US Foreign Policy

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I:  Foreign policy is the relationships which central governments have with other countries, their central governments,  and international organizations, both intergovernmental and non-governmental.   The conduct of foreign policy is primarily directed at influencing the behavior of other central governments.  Since all central governments are, however, impacted by their domestic societies over which they rule, some effort is exerted at influencing public opinion in foreign counties and maintaining contacts with powerful non-governmental groups in those other countries.  Central governments are well advised to maintain contact with opposition groups, especially political parties, which might some day gain control of that county’s central government.  

Conversely, foreign governments maintain relations not only with our own central government in Washington but also with non-governmental, private organizations in America.  Where possible they also seek to influence the American media and public opinion.   With these caveats made, foreign policy is still primarily a central-government-to-central-government relationship.

Foreign policy can be either bilateral or multilateral.  Bilateral, as the word implies, is the relationship between two countries. Multilateral relationships involve a group of countries.  International organizations like the United Nations or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are established through multilateral agreements (treaties) between the member states.  

During the Gulf War in 1991, the United States led a multilateral coalition sanctioned by the Security Council of the United Nations against Iraq in order to liberate Kuwait. Since the leader of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, has halted United Nations imposed inspections of his country in 1998, the United States has attempted to rebuilt a multilateral coalition to force Iraq to comply.  But, President William Clinton indicated that the United States would act unilaterally even if he could not get the support of the Security Council for renewed military actions.  France and Russia, two members of the Security Council, were not willing, in 1998, to approve military actions to force compliance with previous Security Council resolutions. Clinton and Tony Blair did bomb Iraq in 1998, but they did not follow up with a ground invasion.  

President George W. Bush renewed the struggle against the Iraqi regime after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the United States by Al Queda.  He has charged that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and might hand them over to terrorist organizations.  He has continued the process of utilizing the Security Council while proceeding with unilateral plans to go to war if he can not get UN endorsement for his policies.  On Wednesday evening, March 19, 2003 our time, the United States commenced its war against Iraq with a missile strike against Saddam Hussein in what was called a target of opportunity.  Bush took the decision to go to war unilaterally without a second Security Council Resolution.

II:  Tools of State Power for the Conduct of Foreign Policy

bulletForeign Aid
bulletForeign Trade
bulletCultural Exchange Programs
bulletIntelligence Operations

Overt and Covert Operations,

bulletTrade Wars

Trade Embargo
Seizure of Assets
Currency Manipulations
Denial of Raw Materials

bulletBreaking Diplomatic Relations
bulletGunboat Diplomacy
bulletMilitary Maneuvers


III:  The purpose of foreign policy.  The goals and objectives of a country’s foreign policy are as varied as are the motives of human beings.  They can, however, be arranged in an order of priorities.  The following foreign policy objectives may be identified for the United States and for all other foreign countries.

    1.  Protecting the Territorial Integrity of the Home Country.  The top foreign policy goal of any country is to protect the territorial integrity of that country from foreign attack.  This extends beyond the physical territory.  It also includes protecting one's embassies and safeguarding one's military forces stationed in or visiting other countries.  

    2.  Protecting the Territorial Integrity of Allies

    3.  Maintaining the International Balance of Power

    4.  Fostering International Security through the United Nations

    5.  Protecting Access to Strategic Resources

    6,  Maintaining International Legal Principles, such as Freedom of the High Seas

    7.  Furthering the Interests of American Business

    8.  Safeguarding American Nationals in Foreign Countries

    9.  Fostering Modernization and Economic Development throughout the World

    10.  Protecting Human Rights, Democracy, and other American Values.

    These foreign policy objectives are often divided into a.  high politics and b.  low politics.  a.  High Politics refers to the political and military relationships between states.  Items 1 through 6 in the list above are components of high politics.  b.  Low Politics refers to the economic, social, and cultural relationships between states. Items 7 through 10 belong to what is called low politics.  Historically, high politics has had preference over low politics in the conduct of countries' foreign policies.

    One should also differentiate strategic goals from tactical goals.  Tactical objectives are means toward a larger, strategic goal.  Strategic goals refer to the ultimate ends of a country's foreign policy.  There are certain core values which any strategy must protect.  These core values are often referred to as maintaining one's  national security and defending one's national interests. 

IV.  Realism and Idealism.   The conduct of American foreign policy has often alternated between two broad policy approaches:  Realism and Idealism.  

