Foreign Policy

Home Up

 Foreign policy, especially when it involves war or crisis, is different from domestic policy. Presidents and others at the governmental level of analysis often play a more important part and have an unusual degree of autonomy. The ordinary political factors of public opinion, interest groups, and so forth are often set aside in consideration of the national interest as defined by a small number of national security advisors.

Public opinion is not irrelevant, but at times it can be reshaped or ignored. In crisis situations, the public often rallies around the flag, accepting the president's actions, at least as long as the results seem good and there is little disagreement among elites. If things go wrong, of course, public support falls.

The Iraq story also illustrates that much of foreign policy  is influenced by structural, rather than political or governmental factors. The United State's status as a superpower, with its large population, advanced economy, and enormous military capability, made it easy to take on Iraq, even through Iraq was said at the time to have the fourth largest army in the world. Without these resources, U.S. foreign policy would have been very different.

The particular structure of the international system in 1990 also had important effects. The Soviet Union, which a few years earlier might have prevented action against its ally Iraq, now desperately needed Western economic help and was in no position to object to U.S. action. Although structural factors did not determine U.S. policy toward Iraq, they made a major commitment of troops possible or even probable in the early 1990s.

Foreign Policy and Democracy

Contradiction in Terms?

Several features of foreign affairs limit the role of public opinion in policymaking. The sheer complexity of international matters, their remoteness from day-to-day life, and the perceived unpredictability of other countries' actions, all make the public's convictions about foreign policy less certain and more subject to revision in light of events.

The need for speed, unity, and secrecy in decision making, and concentration of authority in the executive branch, mean that the public can easily be excluded. This also means that government policy can sometimes shape public opinion rather than be shaped by it. At the same time, however, these limitations are neither total nor etched in stone. The American public plays a bigger part in the making of foreign policy than is sometimes imagined.

The United States as Superpower

Structure and History

The enormous economic power of the United States enables it to field the most powerful armed forces in the world. At the beginning of the 1990s, no other nation had anything even close to the 395 U.S. military bases outside the United States, the ports and ships that controlled the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, or the rapid deployment capabilities that could project force on any continent. Indeed, by the 1990s, one could speak of the United States as the only superpower, a crucial structural fact for understanding international relations and American foreign policy.

The Growth of U.S. Power

When World War II ended in August 1945, Germany and Japan were devastated by the bombing of their cities and industries. Britain and France had also suffered severe damage and were losing their world empires to nationalist forces. The United States, however, emerged with its economy and population essentially intact, its military forces victorious around the world, and (for a few years, at least) a monopoly over nuclear weapons. 

Only the Soviet Union--itself terribly damaged but with a large population, a substantial economy, and troops occupying most of Eastern Europe--could rival the United States as a world power. There followed two remarkable decades in which the United States achieved dominance of the world economy.

National Security and the Cold War

After World War Il, the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in a series of confrontations which came to be known as the Cold War. Scholars disagree about the causes of the Cold War. Some argue that the Soviet Union was a strongly expansionist state, driven by Communist ideology and aiming for world domination. In contrast, scholars with a revisionist perspective maintain that the Soviets behaved like any other great power, seeking friendly buffer states.

Cold War Beginnings

The Cold War began in Europe in 1947 when President Harry Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, which held that the United States should help free peoples to resist armed minorities or outside pressures. In 1948, the Soviets imposed a Communist regime on Czechoslovakia. 

After the United States, Great Britain, and France merged their occupation zones of Germany and integrated them into the Western economy, the Soviets tried to eliminate the Western presence in Berlin by blockading all ground traffic, but the United States airlifted supplies and broke the blockade.

The Federal Republic of Germany was established; various Communist-dominated regimes were set up in Eastern Europe. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in 1949 as an anti-Soviet alliance, and the Warsaw Pact was set up on the other side. Sharply drawn armed boundaries divided Eastern from Western Europe. Meanwhile, both the United States and the Soviets armed themselves with nuclear weapons.

The Korean War

The first big armed struggle of the Cold War occurred in Korea. North Korean troops poured across the 38th Parallel on June 25, 1950, and drove south. President Truman, under color of a UN resolution, sent American troops, who engaged in a basically successful but increasingly unpopular war. The Korean War had many important consequences for the United States. Overall troop strength was increased, the military budget grew, and the United States took on new commitments around the world.

