Foreign Policy

views updated Jun 11 2018

Foreign Policy

The rational approaches

The ideological approaches

Research needs


For half a century the making of foreign policy has been studied in Western democratic countries as a field of specialization separate from the making of public policy in general. This intellectual differentiation rests upon implicit and explicit assumptions about the way the foreign policy field differs from other areas of public policy. The leading assumption is that foreign policy is “more important” than other policy areas because it concerns national interests, rather than special interests, and more fundamental values. A second assumption builds upon the first: since foreign policy questions evoke a different political response, it is assumed that political institutions function differently when they confront foreign policy issues. In addition, of course, different institutions are also involved, in that some governmental agencies are concerned exclusively or substantially with foreign policy. There is growing uncertainty among political scientists, in the United States at least, as to the validity of these assumptions. There is also considerable skepticism concerning the theoretical value of treating foreign policy processes as analytically distinctive—a skepticism that will undoubtedly draw all the different public policy research fields closer together in the future. Nevertheless, the present state of our knowledge reflects, for better or worse, a set of beliefs about the uniqueness of foreign policy processes within the political order.

This orientation toward foreign policy making can be traced to World War I and the events leading up to it—although it might have developed in the United States in any case, since these were America’s first years of great-power status and a period in which increasing attention was given to foreign relations. In the United States the war experience convinced some people that isolationism was no longer an appropriate response to international problems and that the United States must remain actively involved in the affairs of the world. Foreign policy became, for these people, the most important area of public policy, and responsible international participation the only viable political stance. And in both England and the United States the war gave rise to movements to end the traditional secretive practices of the world’s statesmen and diplomats, movements that found concrete expression in Wilson’s plea for “open covenants of peace, openly arrived at” and in the conference diplomacy of the League of Nations. Points One and Fourteen, and Wilsonian philosophy generally, were major building blocks in the progressive “democratization” of foreign policy.

Logically, this struggle for greater public participation in, and control over, foreign relations could have resulted in the assimilation of foreign policy to the working principles and practices of everyday politics in democratic countries. That it has not may be attributed to the prior claim for the “primacy of foreign policy,” to the ineluctable requirements of secrecy imposed by the demands of national political and military strategies, and to the small amount of interest in foreign policy on the part of the general public.

Nevertheless, the study of foreign policy making was permanently affected by the liberal, rationalist, democratic ideology, with its twin convictions that the people, once they were educated, would make liberal and wise decisions in foreign policy and that man could improve his political institutions and their policy outputs if he would only think about them intelligently. These convictions explain the focus of attention, down to the present day, on the search for “better” ways to handle foreign policy, both organizationally and politically, so that public values and common sense might be more freely admitted into policy-making circles, and “better” policies (that is, responsible international participation) might eventuate.

The bulk of scholarly enterprise in the field of foreign policy making lies along one or the other of these two lines of concern, which I shall summarize here as “rationality” and “ideology.” By “rationality” I mean a concern for the organization and structure of policy making which generally (but by no means exclusively) reflects a belief that certain policy-making relationships or arrangements can be found that are for one reason or another more “rational” than any others—that is to say, better designed to implement the values and decisions of intelligent and responsible foreign policy makers. By “ideology” I mean a concern for democratic control of foreign policy making which generally (although, again, not exclusively) reflects a belief that foreign policy decisions should be made by politically responsive or responsible individuals or groups and that the foreign policy of a democratic society can be wise and strong only to the extent that it commands the understanding and support of the public. Cutting across these two major approaches to the subject of foreign policy making are three different levels of analysis: the individual, the institutional, and the systemic. There are thus six major classifications, or clusters, into which the political scientist’s study of foreign policy making may be conveniently divided for explanatory purposes. We shall look at each of these in turn, largely in the American context, since by its intellectual antecedents and history this subject has been of interest predominantly to American scholars. Having done this, we will be in a better position to identify and discuss research on foreign policy making in other countries and research through cross-national comparisons.

The rational approaches

Rational-institutional approach . The central focus of the study of foreign policy making has long been on the institutions of government that are chiefly responsible for the formulation and administration of foreign policy. And in the present period, as in the past, the motivating force seems to be the uncovering of more efficient, effective ways of organizing the policy-making machinery so that it rationally serves the interests or purposes of the analyst, whether these purposes are economy, speed of decision, singularity of authority, or coherence in execution. The executive departments and agencies—the Executive Office of the President, the Department of State, the Foreign Service, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the U.S. Information Agency, the Peace Corps—have been studied and, in many cases, restudied from different perspectives in the various historical periods that mark America’s development as a major power in world affairs. And certain of the functions of these institutions have come in for some scrutiny—diplomacy, for one, because the work of the diplomat is involved in so many of the processes of foreign policy making and execution, and intelligence, for another, because of the steady enlargement in the scope of covert political operations. Some examples of studies in this area are the works by Ransom (1958), Ilchman (1961), and McCamy (1964) on the executive side and Carroll (1958) on the congressional side.

In recent years, also, growing attention has been paid to the planning function in foreign affairs; this has been in response to the fear that without the assignment of adequate institutional responsibilities for thinking about the future, no one will have the time to give advance thought to emerging problems and to their avoidance or solution. (Current concern with foreign policy planning represents, perhaps better than anything else, the faith that political problems, like scientific or engineering problems, can be solved by the timely application of rational thought and organization.)

Because of the complexity of the institutional framework for making foreign policy and the frequency with which the institutions are altered either formally or through usage, the rational-institutional outlook has also focused on interagency coordination as a technique for rationalizing the continuously unwieldy processes of foreign policy formulation and agreement within the government. Actually, the phrase “administration of foreign affairs” refers as much to the coordination of powerful and nearly autonomous foreign policy agencies both at home and “in the field” as it does to the processes of policy making and execution within these agencies (Brookings Institution 1960). The development of high-level coordinating mechanisms like the National Security Council has drawn the interest of scholars, government officials, and members of Congress (see Hammond 1961) who have feared that the coordinating institutions may take over important policy-making functions.

Rational-individual approach . The development of the social sciences, especially of psychology, under the impetus of the political and social crises of World War II resulted in a new orientation toward the individual as the organizing point for political research. In opposition to what was felt to be the empty formalism of traditional institutional and administrative analyses, some students of foreign policy making shifted their focus to individuals and the ways in which they perceived the internal and external factors that came to bear on their institutional settings. The major products of this new line of inquiry have been decision-making studies (e.g., Snyder et al. 1962) that attempt to understand both the factors in human choice and the logic of administrative structure in the foreign policy field by examining the processes of individual and group decision making in institutional settings.

Recent developments in organization theory, although based on research in other types of institutions (e.g., Cyert & March 1963), have considerable relevance to the study of behavior in foreign policy agencies and should be an important influence on future research. The behavior of individuals when they occupy policy-making roles is central to the analysis of decision making, in game models as in the real world, and it explains the continuing interest in biographies and memoirs of policy officials. Students of foreign policy look to political biography, both conventional and psychoanalytic (see George & George 1956), for life experiences that help to illuminate the relations between individuals possessing particular personality types, backgrounds, and the like and the operating norms of particular policy-making offices.

Rational-systemic approach . At still another level, the search for more rational arrangements of organization and structure in the foreign policy field has led scholars to study the patterned interactions of individuals and institutions that constitute the universe of foreign policy making. These studies of interactions or systems cover dyadic relationships between political actors as well as more inclusive studies of how men and institutions handle problems or produce policies. And if the focus, on the individual level, is on reality as perceived by persons in policy-making roles, here the focus may be said to be on the objective reality created by the interactions of two or more political institutions.

The interactions of individuals and institutions involve accommodations of power and interest that we customarily associate with politics rather than administration. This is the case whether the individuals or institutions stand in some hierarchical relationship to one another or are relatively autonomous, deriving their power independently from other sources. Yet much of the scholarly work at the systemic level overlooks these sources of conflicts of power and interest, approaching the subject instead as if there were some arrangements of the foreign-policy-making institutions of government that were rationally or optimally designed to achieve a superior kind of foreign policy. Some commonly studied partial systems of foreign policy making, described in the phrases “executive-legislative relations” and “bipartisanship,” are often treated in this way. The three-cornered relationship of the president, his party in Congress, and the opposition party in Congress has often been examined (e.g., Woodrow Wilson Foundation 1952) to see if a way could be discovered to remove the friction in the system that is presumed to interfere with the smooth functioning of a unified, national-interest-oriented policy machinery. [See BIPARTISANSHIP.]

