I. A Domestic Focus Yields to International Realities: Now & Then In 2001, George W. Bush dropped his focus on domestic issues as the terrorist attacks of September 11th forced him to switch gears to foreign policy matters. In less than two years, his administration would create new structures to fight terrorism through passage of the USA Patriot Act and creation of the Department of Homeland Security, while invading and toppling the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq.
In 1917, Woodrow Wilson put aside his emphasis on domestic reforms when the war in Europe hit home as the Germans sank three American ships. He condemned the German actions and led U.S. involvement in WWI, while also playing a large part in the peace treaties following U.S. victory.
Both presidents faced global emergencies that led to the creation of new foreign policy, following a historical pattern of little emphasis on foreign issues until the nation is attacked. This was also seen in FDR’s response as WWII loomed and Lyndon Johnson’s agenda regarding the war in Vietnam. Presidents receive both praise and criticism for such actions, but a number of individuals and organizations help to shape foreign policy.
II. The Constitutional Framework of American Foreign Policy A. Foreign policy encompasses a nation’s relations with other countries, including diplomatic and military activities. The U.S. Constitution separated the power to fund and command a war by giving Congress the exclusive power to declare war while giving the president the authority to conduct the course of war, negotiate treaties, and appoint ambassadors.
Foreign policy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries centered on the small Senate’s treaties with other nations, while today the power has shifted to the White House.
Advances in transportation and communications and America’s rise as a superpower led to its central position in most international disputes, with the president communicating an agenda from the “bully pulpit” and leaving a cumbersome Congress on the sidelines.
Aaron Wildavsky’s two presidencies theory says that a powerful presidency exists for foreign affairs, and a more limited presidency focuses on domestic issues. Congress has also wielded its authority, and in 1973 it passed the War Powers Resolution, which restricted the president’s authority to engage in war and required accountability to or permission from Congress. President Nixon vetoed the plan, every president since has ignored it, and the Supreme Court has never ruled on its constitutionality.
III. The Roots of American Foreign Policy The Founders hoped for an American foreign policy built on consensus. Its physical distance from other nations has benefited the U.S. and spurred its growth as a military superpower. But transportation and communication advances have reduced the size of the global community and forced the U.S. to more carefully navigate its foreign policies.
A. The Isolationist Tradition and the Monroe Doctrine
Solid foreign policy—particularly a bond with France as a wartime ally—was behind the success of the colonies in fighting British rule and becoming independent in the 1770s. But when revolutionary France warred with England in 1793, America backed off long-term alliances and remained neutral.
For almost 150 years this isolationism opposed interventions in distant wars and involvement with permanent military alliances (and in modern times, cooperation with security organizations such as the United Nations).
Under isolationist policy, the U.S. will wage war when forced to protect itself, so it differs from pacifism, which refuses to sanction any military conflict and opposes all war.
America’s isolationism did not apply to the Western hemisphere, however. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned that any attempt at colonization in North or South America would be considered an act of war against the U.S. In 1895, the U.S. intervened in a dispute between Great Britain and Venezuela, and in 1915 between Germany and Haiti, drawing its strength from the Monroe Doctrine.
B. Expansionism and the Birth of a Superpower
Opposition to European interference led to U.S. power in the Western hemisphere, where it practiced expansionism—the extension of a nation’s territory or economic power. This was based on its defining ideology of manifest destiny—to occupy the entire continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This policy led to the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from the French (1803) and the annexation of Florida, Maine, the western states, Hawaii, and the Philippine Islands (1902).
Up until WWI—and for several years of the European conflict, until the U.S. was attacked—the U.S. remained militarily separate from the rest of the globe. By the end of the war, the U.S. was a creditor for the first time in history, as allies owed it more than $11 billion. A new international order and the creation of a League of Nations resulted from the Treaty of Versailles (1919). But the Senate, worried about being pulled into future military actions, vetoed the U.S. membership. Without U.S. presence, the organization was weakened, and it dissolved in 1946.
