Foreign Policy

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International Politics, GOV 207

Foreign Policy

Introduction Reviewed.  As stated repeatedly:  The most important actors within the global system continue to be the central governments of sovereign states.  Each central government has relationships with other central governments and other international actors.  These relationships are summarized as that country's foreign policy.  The dominant model of the global system continues to hold the view that the world is composed of a system of sovereign states.   My WEB pages on the History of the State System details that position.  This WEB page assumes the state-centered point of view.   The sum total and the product of all foreign policies would result in what we call the global system.  While I do not agree with this state-centered approach, it does provide important insights into global politics.

For most American students taking this course, it should not come as a surprise to be told that the United States continues, at this moment in history, to be the most powerful state on this planet.  The conduct of American foreign policy is a major determinant shaping the international system. 

Despite the great power exercised by the United States, we are not all powerful and we are not alone on this planet.  Even United States' power is limited and even we must operate within a global system.

The modern state system has been in existence since 1648.

The modern state system includes both major, middling, and small powers.  All states conduct  their own foreign policies.  One primary objective of each county's foreign policy is to maintain its own political independence and security.  

Foreign Policy refers to the ways in which the central governments of sovereign states relate to each other and to the global system in order to achieve various goals or objectives.

American Foreign Policy would refer to the goals and objectives pursued by the United States and the tools it uses to implement these goals and objectives with regard to other countries and other international actors.  Courses on American Foreign Policy within Political Science Departments of American Colleges and Universities would look at the world from an American perspective.  The American national government conducts our foreign policy in defense of our national interests.

Comparative Foreign Policy refers to political science courses, which compare the foreign policies of various countries to point out both similarities of behavior and divergences.  For example, the foreign policies of the United States, Russia, Germany, China, and India might be compared.  Defense of territorial integrity and other national interests are always a component of a country's foreign policy.  Behaviors common to the foreign policies of most countries are often generalized into principles of international politics.

International Politics is one of the five major fields of political science.  It looks at the entire international system.  The United States is just one state within that system and American foreign policy refers to one strand of decision-making.  In other worlds, International Politics takes a broader  and different perspective than do courses on foreign policy. 

Level of Analysis Problem.  The global system is a system of systems.  Its complexity is so overwhelming, that political scientists have developed different levels of analysis.  Three levels of analysis are generally differentiated, namely the 1.  Global Level, 2.  State Level, and the 3. Individual Level.  The level of analysis problem applies to all aspects of international politics.

If the foreign policy of a given state is under analysis, then we are trying to explain state-level behavior.  This state-level behavior can be explained in global terms, state-level terms, and individual terms.  But the unit under investigation is at the state level.

From the point of view of a given country's foreign policy, three categories of influence may be distinguished:  1)  the global influence that shape foreign policy; 2) the state or internal influence within the given country that impact on foreign policy; and 3) the individuals and personalities of the decision makers and those who have access to them and help them to shape the policy making process.

Determinants of States' Foreign Policies.

The foreign policies of a given state depend on its power, its objectives, and its leadership. 

Power is an elusive concept but widely used in political science. Power may be defined as the ability to persuade others to do things that they would not do ordinarily unless pressured to do so. Within domestic politics, power is usually based on numbers, wealth, and organizational skills. A small group that is well organized may exercise considerable influence even without large sums of money.  In international politics, power depends on both geopolitical factors and idiosyncratic factors.

Inequalities of State Power.  The 192 or so states of the world vary greatly in power.  The may be categories into superpowers (US);  major powers (EU--Germany, France, United Kingdom; Japan, Russia, China, and India; middling powers (Israel, Iran, Pakistan, Poland, Spain, Republic of South Africa, Brazil, Argentina); and minor or small powers (Serbia, Denmark, Cuba).

There are also micro-states and various territories that are not self-governing or not independent such as client states, dependencies, and colonies.

Since its origins in 1648, the global state system has been dominated by the great powers and their foreign policies.

Objectives of Foreign Policy.  The objectives of states vary greatly but all states seek to preserve themselves, maintain their independence, and security.

Leadership.  It does matter who is elected President of the United States or who rules China.  Leaders and the elites who support them help to shape the foreign policy of countries.  It is probable that a President Al Gore would not have preemptively attacked Iraq.   On the other hand the aggressive tendencies of a leader are clearly limited by the power base available.

In making decisions, leaders must take account of
two categories of determinants that impact on their foreign policies.  These are the global or external and the internal or domestic influences.