Recent scholarship, however, has begun to change this emphasis on the structural aspects of foreign policy interactions. Instead of attempting to eliminate or bypass the political features of foreign-policy-making systems by emphasizing administrative arrangements, contemporary scholars have been concentrating precisely on these features (Huntington 1961; Robinson 1962; Schilling et al. 1962). They have begun to study the interactions of individuals within and between foreign policy agencies as sets of bargaining relationships, which are similar to the bargaining processes that take place in other areas of public and political life where competitions of power and of interest are more overt and accepted. This bargaining orientation is thus less committed to the “rational” aspect of foreign policy making; its normative implications tend rather to be those of science in general—that is, one needs to understand how a system operates before one can calculate the consequences of attempting to make any given change in it.

Another body of literature that might appropriately be described in this category consists of “case studies” that reconstruct the way specific issues, policies, or events were handled by the governmental participants in the foreign-policy-making process. These are more likely to be historical-descriptive (e.g., Jones 1955) than analytical in nature, and they find their rationale in the assumption that the mysteries of the governmental process will yield to the accumulated weight of information on how the system has actually worked in specific instances in the past.

The ideological approaches

The second major approach to the study of foreign policy making I have called “ideological,” because in one form or another it is concerned with the democratization of foreign policy—with the possibilities and procedures for introducing a substantial measure of public values into every stage in the formulation of foreign policy. This approach starts from the general premise that the foreign policy area has different roots and different requirements of interest and support in the political system than do other policy areas. It then branches out in two directions. One line of inquiry, based explicitly on the primacy of the foreign policy area over other policy areas, seeks to alter the bases of interest and support in order to optimize public knowledge of, participation in, and control over, foreign policy decision making. A second line of inquiry seeks to discover what the different roots and requirements of interest and support are, in order to understand the operative political processes, sometimes for the purpose of facilitating democratic control and sometimes for more general social science purposes. In both of these lines of inquiry, the central objects of study are most often either nongovernmental groups or the interactions between the nongovernmental and the official elements.

Ideological—institutional approach . Just as the foreign policy institutions of government have been the central focus of study for those seeking better modes of organizing the foreign policy machinery, so the institutions of nongovernmental foreign policy activity have come in for a large share of the attention of those interested in a greater democratic perspective for foreign policy. In this context, foreign policy has benefited from an inclination in political science generally to explore the group basis of politics; thus, the role of organized interest groups in foreign policy making has become an important area of study (Cohen 1959). Much of this research has been limited to the positions, interests, and demands of particular organizations, and thus it has shared in the empty formalism of some of the rational-institutional studies. But increasingly, interest-group activities are being examined at the points where they intersect the domains of other participants in the process of foreign policy making: that is, they are more and more being treated as parts of a political system. And attention is also being turned to skill groups of a comparatively unorganized nature, such as scientists and “academic strategists,” which are playing a larger role in the technical complexities of foreign policy making in a nuclear environment (Gilpin & Wright 1964).

The widespread conviction that a sound and stable foreign policy requires an interested, informed, intelligent public opinion has led to extensive, although far from satisfactory, investigations of the major channels through which foreign policy attitudes and information are transmitted to public audiences. The role of the universities as factors in the development of interest in, and knowledge about, foreign affairs has been a subject of study for some years, although precise measures of the impact of educational institutions at all levels on the foreign policy thinking of students are still lacking. The media of mass communication have been intensively scrutinized for many years (see Hero 1959), although their impact on foreign policy attitudes and information is still largely a matter of intelligent speculation (guided by deep concern) rather than of demonstrable fact.

It was noted above that most of the ideologically oriented studies of foreign policy making were nongovernmental in nature. An important exception concerns the treatment of the U.S. Congress. Part of the study of Congress as a foreign-policy-making institution is approached from the point of view of clarifying its internal organization and procedures and of understanding its interactions as part of the governmental process; hence, it was discussed under the rational—institutional heading. But important parts of this study of Congress are approached from the point of view of understanding and improving its representative role in the foreign policy field, and so they merit inclusion here also. This ideological perspective on the Congress is concerned with that body as a major object of public representation on foreign policy matters and as a channel through which public preferences and aspirations are made a constituent ingredient of foreign policy (Dahl 1950).

Ideological-individual approach . One of the most important and durable approaches to the subject of popular participation in foreign policy making has been through public opinion studies—through sampling and aggregating the attitudes of ordinary citizens. These studies find their rationale in the belief that if foreign policy were to be formulated both democratically and wisely, the average man would have to be interested, well-informed, and enlightened. And in order to discover the conditions of public interest, information, and attitudes at any point in time, as well as possible changes in these conditions over time, it has been necessary to explore the many dimensions of public opinion on foreign policy. In fact, the phrase “public opinion and foreign policy” generally refers to the foreign policy outlook of ordinary citizens rather than of those groups or publics that might be politically more effective in presenting their views.

After thirty years of public opinion research, the data on public attitudes toward foreign policy questions have reached mountainous proportions and have formed the bases for many studies of the public opinion process, both in its political and its psychological dimensions (see especially Almond 1950; Scott & Withey 1958; Deutsch & Edinger 1959). Normatively, these data, which continually show the large majority of the population to be uninterested and uninformed on foreign policy, have been used to justify and guide governmental and private efforts to capture public attention and to enlighten the public on foreign policy matters.

A growing feeling that data drawn from samples of the general population have already yielded whatever significance they contain is leading to new directions in research on public opinion. Scholars are beginning to use opinion data more imaginatively, seeking to relate the foreign policy opinions of attentive and interested individuals to more formal steps in governmental foreign policy making. Similarly, students of public opinion are focusing their attention more narrowly on the leadership elements among nongovernmental groups—on those persons who, by virtue of their special positions or qualifications, have an especially powerful role in shaping the views and the policies of public groups. [See PUBLIC OPINION; see also Rosenau 1963.]

Ideological-systemic approach . Careful study of the processes of public participation and control in foreign policy making has led rather directly to the systemic level, since it has been readily observed that any effort to explore the influence of public factors on governmental decision makers almost automatically compels the investigator to study the patterns of interaction between public and governmental actors. The broadest studies of a systemic variety are, once again, case studies of the interactions of the governmental and the nongovernmental spheres as they have actually taken shape in a particular policy-making circumstance (e.g., Cohen 1957; Bauer et al. 1963) or as they may be traced out through a detailed analysis of how a single nongovernmental group or institution confronts the governmental process (Cohen 1963). Still lacking in this effort to understand how the public influences foreign policy making, however, are studies at the decision-making points to establish with some accuracy the constraints and opportunities that foreign policy officials read into the public mood: too often the subject is approached as if “the public” were always a source—if not the source—of constraints on wise governmental initiative and decision making in foreign policy.

A more circumscribed but still striking pattern of interactions that has been studied from the perspective of “who is to control” is the civil—military relationship. For many years the main concerns of these studies were the devices and techniques for maintaining civilian—hence, ultimately, public—control over military personnel and institutions, which were generally presumed to pose a threat to democratic government by their very existence, if not by their hidden aspirations to power. This simplistic viewpoint has given way in recent years to more complex approaches to the question of civil versus military contributions to public policy, since the military have perforce been accorded a larger role even while civilian authority has been substantially strengthened (Stein 1963).

Research needs

The persistent and increasingly imaginative exploitation of the approaches to the study of foreign policy making discussed above has taught us a great deal about the subject, but in a rather segmented way. This review points up how little there is in the way of explicit general models of the foreignpolicy-making process—or, more precisely, processes, since there is no single combination of forces that is always operative and no single path that is followed in every instance. While much necessary work remains to be done in each of the above classifications before we can lay claim to confident understanding of how the parts of the foreign-policy-making system operate, such work would be helped immeasurably by more elaborate theories governing the whole system of foreign policy making.