As WWII threatened in the 1930s and 1940s, the U.S. again resisted intervening, providing only economic support to England and applying pressures on Japan. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, and the U.S. joined the war against Germany, Italy, and Japan. American resources and personnel were critical to the invasion of Western Europe and the eventual surrender of its enemies. The technical superiority of the U.S. went without question as it dropped two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945. That year the U.S. joined the newly created United Nations (UN), a coalition of nations to promote international security and peace.
Foreign policy following WWII shifted to internationalism—the active securing of political independence and territorial boundaries of other countries through economic and military sanctions against aggressor nations. The Marshall Plan (1947) loaned $13 billion to European nations ravaged by the war, seen by some as a humanitarian effort and by others as a way to build European dependence on America.
C. Foreign Policy during the Cold War
The term Cold War referred to the half-century conflict, including arms buildup and tense negotiations, over ideological differences between two military superpowers—the U.S. (democracy) and the Soviet Union (communism). It lasted from 1945 until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.
In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) tied the U.S. to the military defense of Western Europe while the Soviet Union dominated Eastern European neighbors. In 1955, the Warsaw Pact bound the USSR to Poland, Romania, and later Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Germany was split, with West Germany siding with NATO democracy and East Germany aligning itself with Soviet communism.
Both superpowers expanded their nuclear arsenals (called the “arms race”) and tried to keep nuclear parity (equality in their offensive and defensive systems). But the threat of mutually assured destruction (MAD), in which both countries would be victimized, may have deterred any use of weapons.
In 1947, the Truman Doctrine provided funds and resources to sustain noncommunist governments in strategic areas, and Cold War foreign policy was based on containment—holding the Soviets to the current geographical area and resisting any expansion on their part.
Air reconnaissance technology allowed for careful observation of one another’s movements, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when JFK demanded that the Soviets remove missiles from nearby Cuba. U.S. involvement in the Korean and Vietnam Wars was based at least in part on the domino theory, which said that communist takeovers of one country would by followed by the fall of others.
The ravages of the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1973 had a profound impact on the American public’s views on foreign relations. The 58,000 dead or missing, the $167 billion price tag, the failure to stop North Vietnamese aggression, and the immediate fall of South Vietnam to communism led to a widespread rethinking of U.S. foreign policy.
In the 1970s, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed on strategic arms limitations (SALT I and SALT II). But by 1980, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. increased military spending for the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an antimissile system designed to shoot down Soviet nuclear missiles.
By 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev led reforms for the Soviet economy and press freedoms, while grassroots efforts in Eastern European nations unseated communist leaders and pushed for freedom from the Soviet Union. In 1991, Gorbachev resigned amid extreme economic decline, and Eastern bloc nations along with ten former Soviet republics (including Russia) declared their independence. The Cold War had formally ended. U.S. foreign policy could now shift elsewhere.
D. New World Order and New World Disorder
U.S. responsibilities around the world did not end after the Cold War. In 1991, George H.W. Bush spoke of a “new world order” in which nations would work together for peace, security, freedom, and rule of law—a challenge to leaders at that time and into the future.
As former Soviet countries joined NATO, the U.S. needed to rethink its relationships and its bond to Europe. Meanwhile, China loomed as a communist nation with one-fifth of the world’s population and a growing economy.
In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) lifted trade barriers between the U.S. and Canada and Mexico, paving the way for a global economy. Meanwhile, failure to send troops to both Somalia and Bosnia was criticized as a mishandling of America’s superpower strength.
E. The U.S. Government Confronts the Middle East
Through the 1970s and beyond, the lessons learned from Vietnam continued to haunt American policymaking. Some critics pointed to the “Vietnam syndrome,” which pacified Americans into inaction and politicians into fear of supporting future wars with unclear goals and exit strategies. The Iraq invasion of 2003 faced inevitable comparisons with Vietnam, including unclear U.S. interests, the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been touted as the reason for the war, and the escalating difficulties in containing rebel forces.
The greatest threats to U.S. security in the twenty-first century appear to originate in both the Middle East and North Korea. The U.S. has placed much focus on the former. Since the 1948 creation of the state of Israel, the U.S. has pledged to protect what has become a strong democratic nation and a haven for Jews in an Arab-dominated world, while also dealing with uprooted Palestinians following Israel’s occupation of their land and the alienation of many Arab nations.