    Realists emphasize the role that power plays in international politics.  They would argue that maintaining and enhancing one’s security within the international system requires a realistic assessment of the world and one’s place in it.  Since the international system is dynamic and interdependent, changes anywhere have impacts everywhere including one’s own country.  International peace and security depends on what is called the balance of power.  There is a global balance of power and there are several regional balances of power.   Maintaining international peace and security requires that power is balanced with power.  No one state should become so predominant as to threaten the independence and sovereignty of other countries.

    During the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union there was a bipolar balance of power in the world. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the United States has been the world's only remaining superpower.  Some have begun to call the US a hyper-power.  From 1991 through 2003, the United States was careful to conduct its foreign policy multilaterally through the United Nations and our NATO allies.  President George W. Bush appears to have broken with traditional conduct of American foreign policy over the last 100 years by pursuing a unilateralist foreign policy, which has alienated Russia, France, Germany, China, and most of the Muslim countries of the world.  Unless the Bush Administration is very careful, it may be generating an anti-American alliance to contain American hegemony of the world. 

    Idealists criticize realists about their excessive emphasis on power, particularly military power.  Idealists argue that what ultimately shapes world politics are moral ideals and values.  Peace, prosperity, respect for human rights, self determination of peoples, and the right to democratically elect one's own government are the values that drive the international system. The raw use of power and the use of war as a tool of foreign policy must be checked by the rules of international law, collective security, multilateralism, and the United Nations.  The United States has been in the forefront of those countries arguing that international law, mediation, and collective security should replace war as the arbiter of conflict.  There must be peaceful methods of resolving international conflicts.  President Woodrow Wilson is usually cited as a prime example of idealism in American foreign policy.  Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in establishing the League of Nations.  Since the League of Nations failed to prevent World War II, idealism has often been criticized by realists as being ineffective.  Nonetheless, at the end of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped to bring about the United Nations as mankind's last best hope for a peaceful world. 

V:  Making Foreign Policy.  Who makes foreign policy?  Who are the decision makers?  Who carries out the decisions?  Each country has its own foreign policy establishment.  In the United States, the executive branch has the primary responsibility for making and implementing foreign policy.  The President of the United States is the chief of state, chief executive, chief diplomat, commander-in-chief, chief economist, and national spokesperson.  Each of these roles impacts on making foreign policy.  The President is assisted by a large foreign policy establishment, which includes units within the Executive Office of the President, two cabinet departments, and many independent executive agencies and commissions.

            In addition to the executive branch,  the legislative branch shares many responsibilities as a junior partner.  Congress must appropriate all funds that are spent on foreign policy initiatives.  Congress has the power to declare war, although all military actions since World War II have been taken by Presidential initiative without a formal declaration of war.  The Senate must approve treaties.  The Senate must also confirm all appointments as ambassadors to foreign countries and all commissions in the Armed Forces of the United States from second lieutenant to general. 

            The judiciary plays a minor role, usually deferring to the executive in matters of international law and foreign policy. 

            Beyond the governmental actors, many domestic groups have an interest in foreign policy.   These include global corporations, associations for various ethnic and religious groups, some foundations, think tanks, major universities having graduate programs in law and international affairs. 

            Mass public opinion rarely pays attention to foreign policy matters unless some major crisis compels concern.  Then it can be quite powerful in influencing decision makers.

VI:  Historical Overview of American Foreign Policy.

            1.  The Formative Period.  George Washington in his Farewell Address warned the nation against “entangling alliances.”  For a geographically large but militarily weak country of four million people spread over thirteen states on the Atlantic seaboard, this was good advice, especially since we were protected by three thousand miles of Atlantic ocean from the European centers of power. 

Isolationism is a policy of non-involvement and withdrawal from the politics of the rest of the world. 

Neutrality is a status recognized in international law whereby a country stays out of an international war and observes certain rules towards all belligerents.  For example, it will not sell arms to either side.  It will not allow the warships of one belligerent to take safe shelter from the forces of the other or to allow them to re-supply themselves.  Trade, which does not have a military value, may continue with the belligerents, although in modern warfare any trade, even the selling of agricultural products, may be viewed as a hostile act by one side or the other.  Even without a state of war, non-alignment from rival alliance systems is an act of neutrality.  During the Cold War, any country which was not associated with either the Soviet Union or the United States was looked at with suspicion by both superpowers.  What has been called the Third World began as the block of non-aligned nations. 

