which then, to avoid international war, led him to keeping the whole island chain.
The 1898 era was marked by European and Japanese competition in the Pacific, as imperial powers had been gobbling up ports, islands, and territories over the second half of the nineteenth century. McKinley’s officials, including Dewey in Manila, reported that interest in the Philippines was high, especially from Germany. Rightly or wrongly, McKinley worried.
Relying on the advice of close advisors and the few contemporary Western observers of the Philippines, McKinley felt U.S. annexation avoided the worst consequences. Returning the islands to Spain would ensure the reinstatement of oppressive Spanish colonial rule. If he sold the islands to another power, he worried this would invite further great-power competition in the Pacific and war “within fifteen minutes.” Because his advisors doubted the capacity of the multi-tribal (fractious, they argued) Filipinos to self-govern, McKinley believed independence would lead to a power vacuum, chaos, and then great-power war. Finally, there was U.S. acquisition.
The Power of Perceived Ownership
Why was any of this relevant to U.S. national interests? Before the War of 1898, McKinley was unwilling to make a statement about U.S. interests in the Pacific to avoid European complications. Now, he was ready to annex an entire country precisely because of European complications. How did a distant country of minor value become a central national security interest? What changed?
The difference was U.S. presence. McKinley’s private and public statements evidence a belief that the Philippines were already in U.S. possession at the time he made his decision. Thus, he framed the choice as being between keeping the Philippines and losing them, rather than being between gaining the Philippines and maintaining the status quo.
This framing may sound like a subtle difference, but it holds powerful implications. In decision science, scholars have found that individuals overvalue their possessions. This is called the “endowment effect,” first theorized by Richard Thaler in 1980 (and further theorized since). Thaler drew from previous research on “prospect theory,” famously argued by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. Of their many findings, Kahneman and Tversky argued that reference points skew individual preferences, that people dislike losing more than they enjoy gaining the same amount, and if individuals see themselves as losing, they become risk-seeking. A small handful of scholars have applied prospect theory to leadership decision-making.
Thaler built on prospect theory’s logic with the endowment effect. He argued that once something is owned, it is valued more highly. Ownership creates a new reference point, implying that an individual would dislike losing something after owning it more than the utility they would enjoy prospectively before owning it. It also implies a preference for something owned over an alternative of equal value. Other scholars have since modified Thaler’s underlying explanation, but agree ownership critically changes valuation.
That intuition helps explain McKinley’s decision. The Manila attack and subsequent takeover of the city mattered because they created the impression in McKinley’s mind that the Philippines were already America’s.
Counterfactual reasoning can help clarify the idea. Consider the following alternative past. Say Spain, after McKinley’s election but before the War of 1898, acquiesced to Filipino revolutionaries and left the Philippines. In that world, does McKinley worry enough about Spain’s decision for him to deploy tens of thousands of U.S. troops to the Philippines? We can say with near certainty that he does not. The only major variable that differs between the fake reality just presented and the true reality is U.S. presence from the war. And it bears repeating: McKinley did not deploy troops to the Philippines during the war for the purpose of ultimately conquering the islands.
Spain’s departure from the Philippines, had it happened before the war, would not have concerned McKinley a whit. The Philippines mattered because the war had created a feeling of ownership for McKinley. Losing the Philippines was conceived precisely that way: as a loss, not as a return to the antebellum status quo. In other words, holding the Philippines was the starting position and losing the Philippines was the outcome, rather than not having the Philippines as the starting position and gaining the Philippines as the outcome.
In imagining a future where the United States did not annex the Philippines, McKinley would invoke images like “taking down the flag,” “leaving,” “giving them back,” and “losing the fruits of victory.” “Where the flag flies it is seldom lowered,” he once wrote in a draft of a speech. “It is not a question of keeping the islands of the East, but of leaving them,” he announced weeks later. These same images and constructions were used in private to advisors before annexation, and later, throughout his presidency, well after he had made his decision. “Possession” and “loss” were invoked frequently. It was not about convincing voters. This is how he genuinely thought about it.