In addition to a dearth of general theories, and perhaps as a contributing factor to that dearth, there has been very little comparative analysis in the study of foreign policy making. Rather, our analyses of institutions, individuals, and even systems have been singular and for that reason not always cumulative. At the present time we cannot have very great confidence in the generality of our hypotheses and insights. Comparisons are possible between similar institutions or similar policy-making functions in different countries or different political settings, or with respect to the same institutions or functions operating in different historical periods. It is also possible to compare the behavior and interactions of participants across a representative range of policy issues arising in any one political system. Such comparative analyses seem to be a very promising means of formulating a generally applicable model of foreign policy making.

We noted at the beginning of this article that the subject of foreign policy making has been most extensively pursued in the United States. Much less work—and much less sophisticated work—has been done on foreign policy making elsewhere in the world. How does one account for this situation?

In the first place, the historical circumstances and the political setting that have inspired this research in the United States have not been present to any important extent in other countries. Even in Great Britain, where the movement for open diplomacy had some force during World War I, the stronger political traditions of executive discretion in foreign affairs have discouraged an open exploration of foreign policy making, especially where one could detect in that exploration some aspirations for greater public participation. In countries that did not undergo political experiences comparable to those of the United States, the political culture has directed the attention of scholars to other kinds of problems.

Second, interest in modern methods of social science research has developed more slowly elsewhere in the world than in the United States. Apart from public opinion research, which has had an extensive development, research on foreign policy making that has been done in other countries has usually been historical-descriptive in nature and can be characterized as rational—institutional. With few exceptions (e.g., Frankel 1963), the major works on foreign policy making in countries other than the United States have dealt with the formal administrative apparatus for the conduct of foreign relations.

Third, the lack of a tradition of comparative analysis in this field has meant that even American scholars have been slow to turn their attention to aspects of foreign policy making in other countries. Quality studies dealing with individual countries have only recently started to appear (e.g., Speier & Davison 1957; Bishop 1961; Mendel 1961); genuinely comparative studies have still to be made.

There is no reason to believe that our growing knowledge of foreign-policy-making processes in the United States will help us to understand what these processes are like in other countries: we have long since learned that propositions drawn from the American political system are of limited relevance to other political contexts. The comparative study of political systems is now expanding rapidly; the comparative study of foreign-policy-making processes could be made an important part of that endeavor.




ALMOND, GABRIEL A. (1950) 1960 The American People and Foreign Policy. New York: Praeger.

BAUER, RAYMOND A.; POOL, ITHIEL DE SOLA; and DEXTER, L. A. 1963 American Business and Public Policy: The Politics of Foreign Trade. New York: Atherton.

BISHOP, DONALD G. 1961 The Administration of British Foreign Relations. Syracuse Univ. Press.

BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, WASHINGTON, D.C. 1960 United States Foreign Policy: The Formulation and Administration of United States Foreign Policy. Washington: Government Printing Office.

CARROLL, HOLBEKT N. 1958 The House of Representatives and Foreign Affairs. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press. ⇒ A paperback edition was published in 1966 by Little.

COHEN, BERNARD C. 1957 The Political Process and Foreign Policy: The Making of the Japanese Peace Settlement. Princeton Univ. Press.

COHEN, BERNARD C. 1959 The Influence of Non-governmental Groups on Foreign Policy-making. Boston: World Peace Foundation.

COHEN, BERNARD C. 1963 The Press and Foreign Policy. Princeton Univ. Press.

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DAHL, ROBERT A. 1950 Congress and Foreign Policy. New York: Harcourt.

DEUTSCH, KARL W.; and EDINGER, Louis J. 1959 Germany Rejoins the Powers: Mass Opinion, Interest Groups, and Elites in Contemporary German Foreign Policy. Stanford Univ. Press.

FRANKEL, JOSEPH 1963 The Making of Foreign Policy: An Analysis of Decision-making. Oxford Univ. Press.

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HAMMOND, PAUL Y. 1961 Organizing for Defense: The American Military Establishment in the Twentieth Century. Princeton Univ. Press.

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foreign policy

views updated Jun 11 2018

foreign policy. No doubt Caratacus' resistance to the Roman invasion of ad 43 and his alliance with the Silures could be regarded as foreign policy, but it scarcely seems a helpful term. As long as monarchs wielded great personal power, it is hardly possible to divorce foreign policy from the individual circumstances and character of each king and treat it as a separate category. Nevertheless, at an early period, certain themes emerged. The connection with France that came about in 1066 was fortuitous in that William the Conqueror took advantage of the fact that Edward the Confessor had no sons in order to claim the throne of England, but it introduced a pattern that survived for 500 years. From the days of William Rufus to those of Henry VIII, English monarchs attempted to retain or extend their French possessions. Not until the loss of Calais in 1558 did this aspiration come to an end, and even then it was another 200 years before they relinquished the title of ‘king of France’. This, in turn, had profound effects upon another object of English policy, which pre-dated the Conquest—the ambition to turn a southern English kingdom based upon Wessex into a kingdom of Britain, which should include the north, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. So demanding a programme may have been beyond the resources of a small kingdom, yet it should be remembered that one object of these policies was to augment those resources. English possessions in France included some of the most fertile and prosperous regions, while it was a constant complaint of English monarchs that the Pale in Ireland, far from being a source of profit to the crown, drained men and money. Foreign affairs necessarily interlocked with domestic. Weak rulers like John, who lost Normandy, or Edward II, beaten at Bannockburn, were heading for disaster, but even successful rulers like Edward I and Edward III could expect opposition at home if their demands were too great.

Even within the limits of so general a context, other patterns may be discerned. The principle of supporting one's enemy's enemy is elementary, yet it had important consequences. The Scots, in their long struggle for independence, soon perceived the advantages of an understanding with France, and the ‘Auld Alliance’ survived from the treaty of Paris of 1295 until 1560. This also had domestic consequences. When Philip VI of France was at war with Edward III in 1346 he urged David II to cross the border by way of diversion, which led to his capture at Neville's Cross. During the Great Schism from 1378 to 1417 one reason for Scotland's recognition of the Avignon popes was that the English were supporting the rival popes at Rome. Likewise, the desire of James IV of Scotland to take advantage of Henry VIII's absence on campaign in France in 1513 led to his death at Flodden. England pursued a similar policy, supporting Brittany and Burgundy against France. Balance of power also came into consideration centuries before the phrase was invented. In the 16th and 17th cents., when Spain and France disputed European hegemony, the choice was which side to take—unless England was prepared to run the risk that, by staying aloof, she would facilitate the establishment of a universal monarchy. It was left to the monumental incapacity of Charles I to contrive to be at war with both great powers at the same time.

Two other factors were also of increasing importance. The growth of England's trade, particularly in cloth, gave its rulers concern to protect it, which could not be divorced from foreign policy since embargoes and tariffs were easy diplomatic ploys. A special interest in Flanders and the Low Countries, reinforced by strategic considerations, lasted until the 20th cent. Linked with growing prosperity was the use of England's financial resources to eke out a small population by subsidizing continental allies, a policy operated by Edward III, who supported the small German states and Savoy on France's eastern border, and reaching its climax in the five coalitions needed to overcome Napoleon Bonaparte in the 19th cent.

The rift in Christendom in the 16th cent. introduced a new factor into foreign policy, but one which was rarely decisive. Monarchs certainly supported their co-religionists in other countries when it served their purposes, and some rulers like Philip II of Spain showed more than common zeal, but the co-religionists were well aware that the commitment was fragile and that they could find themselves abandoned. Catholic unity did not prevent the long struggle between France and Spain, nor protestant commitment three wars between England and the Dutch in the 17th cent. It is true that the Spaniards gave support to their fellow-catholics in Ireland in the 16th cent., but so did atheistical French revolutionaries in 1798, and realpolitik Germans in 1916. Nor, at a later stage, did ideology outweigh national interests. Burke maintained that the war in the 1790s against revolutionary France was an ideological crusade and quite unlike any previous conflict, but Pitt, who was in charge of affairs, was more low-keyed and would have made peace with the revolutionaries if they could demonstrate that their regime was stable and that they were sincere. Churchill, in 1941, reproached with commending the Bolsheviks, is said to have replied that he would speak well of the devil if he would take up arms against the Nazis.