The U.S. has acted as mediator at times—between Israel and Egypt in 1978, and between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1993—though resulting accords left borders unclear, hardening both sides and leading to violence that has continued to this day. And many Middle East countries distrust the U.S. due to its overwhelming support of Israel, its imposing military presence, and its bases in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
F. Navigating the New World Order After the September 11 Attacks
The attacks of September 11, 2001 led U.S. policy to focus on global terrorism. The Bush administration invaded Afghanistan (2001) to expel its Al Qaeda terrorist network and Iraq (2003) to topple the government of Saddam Hussein.
By 2007, more than 3,200 Americans had been killed and 150,000 troops remained in the battle against combat insurgent forces in Iraq. Congress pressured the White House for an exit strategy. In late February 2009, President Barack Obama announced an 18-month withdrawal window for combat forces, with approximately 50,000 troops remaining in the country after 2011 "to advise and train Iraqi security forces and to provide intelligence and surveillance."
Nuclear and biological threats continue to arise from both the Middle East and North Korea. Shifting alliances and serious terrorist threats from entities unrelated to specific nations have led to the creation of a “new world disorder” as America searches for its place in it.
IV. The Structure of American Foreign Policymaking Despite specific roles for the president and Congress spelled out by the Constitution, throughout our 200-year history the executive branch has assumed an increasingly significant role in foreign policy decisions.
A. The Role of the Executive Branch The U.S. president sits in the absolute center of foreign policymaking. This allows the nation to act quickly and decisively when needed (Pearl Harbor, Cuban Missile Crisis, September 11th). But it also gives one individual an enormous amount of power that can lead to questionable actions (the Vietnam War, trading arms for hostages with Iran, the Iraq War). Along with the president, several departments are involved in foreign policy making:
The Department of State: Headed by the Secretary of State—who has increasingly acted as the principal spokesperson for U.S. foreign policy—this department handles diplomatic missions, distributes foreign aid, and contributes to international organizations (the official entities of global scope and character, usually created through a treaty, such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund). During the latter half of the twentieth century, the secretary of state emerged as a principal spokesperson for the U.S. government on all foreign policy matters.
The Department of Defense: It manages the nation’s military, thereby implementing foreign policy. Both a civilian side (the Secretary of Defense) and a military side (the Joint Chiefs of Staff) advise the president on defense issues and troop actions. The Joint Chiefs of Staff includes the top officers of the four branches of the armed forces as well as a chair and vice chair, who advise the president and deliver the president’s orders to the military.
The National Security Council (NSC): Created by the National Security Act (1947), this advisory body to the president coordinates data on foreign, military, and economic policies that affect national security. By law, the NSC must include the president, vice president, and the secretaries of state and defense. Since the 1960s, presidents have appointed a national security advisor to act as a key consultant and to monitor national security decisions made by the president.
With three executive branch officials (secretary of state, secretary of defense, and national security advisor) advising the president, conflict is inevitable. Some advisors have acted as hawks (members of the administration who support aggressive military action in times of distress), and others as realists, (members of the administration who support diplomacy and negotiation to deal with hostilities).
Other agencies and departments that play a part in foreign policy include the following:
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Created in 2002, it oversees border and transportation security, infrastructure protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA): Established through the National Security Act (1947), it gathers and evaluates intelligence information from around the globe, disseminates propaganda, acts on the behalf of the U.S. government, and engages in overt or covert activities at the direction of the President. It has been criticized for interfering in other nations’ internal affairs, while also being recognized for collecting highly volatile information needed for informed decisions. After the focus on Soviet operatives during Cold War years, it has redefined its role, focusing on the Middle East and terrorism issues. In 2004, based on Senate Intelligence Committee advice, a new Cabinet-level post was created in the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who leads the intelligence community across all government agencies.
B. Other Foreign Policy Actors and Interests
Congress has constitutional powers that give it authority over foreign policy decisions. U.S. presidents have committed troops to battle more than 100 times in our history without a declaration of war from Congress. But today getting a Congressional resolution to support military action can build public support and provide cover if operations fail.