Peaceful Coexistence?

The Korean War ended in 1953. Although the two powers and their allies skirmished in places like Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, and Indonesia, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. avoided all-out war. Nonetheless, for more than 35 years, both sides spent immense resources on huge armies that faced each other across stable boundaries in Europe. The United States and the Soviets built large numbers of strategic bombers to deliver their growing stockpiles of nuclear warheads. Both began ballistic missile programs. The situation of nuclear stalemate, which came to be called mutually assured destruction (MAD), eventually became a source of stability and a basis for arms control agreements.

Vietnam and D'tente

The Vietnam War was a major setback for American foreign policy. The war's cost in money and casualties, as well as the social disruption and moral unrest that accompanied it, discouraged intervention abroad for a while. The Nixon administration, slowly extricating itself from Vietnam, pursued a policy of rapprochement (closer relations) with China and d'tente (relaxation of tensions) with the Soviet Union.

New Cold War

  During the 1970s, conservative groups argued that the Soviet Union was rapidly building up its military and intervening in Africa and elsewhere. There was a tremendous upsurge in public support for military spending and for a strong foreign policy. The Carter administration responded with higher defense budgets, a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and a halt in  grain sales to the Soviet Union. The new Reagan administration went still further, more than doubling military outlays and investing heavily in new types of military hardware.

Before long, however, most Americans became convinced that the United States was militarily strong enough that no further boosts in defense spending were needed. Moreover, when Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union in 1985, he began making sweeping proposals for arms control and other agreements with the United States. A series of summit meetings helped Gorbachev and Reagan establish a personal relationship and agreement on the outlines of
a series of treaties.

A New World Order

The End of the Cold War

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a series of dramatic world events completely transformed international affairs. As Eastern Europe turned toward democracy and capitalism, the Soviet Union cut its military budget, withdrew from Afghanistan, sought peaceful solutions in various Cold War hot spots, and struggled with proposals for its own democratic and market reforms. In the meantime, the Soviet economy declined.

By the summer of 1990, President Bush agreed that the Cold War was over. That fall, a survey of U.S. foreign policy leaders found that large majorities favored negotiating arms control agreements, engaging in trade with the Soviets, exchanging scientists, and working with Soviet military units to increase stability in the Middle East.

The final collapse of the Soviet empire followed a failed coup attempt in August 1991, when hard-line Communist party, military, and KGB officials tried to overthrow the vacationing President Gorbachev. Boris Yeltsin, freely elected president of the Russian Republic, led popular resistance in Moscow and Leningrad.

The coup plotters, winning little popular support and unwilling to slaughter their fellow citizens, quickly gave up. Although Gorbachev was restored to office, the central government rapidly disintegrated. The Communist party, which Gorbachev had tried to reform and use as his chief instrument of rule, lost all legitimacy and was banned in most of the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union itself fell apart as the Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) became completely independent and virtually all the other republics, including the Ukraine and Russia, insisted on independence. Power passed to Yeltsin and other leaders of the republics.

President Bush reacted to the situation by declaring large unilateral cuts in tactical nuclear weapons (hoping for reciprocity from the republics) and by authorizing assistance with economic reform and food aid to stave off hunger and unrest in the old Soviet Union. The fearsome Soviet adversary of the Cold War era was no more.

New Issues in the New World Order

In the early 1990s, the United States faced a changed world. Although the most feared threats of the past no longer seemed dangerous, all problems had not vanished and U.S. foreign policy had not suddenly become irrelevant. Many questions about national security and international relations remained, some of which were difficult to answer. The collapse of the centralized Communist regime in the former U.S.S.R. threw into question the fate of the vast Soviet armed forces, with their thousands of nuclear weapons.

The United States also would have to figure out what, if anything, to do about ethnic strife and economic decline in the former Soviet Union that might bring large-scale bloodshed and suffering and waves of refugees heading West. What about the countries of Eastern Europe, newly freed from Soviet domination but now struggling to institute democracy and economic reform? What, if anything, could the United States do to help them? 