The development of a modern context for foreign policy dates from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when three factors combined to change the context of diplomacy. First was the steady spread of representation at foreign courts, which made policy more of a regular activity and less of a response to occasional crises or particular problems. The change had begun in Italy in the 15th cent. Henry VII had a permanent representative only at the Vatican, and though he added one at Madrid and Henry VIII added a third at Vienna, by 1568 there was only one permanent representative left, at Paris. William III, after 1688, had twelve resident ambassadors as well as envoys and agents. The existence of a network of representatives and the flow of information provided facilitated a more coherent foreign policy. The second factor was the changed importance of Parliament after 1688 which initiated a move away from a personal towards a national foreign policy. The Stuarts had often been at odds with their parliaments over foreign affairs but the annual meetings of Parliament after 1688 made it harder for subsequent monarchs to take an independent line. Monarchs and ministers certainly struggled to prevent Parliament from being informed, pleading that public disclosure could inhibit diplomacy, but in 1701 ministers were impeached for not placing the partition treaties before the council or Parliament. After 1688 ambassadors rarely reported directly to the monarchs and a highly personal policy like Charles II's secret treaty of Dover would have been difficult to sustain. The process was completed with the creation of the post of foreign secretary in 1782. The third factor was the growth of empire. In 1600 England had no overseas colonies: by 1700, in addition to the twelve American colonies, there were valuable possessions in India, the West Indies, and Africa to be protected.

The importance attached to foreign affairs in the 18th cent. may be gauged from the fact that, until the reorganization of 1782, the two secretaries of state were categorized according to the areas of Europe which they dealt with—north or south. The broad outlines of 18th-cent. foreign policy, for all its complexities and variations, are simple. After the swift collapse of Spanish power and rapid rise of France under Louis XIV, there was no question which was the dominant power in Europe, and the fact that France was also a major colonial competitor helped to bring about what has been called the second Hundred Years War. Between 1689 and 1815 Britain and France were at war for nearly half the time. France's much greater population and resources were a substantial handicap, but to build restraining alliances was far from easy. Spain was no longer an adequate counterweight and for much of the period was in the French camp in a Bourbon alliance. The Dutch, though they had an obvious interest in preventing French aggrandizement, were in rapid decline. The Habsburgs, whose possession of the southern Netherlands placed them in the front line, had very heavy commitments in eastern Europe to consider, and, after the reversal of alliances of 1756, moved temporarily into the French orbit. Russia and Prussia, two emerging powers, were purchasable, but their despotic regimes made them unpredictable. After 1714 there was a further complication that Hanover, virtually defenceless against a determined French onslaught, had either to be protected or taken out of pawn at the peace settlement. The rivalries and ambitions of the continental powers made the construction of grand coalitions difficult. Napoleon bought off Prussia in 1806 with the offer of Hanover, while at the peace settlement in 1814 Prussia and Russia were near to conflict over the fate of Saxony.

These factors dictated Britain's overall foreign policy. It was an accepted point that she must have a continental ally and, on the one occasion when she did not, she lost the American colonies. Indeed, the 1780s, at the end of the American War, were exceptionally difficult. Britain's gains at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 had cast her in the role of overmighty power and made the balance of power operate against her: Spain, France, and Holland, at war with Britain in 1780, were supported by Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Prussia, Portugal, and the empire in the League of Armed Neutrality. Continental alliances also demanded heavy subsidies and finance ministers from Newcastle to the Younger Pitt sweated to supply the sinews of war and diplomacy.

The peace which brought the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to a conclusion in 1815 was based essentially on balance of power considerations. France was made to disgorge the enormous gains she had made under Napoleon, but there was no attempt to reduce her to a second-rate power and she was speedily welcomed back into the comity of nations. Austria and Prussia both made substantial territorial gains but it was still considered essential that they should balance each other in Germany. Britain retained the Cape of Good Hope, taken from the Dutch, Mauritius, and a number of West Indian islands. In only one respect did the peace clearly fail. The new united kingdom of the Netherlands, intended, with international help, to bolt the door against any future French aggrandizement, lasted only fifteen years before collapsing in the face of Dutch and Belgian hostility.

J. A. Cannon

Where did Britain stand in the decades after Waterloo? Victorian foreign policy conjures up a vision of a John Bullish Lord Palmerston in the middle of the century; of Britain dominating world trade by her economic strength; a liberal, constitutional Britain, which supported national and liberal movements on the European continent against the declining forces of despotism; a Britain which, at the end of the century, was to rule the greatest empire in the world, with Queen Victoria reigning over a quarter of the world's population. The picture is not entirely false but it owes too much to the image which clever politicians like Palmerston and Disraeli wished to project to the British public. Historical study since the 1930s has revealed a more complex picture. Britain had only firmly established her right to be considered a European great power in the 18th cent. and had come close to forfeiting that status as a result of the American War of Independence. In the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, Britain's naval strength had been of enormous importance but her lack of a large standing army had made the other European powers see her as a minor player on the continent. Even Wellington's victories in Spain, which dazzled British opinion, were regarded as a side-show until he brought his army over the Pyrenees in 1814. Britain's (justified) fears at that time were that the other powers, Austria, Russia, and Prussia, would conclude a ‘continental’ peace with France, ignoring British interests. It is a measure of Castlereagh's stature as a statesman that he not only played a major role in holding the coalition together but that he safeguarded all Britain's vital interests in the settlement at the end of the war.

All those responsible for British foreign policy between 1815 and 1865, Castlereagh, Canning, Wellington, Aberdeen, and Palmerston, looked back to William Pitt the Younger as their mentor. They interpreted the legacy somewhat differently according to temperament and changing circumstances but the similarities were greater than the differences. The Vienna settlement of 1814–15 followed roughly the lines envisaged by Pitt in 1805 and the powers agreed to meet periodically to maintain the peace settlement, as Pitt had wished. Castlereagh felt obliged to withdraw from the resulting Congress system because he believed it was being perverted from its original purpose of maintaining international peace to the suppression of any subversion which might threaten authoritarian regimes. As late as 1863 Palmerston refused to join the revisionist Napoleon III in a congress because ‘the Treaties of Vienna … are still the basis of the existing arrangements of Europe’ and chaos would ensue if they were overturned. There was no clear division between Conservatives and Liberals among British foreign secretaries in this period. Where they did differ was in their attitude to Europe. All accepted without question that their first duty was to uphold British interests but whereas Castlereagh, Wellington, and Aberdeen believed that this could best be done by playing a full role in Europe, Canning and Palmerston took a more isolationist position.

The great issues of this period were the Eastern Question—the dangerous vacuum left by the decline of the Ottoman empire—and the rise of liberal and nationalist movements in western and central Europe. In the East, Britain reluctantly followed a policy, in the crises of 1840 and the Crimean War, of propping up the Ottoman empire to prevent Russian advances. The British public had some genuine sympathy with liberal and national movements, especially in Italy, but the government was always extremely cautious in its approach. In the great revolutionary year of 1848 Palmerston was long on rhetoric but short on action. His rhetoric convinced conservative Europe that he was a dangerous radical. It also won the plaudits of the British radicals, even though Palmerston was a strong Tory in facing the challenges in Britain and Ireland. Henceforth, Palmerston found that he could control the electorate (which in fact he feared) by this John Bull approach.

By the 1860s the balance of forces was changing. The British navy still commanded the seas but Britain's industrial lead was about to be challenged by other powers, especially the USA and Germany. Palmerston's last ministry saw Britain come close to what might have been a disastrous involvement in the American Civil War and Palmerston's bluff over Denmark was called by Bismarck. Britain stood aside from the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. Disraeli put a brave face on it. Britain's abstention, he said, was the result of increased strength, not decline. Britain was no longer ‘a mere European Power’.