American foreign policy during the nineteenth century was always geared to protect our sovereignty and our national interests.  It was always more differentiated than the slogans of isolationism and neutrality would imply.

                        a.  Isolationism and Neutrality Toward Europe.

                        b.  Manifest Destiny Toward the North American Continent.

                        c.  Monroe Doctrine Toward the Americas. 

                        d.  Open Door Policy Toward Asia. 

            2.  Emergence as a Great Power.  Without being aware of it, the United States was becoming a Great Power in the decades after the Civil War.  Industrialization, urbanization, and great power status took place simultaneously.  The United States was becoming the Colossus of the North, first in its own hemisphere and then in the world.  The Spanish American War of 1898 was the turning point in the evolution of American imperialism and Great Power behavior.  While nominally aimed at aiding a Cuban independence movement, it was clearly an effort to enhance American power at the expense of the declining Spanish empire.  As a result of the war, the United States acquired a small empire of its own.  It gained Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and temporary control over Cuba. 
    We were reluctantly drawn into World War One but proved to be the decisive factor giving victory to France and Britain over Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire
.  At the end of the Great War, Woodrow Wilson helped to establish the League of Nations but could not get the Versailles Treaty approved by the U.S. Senate dominated by Republicans.  Under Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, we returned to normalcy and isolationism while in Europe the great dictators rose to power.  The Great Depression of 1929 became a world-wide economic disaster, which was exploited by the likes of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.  Not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 was American public opinion roused from its isolationism toward the rest of the world. 
    World War Two was a titanic struggle pitting the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, China, and the United States against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.  France had been decisively defeated in 1940 and rejoined the war only at its very end.  At the end of this war, the United States accepted its great power role and has become the world's only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

            3.  The Cold War Period.  The United States emerged from World War II as the single most powerful state in the world.  Alone among the belligerents, the United States had not been devastated by war.  But despite frightful losses, the Soviet Union also emerged stronger after the war and its Communist dictator, Stalin, was determined to make it stronger yet.

            The Soviet Union had born the brunt of the fighting in the war.  It is estimated that the Soviet Union suffered 7.5 million military casualties and another 10 million civilian dead.  The comparable figures for the United States were 292,000 military and only 6000 civilian dead. 

            The Red Army had taken all that Hitler had to give and had then fought its way steadily to Berlin.  Stalin had no intention of giving up the lands liberated by the Red Army from the Nazi occupation.  Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were incorporated into the Soviet Union as early as 1940.  Poland, by allied agreement at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, was moved more than a hundred miles westward with the Soviet Union annexing the difference to the east.  Germany lost all territories east of the Oder and Neisse rivers.  Stalin proceeded to install indigenous Communist regimes under Soviet and Red Army tutelage in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Czechoslovakia.  Only Yugoslavia under the Communist partisan leader Tito managed to maintain a tenuous independence from the Soviet Union and from the West.  As Winston Churchill put it in his Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on March 5, 1946:   "From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent."
    Communist regime established in Poland
Berlin Airlift
    Marshall Plan
    Communists take over in China
    Korean War
    Cuban Missile Crisis
    Vietnam War
    Shah ousted in Iran
    Soviets invade Afghanistan
    Reagan becomes President
    Star Wars Proposal
    Berlin Wall falls
    Gulf War of 1991
    Soviet Union ends Dec. 25, 1991

        4.  Since 1991

   Problems in Haiti
    Fiasco in Somalia
    The Implosion of Yugoslavia

        5.  After September 11, 2001

   War on Terrorism
    Al Queda and Osama bin Ladin
    Elimination of the Taliban Regime in Afghanistan
Confrontation with Saddam Hussein of Iraq
    Split in NATO and the UN

VII  Challenges to American Foreign Policy

   1.  Terrorism

   2.  Nuclear Proliferation

   3.  The Rising Power of China

   4.  The Global Economy

   5.  The Split in NATO and the UN

   6.  Regional Conflicts

        a.  War with Iraq: 2003
                Timeline on the Iraq war from Guardian, UK, to January 2004

        b.  North Korea and Nuclear Weapons

        c.  The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

        d.  Iran:  The Third Member of the Axis of Evil?
        e.  The AIDS crisis in Africa

        f.  Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela

        g.  China and Taiwan

        h.  Eastern Europe

        i.  Mending Fences with NATO