With the Soviet threat gone, how big a peace dividend of money for domestic needs could or should be gained by withdrawing U.S. forces from Western Europe? What sort of role, if any, remained for the NATO alliance once its chief enemy had disappeared? How much reduction could or should there be in the vast U.S. naval forces in the Pacific Ocean or in the troops stationed in South Korea and elsewhere? Could regional conflicts be solved in the Middle East and elsewhere?

What should be done with our own excess nuclear weapons and with radioactive waste from weapons plants, which the government estimated might take 30 years to clean up at a cost of perhaps $100 billion? Questions like these formed the agenda for U.S. foreign policy in the 1990s and will continue to do so into the twenty-first century.

International Economic Policy

At the peak of its economic power after World War II, the United States presided over the world regime of free trade (advantageous for U.S. exports and investments), in which many countries negotiated lower tariff barriers through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT. By the late 1960s, however, the rebuilt economies of Germany and Japan began to challenge American goods abroad and in the United States, beginning with automobiles and then with electronics.

By the mid-1980s, Americans were importing many more goods than they were exporting, creating a multibillion dollar trade deficit. Foreign companies bought American factories and real estate. As more investment flowed in than out, the United States ceased being the world's largest creditor nation and became the largest debtor nation.

Under competitive pressure, the United States lost some of its enthusiasm for multilateral free trade agreements and instead, unilaterally pressured other countries to lower hidden barriers and subsidies that hurt American exports. At the same time, the U.S. arranged voluntary quotas and other policies to control imports to the United States and worked to create a North American free trade zone with Canada and Mexico.

The U.S. makes a modest effort to improve the lives of the world's poor through such programs as Food for Peace, the Peace Corps, and World Bank development loans. Spending on foreign aid is relatively low, however, accounting for only a little over 1 percent of the federal budget in 1990. In recent years, most U.S. aid has gone to allies located in the Middle East and around the periphery of the Soviet Union.

During the 1990s, Americans increasingly realized that environmental problems cross national borders. The United States and Canada worked out a joint approach to acid rain. Many nations tried to negotiate agreements on oil spills, exploitation of Antarctica, protection of the ozone layer, and prevention of global warming. Environmentalists expressed particular concern about the rapid cutting and burning of tropical rain forests, which removes oxygen- producing trees while pouring smoke and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Who Makes Foreign Policy?

The president and the executive branch are the chief governmental foreign policy decision makers, particularly concerning crisis situations, covert operations, and the initiation and conduct of wars. Congress is more often involved in decisions about foreign trade and aid, military bases and contracts, and other matters that directly touch constituent local interests. People and institutions in the political sphere as well as certain structural factors affect what both Congress and the Executive branch do.

Different types of foreign policy are made in different ways. Crisis decision making, for example, belongs almost entirely to the executive branch. Covert actions abroad also are usually governed by small groups of executive branch decision makers, with limited supervision by congressional committees.

In contrast, broader issues of defense policy, including treaties on arms control or military alliances, participation in major wars, the amount of money spent on defense, and so on, involve much more participation by Congress, the general public, interest groups, and others. Here, too, the executive branch ordinarily takes the lead, but it must either respond to domestic political forces or change them.

Moreover, foreign trade and international economic policy sometimes provoke substantial political conflict. The executive branch is generally authorized to negotiate trade agreements with other countries, but Congress has increasingly worried about protecting Americans' jobs and ensuring fair trade with Japan and other countries.

Executive Branch

The president of the United States, as chief executive officer and commander in chief of the armed forces, is the top decision maker on foreign policy issues. To provide the expertise and information for making and carrying out foreign policy, he has help from an enormous number of people and organizations.

The National Security Council is the main formal body for coordinating the various civilian and military agencies involved in foreign policy. In theory, the NSC includes the vice-president, the secretary of defense, secretary of state, director of the CIA, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other high government officials. The NSC staff, headed by the national security advisor, constitutes a miniature State Department, CIA, and Pentagon combined, right in the basement of the White House. The NSC is able to brief the president on any part of the world or on any military or intelligence matter at a moment's notice.

The Department of State is the president's chief arm for getting day-to-day foreign policy information and for carrying out diplomatic activity. The State Department is organized partly along functional lines, with bureaus or offices in charge of such matters as economic affairs, human rights, international organizations, narcotics, terrorism, and refugees. But it is mainly organized geographically, with bureaus for Europe and Canada, Africa, East Asia, the Pacific, Inter-American Affairs, the Near East, and South Asia.