There was a more real clash of ideologies between Disraeli and Gladstone than between their predecessors. Gladstone, like Pitt and Castlereagh before him, had a clear vision of how international affairs should be conducted, with all submitting to the rule of law and disputes settled by arbitration, not war. He fought a losing battle for the old self-balancing Vienna system. In Europe he was defeated by Bismarck who created his tight, and dangerous, system of alliances to protect the newly united Germany. Disraeli turned to the empire and made it a Conservative cause.

Britain's acquisition of a new empire in the late 19th cent. is usually seen as defensive, a matter of weakness rather than strength. The old colonies of settlement, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, were becoming increasingly independent. Britain still had a great empire in India and its defence sometimes required further accretions of territory. Ironically, Britain acquired more of Africa, during the Scramble period, under Liberal than under Conservative administrations. The motive was almost always a challenge by another power, usually France or Germany. The rhetoric of Palmerston, Disraeli, and their successors convinced the public of Britain's greatness. Sober statesmen, Lord Salisbury, Balfour, or Grey, knew the dangers of the situation. ‘Splendid isolation’ was not glorious. It was an uncomfortable reality. In 1902 Britain, embarrassed by world reaction to the Boer War and feeling that even the Royal Navy was now overextended in view of the growth of other, particularly the German, fleets, concluded an alliance with Japan. Over the next twelve years she shifted from Salisbury's policy of ‘leaning’ on the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, and Italy (the first two, old allies) to close relations (although stopping short of a formal alliance) with her two traditional rivals, France and Russia. The simplest explanation may be correct. Britain could not afford to see Germany defeat France again. She fought Germany in 1914 in defence of a balance of power older than the 19th cent., as she had fought Philip II, Louis XIV, or Napoleon—to stop one power dominating Europe.

Muriel Evelyn Chamberlain

After 1918 Britain was a sated and exhausted country. Though she took mandates under the League of Nations, they proved troublesome: Iraq became independent as early as 1932 and Palestine and Jordan soon after the Second World War. Britain's main concern was the search for security. The alliance which had defeated the central powers had begun to disintegrate even before the Great War ended, as Russia collapsed into revolution and civil war. The USA turned to isolationism, the Anglo-Japanese alliance was not continued after 1922, and France, Britain's main ally, was mistrusted in the 1920s as too belligerent and in the 1930s as too defeatist. The inability of the League of Nations to deal with the Manchurian crisis was an early warning that collective security might offer little protection and was followed in 1933 by the advent to power in Germany of the Nazis. The policy of appeasement, which had many facets, was accompanied by a new search for allies. Though Russia was admitted to the League of Nations in 1934, there was massive mistrust on both sides, and in 1939 Stalin preferred to do a deal with Hitler. Much effort was devoted to wooing Italy, whose strength was overrated, and appeasement of Mussolini brought down one foreign minister, Hoare, in 1935. Under these circumstances, British foreign policy lurched. Having abandoned Czechoslovakia in 1938, Britain gave a guarantee to Poland which could scarcely be honoured.

Many of the same themes re-emerged after the end of the Second World War. Churchill was not alone in wondering before 1939 whether victory, if obtained, would seem much different from defeat. Foreign policy was dogged by economic and financial weakness. In one respect policy was simplified by the pace of de-colonization—Britain shed imperial responsibilities at such speed that protecting the empire soon ceased to be a major consideration. As the shape of the post-war world unfolded, two problems emerged—security in the face of Soviet power and Britain's attitude towards Europe. The first was achieved by the nuclear deterrent, participation in NATO (1949), and a close understanding with the USA, jeopardized only temporarily by the Suez crisis. The debate on Europe, which proved protracted, was governed by three factors. First was that Britain geographically and culturally was half-in and half-out of Europe, and her connections with her former colonies gave her a perspective Germany did not share, and France only partly. Though Churchill himself had spoken in favour of some United States of Europe as early as 1945, he did not envisage Britain as part of it: it was well-meaning advice de haut en bas. The second was that European unity, which began as the simple determination of European powers never to fight each other again, moved through economic collaboration towards political integration. The debate in Britain was often stultified by refusal to identify what ‘Europe’ meant at different stages: the phrase ‘Common Market’, which the British voted to join, masked the political aspirations of many of its continental supporters. The third factor was the timing of Britain's application to join. EFTA (the European Free Trade Association), Britain's immediate response to ‘the six’—a free trade bloc of Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Britain, and Austria—was scarcely a formidable economic force, and clearly a holding operation. Britain's application to join the EEC was vetoed by de Gaulle in 1963 and again in 1967 at a time when a federal Europe was hardly on the agenda and Gaullist France would have been very suspicious. But by the time Britain entered the EEC in 1973, the movement towards political integration was gathering pace. Britain acted as a somewhat ineffective brake, usually doing enough to exasperate the anti-Europeans while not satisfying the enthusiasts for European unity. It was also paradoxical that at a time when many Scots, Welsh, and others were protesting that decisions were always made in remote London, power should be leaking to remoter Brussels. All too often, the rhetoric of British foreign policy appeared to suggest that Britain should be at the very heart of Europe in order to lead it backwards. At the start of the 21st cent., Britain's relations with Europe were still deeply contentious.

J. A. Cannon


Bartlett, C. J. , British Foreign Policy in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke, 1989);
Black, J. , A System of Ambition: British Foreign Policy 1660–1793 (1991);
Bourne, K. , The Foreign Policy of Victorian England, 1830–1902 (Oxford, 1970);
Chamberlain, M. E. , Pax Britannica? British Foreign Policy, 1789–1914 (1988);
Scott, H. M. , British Foreign Policy in the Age of the American Revolution (Oxford, 1990);
Seton-Watson, R. W. , Britain in Europe, 1789–1914 (Cambridge, 1945).

Foreign Policy

views updated May 18 2018

Foreign Policy





Foreign policy, conceptualized most broadly and simply, is the totality of a states external behavior toward other states and nonstate actors (e.g., international organizations and terrorist organizations). Foreign policy involves everything from the most consequential decisions about war and peace to more seemingly mundane issues of tariff levels on imports. Foreign policy encompasses long-term goals and objectives (e.g., the U.S. policy of containing the expansion of Soviet influence during the cold war) as well as discrete decisions and actions (e.g., the Soviet Unions decision to deploy nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1961).

In the social sciences, foreign policy analysis emerged in the 1960s as a subfield of international relations. Foreign policy analysis represented a conscious attempt to move beyond what were seen as predominantly descriptive, unsystematic, and atheoretical accounts of foreign policy often found in diplomatic histories and policy analyses in opinion journals. The goal was to study the determinants of foreign policy behavior in a more theoretically oriented and empirically rigorous manner. This rigor was reflected in greater attention to data gathering and analysis, the development and testing of theory, and a move away from single country studies to more comparative analyses designed to assess the relative importance of various determinants of foreign policy. In this sense, foreign policy analysis reflected the broader trend of behavioralism in political science and the social sciences more generally in the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the first manifestations of the move to greater rigor in foreign policy analysis was the development of frameworks to help organize both empirical research and theory development. The frameworks that eventually exerted the greatest impact on how scholars thought about foreign policy and conducted their research involved some version of what came to be known as the levels of analysis. The hope was that the use of such common frameworks would encourage scholars to think more systematically about the sources of foreign policy while making empirical research more cumulative.


As with all social sciences, the study of foreign policy is ultimately about understanding human behavior, whether people are acting alone as individuals or in groups as social collectives. As Valerie Hudson notes, Understanding how humans perceive and react to the world around them, and how humans shape and are shaped by the world around them, is central to the inquiry of all social scientists, including those in IR [i.e., international relations] (Hudson 2005, p. 1). Though foreign policy analysis can be differentiated from other social sciences in terms of the actor and behavior in question, many of the basic insights for understanding any type of human behavior are relevant and have been adapted for the study of foreign policy.