Global or External Influences

Geopolitics.  The geopolitical location of a state is one of the external determinants on its foreign policy.  It matters where on the globe a country is located.  It matters whether the country has natural frontiers:  that is whether it is protected by oceans, high mountains, or deserts.  It matters who one's neighbors are and whether a given country is territorially large, populous, affluent, and well-governed.

Relative Position within the Global system. 

Internal or Domestic Influences

Internal or Domestic Determinants on States' Foreign Policies focus attention "on variations in states' attributes, such as military capabilities, level of economic development, and types of government." (Kegley, World Politics, 11th Ed Rev. (2008), 58.)

Military Capabilities.  Size of military.  Equipment.  Training. Leadership.  Nuclear or non-nuclear capabilities.

Economic Capabilities.  Traditional, Transitional, and Modern Societies.   Industrialization.  Stages of Industrialization:  Wood, Coal, Oil, Nuclear, Renewable Resources.  Gross national product, Per Capita GNP, GINI Index, Lorenz Curve of Inequality.  Type of Economy:  Free Market Economics, Centrally Planned Economies, Socially Steered Market Economies (Soziale Markwirtschaft)

Type of Government.  Constitutional democracies (presidential systems and parliamentary systems).  Autocratic Systems (authoritarian and totalitarian).  Military Dictatorships.  Political Party Systems.  Traditional monarchies (Saudi Arabia).  Modern theocracies (Iran). 

Bases of State Power

Bases of National Power depends on many variables, such as:

bulletLocation of the state--coastal or landlocked
bulletSize--large or small territory
bulletPopulation--large or small
bulletNatural Resources--oil, iron ore, forests, etc.
bulletTechnology-developed or under-developed
bulletType of Government--dictatorship or democracy
bulletType of Economy--market or centrally planned
bulletSize and Equipment of Military--nuclear or conventional
bulletBelief systems of Country

Idiosyncratic Factors

bulletWill and Leadership
bulletMorale of Military
bulletDegree of Popular Support
bulletNature of Friends and Allies 
bulletNature of Foes and Enemies

Are Democracies More Peaceful?

Who Really Rules in Democratic Systems?  1.  The People.  No direct democracies.  How representative are representative democracies?  The Franchise:  Who can vote?  How free are elections?  How many candidates?  Who picks the candidates?  Who pays for the elections?  Do the people really rule in any meaningful way? 2.  Organized Groups or Pluralism.  Many political scientists argue that organized groups pressure governments to further their group's interests.  Public policy is the result of the competition between organized interest groups.  This theory is called pluralism.  3.  Elites.  The elite-mass model holds that in every society or state, an elite dominates the policy-making process.  The lobbyists of competing interest groups, for all their disagreements, share a common understanding of politics.  These lobbyists are part of the Washington Establishment that runs the country.  The Washington Establishment is just another name for our governing elite.  In constitutional democracies, these elites must stand for election and, while usually re-elected, can be defeated electorate.  Elections and other constitutional provisions puts some limits on the governing elites.  It means that, ultimately, public opinion and voting behavior do shape public policy.  In that sense, we are ultimately democratic.

Do Democracies Pursue More Peaceful Foreign Policies than Autocratic Systems?  Are their Foreign Policies Different?  There is some evidence to suggest that democracies do not usually go to war against each other.  As the world in general becomes more democratic, it is hoped that war will be replaced with peaceful methods of conflict resolution. 

It is further held that ideological conflict has come to an end with the fall of communism in 1991.  President George W. Bush puts the matter as follows in his 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States:  "The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom --and a single sustainable model for national success:  freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.  In the twenty-first century, only nations that share a commitment to protecting basic human rights and guaranteeing political and economic freedom will be able to unleash the potential of their people and assure their future prosperity." (New York Times, September 20, 2002).  This alleged victory of liberal democratic values throughout the world has been called the end of history. (Kegley and Wittkopf, World Politics, 8th Ed (2001), p. 63.)

President Bush seems to suggest that those who disagree with "this single sustainable model for national success" are enemies of freedom and may be supporters of terrorism. 

"The United States . . . will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.  The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states, like Afghanistan, can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.  Poverty does not make poor people into terrorists and murderers.  Yet poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders."

"While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists."  (New York Times, September 20, 2002, p. A-14)

The war on terrorism can thus be seen as a world-wide crusade to make the world safe for democracy or "this single sustainable model for national success".

"Democratic peace" is "the theory that although democratic states sometimes wage wars against other states, they do not fight each other."  (Kegley and Wittkopf, World Politics, 8th Ed (2001), p. 63.)


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Copyright Dr. Harold Damerow
Senior Professor of Government and History
Coordinator of International Studies

Union County College
Cranford, NJ 07016
Updated August 23, 2007