The geographic bureaus have country desks devoted to each nation of the world, where at least one foreign service officer is charged with keeping track of what is going on in that country. Reporting back to the Department of State are about 168 embassies in foreign capitals and 102 consulates scattered around the world. These embassies help American travelers and business people abroad, cultivate good relations with their host country, communicate U.S. policy, and gather political, economic, and military intelligence. 

The titan of foreign and military policy is the Defense Department, whose enormous number of employees dwarfs those of any other agency in the U.S. government. The Defense Department is organized in a complex fashion, designed to ensure a clear, hierarchical military command structure while at the same time ensuring civilian control of the military. A civilian secretary of defense, who has authority over the entire department, reports directly to the president.

Civilian secretaries are in charge of the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. Each department includes civilian officials and a military command structure headed by people in uniform. The uniformed chiefs of each branch serve together in a body called the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who reports not only to the secretary of defense, but also directly to the president. The actual chain of command through which orders pass runs from the president through the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to the commanders of these commands.

The organization of the Defense Department represents a series of shifting compromises. The tensions between civilian control and military hierarchy, and between unity and independence of the services, are long-lasting. Inter-service rivalry can be fierce. 

At its best, this rivalry can provide healthy competition that makes each service try harder to be effective and helps civilian outsiders make informed decisions about which weapons systems and strategies are best. At its worst, the rivalry encourages expensive and unnecessary duplication of capabilities, and results in log-rolling deals that help obsolete systems survive.

Defense politics are special, because the Defense Department is deeply intertwined with the American economy and society. Taking into account the multiplier effect of government expenditures, the number of Americans directly or indirectly dependent upon the peacetime military establishment may reach beyond ten million, or about 9 percent of the total U.S.
labor force.

The exact size is secret, but the U.S. intelligence community is very large. It enjoyed especially rapid growth in the early years of the Reagan administration. The most expensive U.S. intelligence agencies, consuming 75 percent or more of the federal intelligence budget and providing most of the raw intelligence information, are located in the Defense Department.

The National Security Agency spends perhaps $4 billion or more per year, intercepting electronic messages from around the world, analyzing messages, breaking foreign codes, and ensuring the security of U.S. government communications.

Even larger now is the National Reconnaissance Office which planned to spend $6.2 billion in 1992. Closely tied to the air force, this agency runs the satellite reconnaissance program that provided striking close-up photographs of targets and terrain in Iraq and Kuwait. Each of the  armed services has a separate tactical intelligence unit as well.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) advises the National Security Council, coordinates all U.S. intelligence agencies, gathers and evaluates intelligence information, and carries out additional functions as the NSC directs. The intelligence gathering and analysis activities of the CIA rely partly on secret agents within foreign governments and have had some spectacular successes.

Nonetheless, the vast bulk of intelligence gathering does not involve spies. Much of it consists of the tedious work of evaluating thousands of publications from other countries and personal reports by diplomats, attach‚s, travelers, and written reports.

Covert operations, designed to influence or overthrow governments abroad, are the most visible trademarks of the CIA. Covert operations are supposed to be secret, or at least officially deniable. Direct supervision of them is confined to small groups of executive branch officials. Neither Congress nor the public is much involved.

Since 1980, only the two intelligence committees of the House and the Senate must be informed of major operations. Critics object that these operations infringe on the independence of foreign countries, especially when popular or freely elected governments are overthrown. They argue that the very idea of covert operations conflicts with democracy. How can the public control government actions it does not know about?

The U.S. public seems ambivalent about this matter. Many Americans, though not necessarily a majority, tell pollsters that they agree with the general idea that the CIA should work secretly inside other countries to try to weaken or overthrow governments unfriendly to the United States. In contrast, the public has expressed strong disapproval of several covert actions that have come to light, such as assassination plots against foreign officials, the placing of mines in Nicaragua's harbors, and the secret arms sales to Iran.