Generally speaking, there are two types of explanations for the behavior of any social actor. We can loosely refer to these as dispositional and situational. Dispositional explanations portray an actors behavior as the result of some feature or characteristic of the actor itself: An actor behaves in a certain way because something about the actor predisposed it to behave in a particular fashion. Situational explanations focus on external forces that shape an actors behavior regardless of its unique characteristics: Something in the actors environment led it to behave in a certain way. In all but the most extreme instances of course, social scientists recognize that any actors behavior results from some combination of dispositional and situational forces. Thus the goal of most social scientific inquiry is to determine the relative importance of dispositional/internal and situational/external forces in shaping an actors behavior.

Kenneth Waltz (1959) was among the first to introduce a similar scheme into international relations. Focusing on theories of war, not foreign policy per se, he drew a distinction between individual-, national-, and international-level explanations of state behavior. Numerous versions of the basic scheme incorporating further refinements and distinctions within the different levels have been developed and applied since its first appearance. The most influential of these was presented in 1966 by James Rosenau in his call for the development of theories and pre-theories of foreign policy.

Several levels of analysis highlighted by Rosenau are common to virtually all such frameworks. The individual or idiosyncratic level focuses on the decision makers themselves and draws heavily on research and theory from social and cognitive psychology. Research at this level has examined the impact of personality traits, beliefs/perceptions, and cognitive processes. The societal level deals with the impact of general national attributes, such as a states economic system, regime type, level of development, public opinion, or political culture. The governmental level emphasizes the institutions and dynamics of decision-making processes, particularly bureaucratic competition and organizational dynamics. The international level stresses the general impact of the anarchic and competitive nature of an anarchic international system, a states position in the overall distribution of power, and factors such as geography. Two things are apparent from the levels-of-analysis frameworks and determinants of foreign policy specified within each level: First, any explanation of a states foreign policy will certainly incorporate elements from multiple, if not all, levels; second, the study of foreign policy is by its very nature multidisciplinary, drawing on insights from a wide array of social sciences. In this respect, once again, foreign policy is probably no different than most other social phenomena.


Graham Allison (1969, 1971), in his seminal article and book on decision-making during the Cuban missile crisis, claimed that observers often analyze and explain foreign policy through the lens of a rational actor model. Either implicitly or explicitly, analysts portray states as unitary actors possessing a coherent set of ranked national goals and objectives. According to this model, states confronted with international circumstances that require action will craft, evaluate, select, and implement policy options that maximize these goals and objectives. This rational actor model is often applied in reverse to understand a states foreign policy and determine what its goals and objectives might be. If a nation deploys a certain weapons system or decides to use force, for example, observers assume that this policy was chosen in order to maximize its goals and objectives. As Allison explains, This paradigm leads analysts to rely on the following pattern of inference: if a nation performed a particular action, the nation must have ends toward which the action constituted an optimal means (Allison 1969, p. 694). A rational actor model views foreign policy as an intellectual or analytical, as opposed to political, process. Though a rational model is often applied implicitly, some international relations adopt it explicitly, even though they realize that it is usually not an empirically accurate portrait of how foreign policy decisions are made. In their view, such unrealistic simplifications of reality are theoretically useful and necessary even if they are descriptively inaccurate. Allison, among others, argued that the routine application of the rational actor obscures a genuine understanding of foreign policy: The black box of the state needs to be opened and unrealistic assumptions abandoned or modified if we want to understand and explain state behavior. In fact one of the underlying goals of levels-of-analysis frameworks and their inclusion of domestic and individual variables is to direct attention to the internal workings of the state and decision-making processes.

With the goal of better understanding foreign policy, Allison presented two other models that offered better pictures of how foreign policy is actually made: the bureaucratic politics model and the organizational process model. In the bureaucratic model, the state is not seen as a unitary rational actor but rather as a collection of actors representing governmental organizations with different perspectives, goals, and objectives. There is no single, coherent, and ranked set of national goals and objectives. Policy is the result of a political process, not an analytical process. In this model, the decisions and actions of governments are essentially intra-national political outcomes (Allison 1969, p. 708). Decision makers are seen as reflecting the interests and perspectives of the government bureaucracies they represent, a tendency embodied in the cliché that where one stands (on any given issues) depends on where one sits (within the government). A states behavior should be seen as reflecting the relative power of the players in the process, not as something designed to maximize a well-defined national interest. Under other circumstances, it might make more sense to understand foreign policy through the lens of an organizational process model. This model assumes that states are large organizations that seldom reevaluate policy from scratch and consider the full range of options when action is required. The crafting, evaluation, choice, and implementation of policy options are often determined by such factors as precedent and the standard operating procedures and routines usually found in any large organization.

Allison did not claim that the bureaucratic and organizational models were always more accurate than the rational actor model. Nor did he suggest a complete rejection of the rational actor model. In laying out the models and applying them to the Cuban missile crisis, Allison was attempting to make two points. First, there are some, perhaps many, circumstances in which foreign policy decisions may be the result of different decision-making processes and dynamics. Second, the alternative models are useful for highlighting and illustrating the real world constraints and forces that limit the applicability of rational models to understand foreign policy (or policy in any area for that matter).


One problem with levels-of-analysis frameworks is that they often result in a seemingly endless laundry list of variables that influence foreign policy. Those seeking to explain a states behavior can easily become overwhelmed by the proliferation of determinants at each level. It is easy for the analyst to drown in a sea of details and determinants. Analysts need to find some way to include more without becoming overwhelmed. To deal with this problem, it is useful to emphasize that foreign policy can encompass everything from general policy orientations that persist over long periods to discrete decisions. There is a need for some precision about exactly what one wants to explain. If an analyst wants to explain why Great Britain pursued a policy of naval supremacy throughout most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this is very different from trying to explain a particular decision about the use of force. In thinking about the determinants of broad policy orientations such as Britains policy of naval supremacy, it would make little sense to look to the personality traits of British prime ministers. Behaviors and policies pursued over long periods are more likely to be the result of similarly enduring determinants such as geography and culture. On the other hand, if one is trying to explain a specific decision, such as Britains military response to the Argentinean seizure of the Falkland Islands in 1983, it might very well make sense to focus on leader traits (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in this case). Foreign policy analysis requires clarity not only in terms of the determinants of policy but also what is to be explained. In this way, one thinks about which determinants are likely to match up with the level of policy one is seeking to explain.

Similarly analysts sometimes worry about the proliferation of models. The critical point is to remember that there is no reason to assume that any one model is generally applicable. The description of various decision-making models merely highlights the fact that not all decisions are the result of the same process. The process itself is likely to vary with the nature and importance of the issue at hand, the amount of time decision makers have to act, and whether the problem is new or familiar. Critical issues of war and peace and the use of force, for example, are almost always decided at the highest levels, not within the confines of bureaucracies and organizations. As a result these decisions may more closely resemble the rational actor model. If the problem requiring a decision is novel or unfamiliar, there are unlikely to be preexisting, organizational, standard operation procedures that can be applied. If decision makers have little time to make a decision, they may be unable to craft and evaluate a wide range of new policy options and may thus choose to implement preexisting plans or routines. If the policy has important consequences for the allocation of resources, the influence of bureaucratic politics may be greater. Analysts need to think about the issues and conditions that are most conducive to different decision-making processes.

The development of levels-of-analysis frameworks and alternative decision-making models were both attempts to move analysts away from the tendency to view foreign policy as a rational and strategic response to external events. As Waltz, frequently criticized for treating states as unitary, rational actors, admits, foreign-policy behavior can be explained only by a conjunction of external and internal conditions (Waltz 1993, p. 79). In most political science departments, foreign policy is treated as a subfield of international relations. There are good reasons for this, given that the focus is on the external behavior of states. But one could make an equally compelling case that it should be viewed as a subfield of public policy, since there is no compelling reason to believe that foreign policy is free of all the same influences that shape policy in other areas. Foreign policy is, after all, foreign policy.

SEE ALSO Alliances; Bureaucracy; Cold War; Cuban Missile Crisis; Decision-making; Deterrence; Deterrence, Mutual; Falkland Islands War; International Relations; Leadership; Neutral States; Non-alignment; Peace; Rationality; Strategic Behavior; Strategic Games; Thatcher, Margaret; Waltz, Kenneth; War


Allison, Graham. 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. American Political Science Review 63 (3): 689718.

