The Question of American Foreign Policy


On the basis of the reliable evidences available, many political observers believe that the main decisive issue for the next November presidential election in the USA is the question of American Foreign Policy (AFP). In this article the definition of AFP, the formulating powers of AFP, the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), the historical aspects of AFP, and the highlights of current AFP confronting different parts of the world particularly towards Iran are studied and discussed.

AFP broadly defined, is the course set at given times determining the relationships, policies, and actions of the United States with or toward other states and international entities.

The legitimacy of AFP derives ultimately from popular will, but formally and immediately from the Constitution, which divides authority among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. In practice it is mostly formulated in the White House and the Departments of State and Defense and executed by diverse diplomatic, economic, and military agencies. The guiding principle of foreign policy is always stated to be the national interest, but interpretations of this are often controversial. Religious and ethnic groups, corporations, and the media are influential, and expressions of public opinion, variously mediated, are often politically decisive in what is, overall, a remarkably effusive, democratic culture.

The AFPC is a conservative, non-profit U.S. foreign policy think-tank operating in Washington DC since 1982. The foreign policy specialists of AFPC provide information to members of US Congress, the Executive Branch, and the US policymaking community, as well as world leaders outside the US (particularly in the former Soviet Union). In addition, AFPC publishes strategic reports and other reports monitoring the policy progress of other countries from a conservative standpoint (particularly Russia, China, India, Iran, and some other countries in the Middle East and in Asia). Common topics include security (missile defense, arms control, energy security, espionage) as well as the ongoing status of democracy and market economies in countries of interest.

Despite its reluctance to involve itself in continental European affairs, the United States entered World War I after making substantial loans to the Allies and after attacks by German U-boats substantially interfered with US shipping. In the peace conference at Versailles, US attempts to shift international relations to an idealist model became bogged down in the secret agreements made during the war and geopolitical horse-trading. US politics also turned against idealist, international policies and the country returned to a more isolationist stance. The United States entered World War II in 1941, again on the Allied side, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war against the US by Germany and Italy. Similarly to WWI, the United States made significant loans to the Allies and its domestic industries boomed to produce war materials. After the war and devastation of its European rivals, the United States completed its transition from regional to global hegemony alongside the Soviet Union. The United States was a major player in the establishment of the United Nations and became one of five permanent members of the Security Council.

From around 1947 until 1991, US foreign policy was characterized by the Cold War, and by its huge international military involvement. Seeking an alternative to its isolationist policies after WWI, the United States defined itself against the spread of Soviet communism in a policy called Containment. The American diplomat and historian, George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was the architect of the Containment Policy. The Cold War was characterized by a lack of global wars but a persistence of regional wars, often fought between client states and proxies of the United States and Soviet Union. During the Cold War, US foreign policy objectives seeking to limit Soviet influence involved the United States and its allies in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and diplomatic actions like the opening of China and establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It also sought to fill the vacuum left by the decline of Britain as a global power, leading international economic organizations such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US had military and economic interests in every region of the globe. Despite claims by George F. Kennan that his idea of Containment had been misused by hawkish policymakers to justify non-peaceful objectives, Containment provided stability for US-international commerce, fostered national security and pushed the United States toward an internationalist policy despite the political popularity of isolationism.

August 1991 marked both the collapse of the Soviet Union and the initiation of the Gulf War against Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. After the Iraq War, many scholars claimed the lack of a new strategic vision for US foreign policy resulted in many missed opportunities for its foreign policy. During the 1990s, the United States mostly scaled back its foreign policy budget while focusing on its domestic economic prosperity. The United States also participated in UN peacekeeping missions in the former Yugoslavia.

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and Pentagon in Washington DC, the United States declared a “War on Terrorism”, defining itself against terrorism similarly to how it had defined itself against communism in the Cold War. Since then, the United States launched wars against Afghanistan and Iraq (Second Gulf War) while pursuing Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations on a global level.

 It should be noted that among historians two general viewpoints on the subject of AFP predominate. A mainstream outlook speculates a well-intentioned if sometimes flawed American diplomacy that oscillates between international engagement and detachment but is mostly guided by a desire for peace, stability, and progressive development. A more critical revisionist view typically portrays an essentially expansionist, hegemonic state. Between these two outlooks a wide range of other scholarly assessments, most notably a more conservative ‘realist’ critique of perceived liberal tendencies, invigorates the field intellectually.

The officially stated goals of the foreign policy of the United States, as mentioned in the Foreign Policy Agenda of the US Department of State, are “to create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community”. In addition, the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs states as some of its jurisdictional goals: “export controls, including nonproliferation of nuclear technology and nuclear hardware; measures to foster commercial intercourse with foreign nations and to safeguard American business abroad; International commodity agreements; international education; and protection of American citizens abroad and expatriation”.

The AFP has been always the subject of much debate both domestically and abroad.

In his recent book of the Return of History and the End of Dreams, American author Robert Kagan wrote that, “Today radical Islamists are the last holdout against the powerful forces of globalization and modernization. They seek to carve out a part of the world where they can be left alone, shielded from what they regard as the soul-destroying licentiousness of unchecked liberalism and capitalism. The tragedy for them is that their goal is impossible to achieve. Neither the United States nor the other great powers will turn over control of the Middle East to these fundamentalist forces, if only because the region is of such vital strategic importance to the rest of the world. The outside powers have strong internal allies as well, including the majority of the populations of the Middle East who have been willing and even eager to make peace with modernity. Nor is it conceivable in this modern world that a people can wall themselves off from modernity even if the majority wanted to. Could the great Islamic theocracy that Al-Qaeda and others hope to erect ever completely block out the sights and sounds of the rest of the world and thereby shield their people from the temptations of modernity? The mullahs have not even succeeded at doing that in Iran. The world is thus faced with the prospect of a protracted struggle in which the goals of the extreme Islamists can never be satisfied because neither the United States nor anyone else has the ability to give them what they want. The West is quite simply not capable of retreating as far as the Islamic extremists require”. Robert Kagan is also a foreign policy advisor to John McCain, the Republican Party nominee for President of the United States in the upcoming 2008 election.

In his speech on AFP towards Iran, John McCain said that, “There’s only one thing worse than military action against Iran and that is a nuclear-armed Iran”.

And here are the positions of Democratic Party candidates for President of the United States in the upcoming 2008 election:

Hillary Clinton: Calls for diplomacy over Iran’s nuclear program, but believes all options, including a military attack, must be on the table. Says that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons and “foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them”. She also voted to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (in Persian: Sepaah-e Paasdaraan) a terrorist group, saying such a move would increase diplomatic pressure on Iran.

Barack Obama: Says Iran is a threat to the region, and US must retain a military option in dealing with the Tehran regime. But says he would hold direct meetings with adversaries such as Iran. He was not present for the vote on the bill declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group, but said he opposed it because it might be used by the Bush administration to justify an attack.

Richard Holbrooke of US-Democratic Party, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, and possibly one of the prominent architects of AFP, recently noted that, “Robert Kagan’s views will be an essential part of the debate that will shape our next president’s foreign policy”.

Originally was published Online on March 27, 2008

Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD  

Answers Website (2008): Online Article on Foreign Policy.

Combs, Jerald A. (1983):  American Diplomatic History: Two Centuries of Changing Interpretations, ed., University of California Press, USA.

Hogan, Michael J., and Thomas G. Paterson (1991): Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kagan, Robert (2008): The Return of History and the End of Dreams, ed., Knopf Publications, USA.

Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2008): Online Notes on the “Foreign Policy of the United States” and AFPC.

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