That is significant. Individuals overvalue objects they already own. It also helps explain why McKinley paid less interest to a potential naval station in the Caroline Islands (also controlled by Spain), which two of his Paris peace commissioners felt was of equal or greater value to Manila and carried a lower burden than governing a whole new country.
The language around “retreat” and “lowering the flag” suggests an additional cost that McKinley may have envisioned: that of international status. He cabled his lead negotiator in Paris indicating that a division of the Philippines would cause “embarrassment.” Leaving the Philippines and causing chaos was an outcome “too shameful to be considered,” he said months later. Commenting more generally, McKinley wanted the United States to maintain its position “in the forefront of the nations of the world” and be “respected abroad.”
McKinley’s thought process centered on avoiding losses rather than seeking gains. This frame of mind indicates that McKinley perceived ownership of the Philippines and that the endowment effect inflated his valuation of the island chain. McKinley had never given the Philippines much attention before the war, never hailed it as a territory to acquire, never expressed concern for its future, and never indicated that he valued it as a U.S. interest. The endowment effect significantly accounts for his change of opinion in 1898 that the Philippines greatly mattered to the United States and the United States could not afford to let go of them.
McKinley and Today
What does U.S. imperialism in 1898 have to do with today? It is tempting (but misguided) to write off imperialism as purely the consequence of outdated thinking from another era. True, the prevailing racial and civilizational attitudes were different from today’s, and colonization was common. McKinley had a progressive (if passive) worldview for his time, but he did think of Filipinos as a lesser civilization. That worldview does help explain his strategic forecasting and why he felt Filipinos were so “unfit” for self-governing. But it does not explain the more basic question of why he cared in the first place.
It is the mundaneness of the endowment effect that should shock the conscience. All people are affected to some degree by ownership. Misdiagnosing a historical wrong dooms us to repeat the same ways of thinking.
Future historians will look back and wonder about the U.S. war in Afghanistan. It will be easy for them to explain the initial attack and war, much like it is easy to understand why McKinley attacked the Spanish military in Manila. But the length of the stay — the stickiness of American military intervention — will be much harder to explain. No doubt, many factors contributed to the longevity of U.S. troops in Afghanistan (even, perhaps, other psychological biases, like status quo bias). But U.S. leaders also may have valued it more because Americans were already there; because the United States had military installations; because U.S. leaders felt an ownership, not just over bases and personnel, but the mess at a general level.
But was that longevity based on an objective calculation of material interests?
Scholars, old and new, have called into question various types of expansion by strategic design. Obviously, national interests can drive military presence. What McKinley’s decision teaches us that military presence also drives national interests. And sometimes, military presence can drive national interests more than the other way around, even when there were few national interests in the first place. That is what is so remarkable about McKinley’s annexation of the Philippines in 1898. His conception of U.S. national interests changed because his conception of the United States changed from this overseas presence.
As the United States debates major strategic questions, like its future relationship with China, it must grapple with these ghosts of the past, not only in Asia but everywhere. The United States should avoid being a prisoner of the psychology of stickiness. History lives in a self-perpetuating, unwitting overvaluation of military presence abroad. In turn, stickiness can cause gratuitous threat inflation, much like it did for McKinley, distracting leaders from interests and threats that actually matter to the country and diverting military and economic resources away from where they are needed. Some scholars have argued a version of this self-perpetuating overvaluation has been largely intentional, blaming self-interested elites. Perhaps in some instances. But McKinley’s decision suggests it is the opposite — the unthinking overvaluation — that can be the greater risk, precisely because we are unaware of it.
For the United States today, stickiness also has the more subtle effect of manipulating its sense of self. An overvaluation of physical presence can reduce the appreciation of less salient tools of statecraft, such as economics, intelligence, cybersecurity, and diplomacy.
Of course, that does not mean there are no times or places to deploy force, or to deploy lots of it, in the face of genuine threats. What it means is that the United States needs to be clear-eyed about its psychological blinders in how it values interests abroad. It means recognizing a paradox of power projection: Greater presence abroad risks creating monsters from molehills.
Dr. Aroop Mukharji is a visiting scholar at the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, a non-resident fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation, and an associate of the Applied History Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he received his Ph.D.
Image: Battle of Manila 1898, in the public domain