Allison, Graham. 1971. The Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. 2nd ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1999.

Hudson, Valerie. 2005. Foreign Policy Analysis: Actor-Specific Theory and the Ground of International Relations. Foreign Policy Analysis 1 (1): 130.

Hudson, Valerie. 2006. Foreign Policy Analysis: Classic and Contemporary Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ikenberry, G. John, ed. 2004. American Foreign Policy: Theoretical Essays. 5th ed. New York: Longman.

Neack, Laura, Jeanne A. K. Hey, and Patrick Haney, eds. 1995. Foreign Policy Analysis: Continuity and Change in Its Second Generation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rosenau, James. 1971. Pre-Theories and Theories of Foreign Policy (1966). In The Scientific Study of Foreign Policy, ed. James Rosenau, 95151. New York: Free Press.

Waltz, Kenneth. 1959. Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Waltz, Kenneth. 1993. The Emerging Structure of International Politics. International Security 18 (2): 4479.

Yetiv, Steve. 2004. Explaining Foreign Policy: U.S. Decision-Making and the Persian Gulf War. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Keith Shimko

Foreign Policy

views updated May 09 2018


FOREIGN POLICY, 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. Its legitimacy 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 persistent domestic influence in American foreign policy has been further encouraged by the nation's immunity through most of its history (especially 1815–1941) from mortal threat. Its diplomacy, therefore, proceeding from choice rather than necessity, tends to invite debates that often devolve to arguments about moral values. Presidential administrations tend to navigate cautiously, hemmed in by strong constitutional constraints and often introspective but volatile public opinion. American foreign policy has sometimes been remarkably vigorous (especially since 1941), supportive in the nineteenth century of expansionary territorial impulses and, more recently, of broader economic extensions. Yet it has nevertheless tended historically to be managerial in character and moralistic in tone, often expressing itself in congenially concise formulas (Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, Good Neighbor Policy) rather than in geopolitical initiatives of the kind familiar to students of state practice in the more contentious European arena.

Among historians two general viewpoints predominate. A mainstream outlook posits 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.

Establishment and Consolidation, 1776–1815

The American diplomatic tradition arguably begins in the colonial period. The revolutionaries were heir to a well-informed, politically self-conscious citizenry. Their initial concern was survival. The Continental Congress secured the indispensable alliance with France (1778) that eventually helped bring independence. But it preferred to stress economic rather than political relations, presenting prospective partners with the so-called Model Treaty (1776) emphasizing commerce. After the Treaty of Peace, 1783, and the creation of the Constitution, the administration of President George Washington restored trade with Britain through Jay's Treaty (1794). Pinckney's Treaty (1795) recorded a southern boundary agreement with Spain. Washington's Farewell Address (1796) also stressed trade and warned against "entangling alliances." But European politics persistently intruded, inspiring Congress to break with revolutionary France over the XYZ Affair (1798), which led to the termination of the alliance and to a naval "quasi-war" in 1798–1800 (see France, Quasi-War with). The Francophile President Thomas Jefferson, similarly beset, responded to French and British violations of America's neutral rights at sea with a trade embargo (1807) and the Nonintercourse Act (1809). These neoisolationist policies failed, and ensuing maritime and continental tensions led to the inconclusive War of 1812 with Britain (1812–1815). The agreement signed by the two countries in 1814 (see Ghent, Treaty of) registered the resulting stalemate and closed this first era of intense but finally profitable political engagement with a Europe that was conveniently preoccupied with the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

Continental Expansion, 1803–1867

This period of dramatic enlargement is framed by the Louisiana Purchase (1803)—bought for $15 million from Napoleon and allowing a westward leap that doubled the size of the United States—and by the purchase of Alaska in 1867. It saw the acquisition of West Florida from Spain (1810) and the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819), which brought in East Florida, Spanish confirmation of the Louisiana Purchase, and a first window on the Pacific by cession of Spain's claims in the Northwest. The Rush-Bagot Treaty (1817) and other subsequent boundary agreements with Britain consolidated a demilitarized northern border. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) declared against both further European colonization in the Americas and any renewed projection of the European system in the Western Hemisphere. While this reflected rising American self-confidence, the doctrine's nineteenth-century viability rested with British naval power.

In the 1840s the Manifest Destiny concept expressed an intensified impulse toward western expansion. After the incorporation of Texas (1845), President James Polk's administration negotiated a favorable Oregon boundary settlement with Britain (1846) and, after a shrewdly manipulated crisis led to a successful war with Mexico, the 1848 peace agreement (see Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of) brought California and a vast southwestern domain into the union. The Gadsen Purchase in Arizona (1853) and the later Alaska purchase completed the continental framework.

The impression of success in all these accomplishments is real; the appearance of inevitability is not. European machinations, Mexican resistance, and divisions at home had to all be surmounted or finessed. The desire for incorporation of larger parts of Mexico and Canada, and of certain Caribbean territories coveted by the southern slave states, were all frustrated for various reasons.

The Rise and Maturation of a World Power, 1860–1941

The Civil War inspired a vigorous diplomacy. The Confederacy tried to translate British and French establishment sympathy (not shared by the European working classes, which favored the Union) into recognition and support. President Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward successfully prevented this. Northern wheat and sea power trumped Southern cotton in European calculations.

The rapid industrialization of the late-nineteenth-century United States produced at first a self-absorbed politics. Seward, a visionary, Pacific-focused expansionist, acquired Alaska and Midway Island. He called for an isthmian canal, but various executive initiatives in the Caribbean failed to gain support. In the early 1890s, Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan's propagation of an imperial vision based on sea power heralded a revived expansionary mood. But it took the triumphant 1898 war with Spain, arising more directly out of the long Cuban rebellion, to propel the United States into world politics with subsequent control of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, new positions in the Caribbean, and the formal acquisition of Hawaii. Substantial domestic opposition to this new American "empire" was overcome, and Secretary of State John Hay's Open Door notes to other powers in 1899–1900 signified a fresh American determination to share commercial opportunities and, by implication, political influence in China (see Open Door Policy).

President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), an ardent nationalist, embodied the new activist tendency. In the Caribbean region, always a primary American interest, he created political conditions for the future Panama Canal at Columbia's expense, and closed the area to European military action by undertaking in the so-called Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine to be their self-appointed debt collector. He sent marines to quell various regional disturbances. More widely he mediated the Russo-Japanese peace settlement of 1905 and the Franco-German dispute over Morocco in 1907. His advocacy of a stronger navy and of an extended international law signified a commitment to both power and moral order, reflecting the self-confidence of the Progressive era.

The fuller implications emerged in the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. A supposed "idealist," the high-minded Wilson is perhaps better described as a passionate moralist and visionary. His multiple Caribbean interventions (most dramatically in the Mexican civil war), suggest continuity. He responded to the outbreak of World War I in Europe (August 1914) with two dangerously contradictory policies: neutrality but also, behind a show of legal impartiality, an opportunistically profitable economic relationship with Britain and France. The eventual German response of unrestricted submarine warfare forced America into the war. Wilson championed a rational, just peace. His Fourteen Points (1918) called inter alia for freedom of the seas, free trade, a wide degree of self-determination in Europe, and a postwar League of Nations. Having successfully orchestrated the armistice, he personally attended the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. His rigidly principled diplomatic style and his failure to collaborate with the resurgent Republicans at home or to win a liberal settlement from the war-embittered Allies contributed to a flawed peace agreement (see Versailles, Treaty of) and subsequently a failed campaign to secure congressional approval of American participation in the League. Wilson, incapacitated by illness during the final struggle with the Republican-dominated Senate, had nonetheless set a course for future American liberal internationalism.