The Foreign Relations Committees of the Senate and the House have the authority to investigate foreign policy initiatives taken by the president and monitor relations and agreements with other nations. The Senate and House Armed Services Committees are responsible for overseeing defense and national security issues. Despite this complex web of responsibilities—and at times because of it—Congress can have a hard time getting the president to consult with its members before taking action.
Legislators are authorized to tour the world’s nations, and on rare occasions have taken it upon themselves to try to influence foreign policy. Private citizens have also at times imposed their own views or taken matters into their own hands regarding social issues or humanitarian efforts. But most Americans who want to voice their opinions on foreign policy get involved in interest groups that petition Congress. Examples of such groups are the AFL-CIO, the National Chamber of Commerce, and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has influenced Congress for thirty years in its appropriation decisions concerning aid to Israel.
Private groups and businesses lobbing for trade policy can inadvertently—or blatantly—influence foreign affairs. The military-industrial complex is a massive network of defense industries and manufacturers who have great interest in policies that concern national security.
C. American Foreign Policy and Public Opinion Public support, or lack of it, is a key concern in foreign policy making, and political leaders can suffer at the polls due to unpopular decisions. Political defeat can occur because of misinterpreted (and not necessarily ignored) public responses and attitudes. Actions and opinions of the public can be hard to interpret.
Modern presidents can usually generate support for foreign policy that protects American jobs, combats illegal drug trade, or controls immigration, but not as much for policy based on humanitarian concerns or advancing democracy abroad.
John Mueller proposed the following factors regarding American opinion on foreign policy initiatives:
Americans will tolerate loss of lives only if a truly powerful enemy is jeopardizing vital American interests.
In minor foreign policy actions, the advantage to a president is marginal, but the disadvantage can be significant.
If they are not being killed, American troops can remain in peacekeeping positions almost indefinitely with little public intervention.
Few issues can rivet the public attention as do nuclear weapons, and possibly biological and chemical weapons as well.
The events of September 11, 2001 shaped American foreign policy by framing the war on terrorism as combating a worldwide threat. Foreign occupation after waging war can powerfully influence public opinion. As the world’s lone remaining superpower, the U.S. has a military unmatched by any other country. Yet public opinion shifts quickly after battles are won, when civilians in the occupied territory increase their demands and vent their frustrations. It also fluctuates after occupations fail, when the opposing side may reverse the war’s outcome.
V. Foreign Policy Dilemmas for the Twenty-First Century American officials must be prepared for any foreign policy issue that might arise quickly and overshadow the rest of the federal government’s agenda. They must also be ready to speak eloquently about government decisions and be able to justify these actions.
A. The “Pre-emption Doctrine”—Is It Justifiable? Shortly after the Soviet collapse, foreign policy shifted. By 1992, the Pentagon issued a document pushing for an active role in the Middle East and defending the use of pre-emptive strikes. This pre-emption doctrine (which reserves the right to use advance strikes to stop nations from developing weapons of mass destruction) led to much controversy as one of its authors joined other conservative leaders, including Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, in warning President Clinton that containment of Iraq had failed and proposing that the U.S. remove its leader, Saddam Hussein. After the election of George W. Bush and the events of September 11th, the proposed shift from containment to preemption came to life in U.S. policy, carrying significant risks.
B. Cultivating Relations with the New Russian Federation At almost twice the size of China and the U.S., the Russian Federation represents a powerful military nuclear threat, giving the U.S. a strong incentive for friendly relations. Russia’s use of military force has led to concerns around the world (subduing the Republic of Chechnya in 1994–96). Its new democracy headed by Dmitry Medvedev has survived many threats, including Boris Yeltsin’s use of military force to shutter the Parliament in 1993. Russia still needs to prove to the world that it will conduct responsible foreign policy. The U.S. expects its cooperation, such as allowing U.S. forces to occupy sites such as Tajikistan to combat terrorism, and its actions may encourage other nations (France and Germany) to agree to U.S. operations. President Barack Obama’s election led to a breakthrough of sorts on U.S.-Russian relations.