Congress generally plays a less active role in foreign than domestic policy. Members of Congress believe that their constituents care more about policies that are close to home than those that are far away. Moreover, the executive branch, with its vast intelligence and national security apparatus, has far more information, expertise, and control of events. To be sure, the Constitution gives Congress the power to declare war and to approve all spending of money, and gives the Senate the power to approve or disapprove treaties and the appointment of ambassadors.  At times, Congress challenges the president on important issues. More often, however, Congress goes along with the executive branch or is ignored. The power to declare war, for example, becomes less important when most armed conflicts are initiated by the executive branch without asking for a declaration. The treaty power means less when the executive branch relies heavily on executive agreements that do not require Senate approval. Even when congressional approval was needed on nearly all major issues of the Cold War, Congress went along with executive initiatives.

Congress does have an important impact in some areas of foreign policy. Congress generally reduces the president's foreign aid budget, except for aid to Israel, which is sometimes increased. In recent years, Congress has pushed for more restrictive or retaliatory trade policies toward Japan and other international competitors. Many members of Congress, especially members of the Armed Services Committees and defense appropriations subcommittees, are concerned with military bases and defense contracts, both of which can have great economic impact on congressional districts and can affect powerful interest groups.

Public Opinion and the Mass Media

Scholars once thought that public opinion on foreign policy was so uninformed, unstable, and weak that it could not possibly have much effect on policymaking. It is now clear that public opinion does, in fact, have substantial effects on policymaking. Historical studies of such issues as arms control indicate that policymakers often take public opinion into account in making decisions. Looking at many different foreign policy cases, scholars find that, most of the time, policy corresponds with what a majority of the public wants.

Still, the executive branch has considerable leeway. Seldom does public opinion demand that particular actions be taken abroad. More often, the public more or less goes along with what the president does, at least until results begin to come in. Furthermore, the executive branch can often shape public opinion to its own ends by putting its own interpretation on world events and creating or encouraging events that will alter the public's thinking.

Corporations and Interest Groups

The role of corporations and interest groups in American foreign policy is a matter of controversy. Some observers maintain that executive branch officials are not motivated entirely by concern for a national interest that transcends the selfish interests of any particular group. Others say that conceptions of the national interest are largely determined by the narrow interests of wealthy and well- organized individuals and corporations with links to executive decision makers.

There are indications, for example, that the United States began its free trade and internationalist policies during the New Deal era of the 1930s because of the rise of large corporations with operations abroad. Some argue that several of these firms made a deal with the Democratic party, getting the free trade laws they wanted in return for supporting the Democrats' social welfare policies, which were not very costly to the capital-intensive firms.

American businesses have good reason to care about U.S. foreign policy. Many multinational firms seek free trade policies and diplomatic or military protection abroad. Other firms, especially those relying on U.S. markets but threatened by foreign competition, seek government subsidies, or tariffs or quotas against foreign goods. The defense budget involves big money, as well, and it is seldom disputed that arms manufacturers play a significant part in decisions about weapons systems.

Structural Factors

Some of the most important factors that affect U.S. foreign policy are structural in nature. One is the enormous economic and military might of the United States. The strength of the U.S. economy is what makes it possible to produce war planes, ships, and ground forces that can operate virtually anywhere in the world, giving the United States the capacity to intervene where it chooses. By the same token, the size of the U.S. economy and its deep involvement in world trade and international investment have created U.S. interests almost everywhere.

The place of the United States in the structure of the entire international system affects U.S. foreign policy. During the nineteenth century, for example, when the American economy remained considerably smaller than that of Great Britain, the United States could depend on the British t to maintain order and ensure free trade.

More broadly, the overall shape of the international system makes a great difference. A multipolar world, with many different nations of roughly equivalent power, would call for different U.S. foreign policies than did the bipolar world of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War or would aunipolar world of U.S. dominance.

Foreign Policy and Democracy

Democratic control over foreign policy is incomplete. In this respect, the American political system tends to fall short of the ideals of popular sovereignty and political equality. Although elected officials take account of public opinion, the centralization of foreign policy decisions in the executive branch ensures that popular participation is limited.  Secrecy means that the public often does not know what the government is doing and hence cannot hold it responsible. Government control of information means that the public sometimes can be deceived or misled, acquiescing in policies that it would resist if it were fully informed. Moreover, interest groups sometimes push policy in unpopular directions.