C. Foreign Aid—What Role Does It Play in the New International Order? Since the Marshall Plan’s push to reconstruct Western Europe after WWII, U.S. economic and security interests—not just humanitarian concerns—have affected its assistance to other nations. New states and expanded markets purchase agricultural goods and domestic supplies, boosting the U.S. economy. U.S. aid has its own controversies. Supporters say that aid allows struggling governments to expand output. Critics say—and some research supports—that foreign aid only helps the elites, doesn’t lead to growth, and doesn’t “trickle down” to those who need real assistance.
The U.S. continues to be a major contributor to the World Bank (established in 1945 to loan money to struggling nations) and the International Monetary Fund (which maintains value of currency during crises).
D. Does the United Nations Still Serve an Important Function? After WWII, the three major allies—the U.S., England, and the Soviet Union—had a hand in creating the United Nations. They had learned from the failure of the League of Nations that such an organization needed collective support.
The UN has five separate governing bodies:
The General Assembly: the overall governing body, encompassing all of the 192 member states, with the exclusive power to enforce the Security Council’s decisions
The Economic and Social Council: an advisory body to the General Assembly concerning economic and social issues, consisting of fifty-four members chosen by the General Assembly
The Secretariat: the department that supports and carries out tasks for the other UN bodies
The International Court of Justice: the judicial body, one that has the authority to try international war criminals and settle disputes
The Security Council: maintains international peace and security through the issue of its resolutions, the only UN body with the power to authorize economic sanctions or military force, consisting of five permanent members (China, France, Russia, England, and the U.S.) each of whom has the right to veto council decisions, plus ten rotating members
In its first forty years, UN security measures were dominated by both U.S. influence and Soviet veto power, leading to a stalemate on many issues. Expansion to almost 200 members by the 1990s led to further inaction. As U.S. influence declined, so did its willingness to follow all UN dictates. For example, the UN’s refusal to authorize military action in Iraq did not stop the U.S. from invading. Today the UN focuses mainly on peacekeeping and relief missions while continuing to have some influence on foreign affairs.
VI. Now & Then: Making the Connection Throughout history, presidents may have intended to focus only on domestic issues but have been drawn into international conflicts and wars, forcing them to focus on foreign policy issues. Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush are two examples. Modern presidents are exerting more force in controlling foreign policy than ever before, with Congress and other government agencies playing subordinate roles.
VII. Chapter Summary The Constitutional Framework of American Foreign Policy
U.S. foreign policy is controlled by the federal government.
The president is authorized to negotiate treaties, appoint ambassadors, and conduct military actions, while Congress has the power to declare war, raise armies, and regulate foreign commerce.
The Roots of American Foreign Policy
Over two centuries, the president has gained power over responding to international circumstances and making war.
Isolationism and the refusal to intervene defined U.S. policy through the nineteenth century, followed by a period of aggressive expansionism in North America.
Its role in both world wars led to the rise of the U.S. as a superpower, and over time its foreign policy has shifted to internationalism and collective security.
The Cold War (1945–1991) was characterized by arms buildups and tense diplomacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, until the fall of the Soviet empire.
Today, the Middle East and North Korea are primary security concerns. The terrorist attacks of 2001 led to a war on terrorism and subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to much controversy and debate over goals and exit plans for these military occupations.
Although the continued occupation of Iraq by U.S. forces after the Iraqi war was a source of debate among political officials between 2003 and 2008, President Obama started to draw down forces in Iraq; the Obama administration sought instead to redirect U.S. military strength to Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The Structure of American Foreign Policymaking
The secretary of state, secretary of defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor, and Director of National Intelligence assist the president in matters of foreign policy.
The Department of Homeland Security (2002) handles border and transportation security, intelligence analysis, and infrastructure protection.
Congress oversees foreign policy through its Foreign Relations Committees.
Public opinion about foreign policy can both help and hurt presidents at the polls.
Foreign Policy Dilemmas for the Twenty-First Century
Today’s foreign policy challenges for the U.S. include the justification of preemptive military attacks, its role regarding the UN, its actions regarding foreign aid, and its relations with other world powers including Russia, China, Japan, and other trade partners.