During the Republican ascendancy (1921–1933), economic impulses (notably government retrenchment and active trade promotion) dominated foreign policy. War debt and reparations prolonged international tensions until the stabilizing United States–sponsored Dawes Planbr (1924) and Young Plan (1929) effected a short-term recovery. Politically the United States remained detached. The Washington Treaties of 1921–1922 fashioned a new Pacific geopolitics, but the real spur was the prospect of reduced naval spending. The illusory Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) supposedly outlawing war, the largely rhetorical Stimson Doctrine (1931) denying recognition of Japanese conquests in China, and the spasmodic interest in joining the World Court were all characteristically gestural initiatives. After 1929 the deep and widespread economic depression produced dislocation, protectionism, and a politically radicalizing international system. But although President Franklin D. Roosevelt was comparatively active from 1933—announcing a Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America, recognizing the Soviet Union, pushing through a Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act—his freedom to act in the developing European crisis was inhibited by encumbering neutrality legislation that reflected congressional and public opinion. The quasi-isolationist mood persisted after the outbreak of war in Europe (September 1939), but internationalist sentiment strengthened after the shocking fall of France, the encouraging survival of Britain, and the reelection of Roosevelt. American Lend-Lease to Britain (later to the Soviet Union and other countries) was followed by intensified economic pressure on Japan and a policy of naval harassment against Germany in the Atlantic. Roosevelt's proclamation with British prime minister Winston Churchill of the Atlantic Charter (August 1941), emphasizing freedom and democracy, reflected a growing sense of engagement that crystallized when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and Adolf Hitler's soon thereafter declaration of war, brought the United States into World War II.

From Great Power to Superpower, 1941–1991

The United States supported Britain materially during their successful military-strategic wartime partnership, while steadily committing it to open postwar imperial markets and to permit currency convertibility. Relations with the Soviet Union (also receiving American aid) were distantly collaborative but were undermined by the United States' resentment at delays in creating a second front and, as victory neared, the Soviet Union's increasingly exclusionary policies in eastern Europe, which clashed with Roosevelt's more universalistic visions. The crucial Yalta Conference (February 1945) left basic misunderstandings over Poland and eastern Europe, though the following Potsdam Conference produced tentative agreements over German administration and reparations. But in early 1946, persisting differences—intensified after the Hiroshima atom bomb led to the end of the Pacific war and by fresh Soviet expansionary political thrusts threatening Turkey and Iran—led to a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the United Nations. What came to be known as the "containment" policy, maintained throughout the Cold War, was inspired by the American diplomat George F. Kennan (who formulated it) and more generally by Churchill in his March 1946 Iron Curtain speech. The containment policy aimed to quell Russia's expansive tendencies, and it developed institutionally through the Truman Doctrine of 1947 promising aid to Greece and Turkey; the Marshall Plan of the same year offering aid for European economic recovery; and, finally, after a series of crises in 1948, through the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, committing the United States to protecting western Europe.

The containment policy endured as the Cold War enlarged to east Asia with the communist victory in China (1949) and the Korean War (1950–1953), which brought American commitments to protect South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan and to support France against nationalist and communist insurgency in Indochina. During Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidency, the Cold War expanded globally. From 1953 to 1954 the United States effectively deposed communist-supported governments in Iran and Guatemala. It declined to participate in the international Indochina settlement (see Geneva Accords of 1954) and launched an anticommunist regime in South Vietnam. New multilateral treaties—SEATO in 1954 covering Southeast Asia, and CENTO in 1959 focusing on the Middle East—completed the "containment" chain around the largely communist Eurasia.

Eisenhower proclaimed "liberation" but actually practiced containment. His "New Look" strategy, emphasizing nuclear rather than conventional weaponry, led to epidemic testing and a vastly enlarged arsenal. It helped prompt a nuclear arms race with the Soviets who responded in kind. U.S.–Soviet relations were erratic. Ameliorations after Stalin's death (1953), during the 1955 Geneva summit, and again with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the United States, had their counterpoints in tensions over German membership in NATO, the Suez Crisis in 1956, the Cuban revolution in 1959, and the U-2 spy plane affair in 1960.

The brief but significant presidency of John F. Kennedy brought generational change, the Alliance for Progress (in Latin America), and the Peace Corps. A new "flexible response" based on augmented conventional forces replaced the atomic strategic emphasis. A crisis developed over Berlin, culminating in the creation of the Berlin Wall in 1961. In Cuba, after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 came the Cuban Missile Crisis, the dramatic confrontation of October 1962 between the Soviet Union and the United States over Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. The successfully resolved crisis led to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (1963) and, arguably, to a more assertive policy in Indochina, with troop levels reaching approximately 16,000 by November 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated.

President Lyndon B. Johnson enlarged the Vietnam War commitment in early 1965 to about 200,000 troops (later to nearly 550,000). The escalation, reinforced by systematic bombing, probably prevented a communist victory and was initially popular at home. But as troop levels and casualties rose from 1965 to 1968 without visible improvement, Americans became divided. The politically successful communist Tet Offensive in January 1968 forced profound reconsiderations. Peace talks began and continued sporadically under President Richard M. Nixon as fighting persisted. Nixon's Vietnamization policy allowed the steady extrication of American troops balanced by intensified bombing. The American withdrawal in 1973 and the communist victory in 1975 registered this regional failure.

Meanwhile, Nixon and his chief diplomatic adviser, Henry Kissinger, had developed an innovative triangular political strategy of détente with China and the Soviet Union. Groundbreaking agreements were signed in Moscow on strategic arms limitation and a range of economic, political, and cultural accords. The containment framework continued but was tempered now by increasing acceptance of Soviet legitimacy, manifest in further summits and in the Helsinki Accords (1975) accepting the dominant Soviet role in eastern Europe in exchange for commitments to enhanced human rights. This set the stage for the "human rights" foreign policy orientation from 1977 of President Jimmy Carter, a rationally oriented idealist who began with a treaty ceding the Panama Canal to Panama at a later date (with qualifying safeguards); Carter hoped to move American diplomacy from Cold War preoccupations toward broader socioeconomic global issues. He successfully brokered the Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt and intervened effectively in several Latin American issues. He negotiated a second strategic arms limitation treaty with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But the provocative Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 ended détente. Carter responded with economic sanctions and plans for a rapid military buildup. But the revived tension, together with domestic economic problems largely caused by steeply higher oil prices and an Islamic revolution in Iran that led to the incarceration of American hostages, brought Republican Ronald Reagan to power in 1981.

In the 1980s we see two distinct phases. Within the context of renewed Cold War tensions, the primary emphasis was on refurbishing American military strength and morale. The comprehensive buildup was accompanied by a successful campaign to place Pershing missiles in Europe (countering Soviet targeting there) and low-risk but significant resistance to perceived Soviet or other communist expansion in Africa, Central Asia, and (especially) Central America. In that region, active subversion of the radical Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, support for conservative elements in El Salvador, and the Grenada Invasion of 1983 signified the new militance.

The 1985 emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev, a new Soviet leader, had profound consequences. Bent on diverting resources to domestic change, he engaged a steadily more receptive Reagan in a series of summit meetings from 1985 to 1989. Slowed by Reagan's insistence on developing a defensive nuclear shield (see Strategic Defense Initiative), these meetings produced a treaty in 1987 banning intermediate-range missiles, and another in 1989 looking to strategic arms reductions. Meanwhile, Gorbachev reduced conventional force levels in eastern Europe and permitted, during 1989, a remarkable series of political transformations to democratic rule in the region. He also allowed German reunification and continuing membership in NATO in exchange for economic assistance. The United States supported these moves, which ended the Cold War on a successful note. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

The Post–Cold War Search for Definition, 1991–2001

The first post–Cold War decade brought widespread political democracy and market capitalism but produced no striking new American conceptual or policy definition. President George H. W. Bush, successful in the Persian Gulf War of! 1991 against Iraq, anticipated a "new world order." The Muslim revival inspired notions of cultural-political confrontation. Subsequent references to "modernization" and "globalization" were similarly resonant but diffuse.

New political problems forced policy improvisations. Much of eastern Europe developed ties with NATO and the European Union. But Russia, still nuclear-armed, and undermined by weak leadership and corruption, was a principal object of American concern. The collapse of Yugoslavia and ensuing violence prompted President Bill Clinton's administration to intervene effectively in Bosnia and later in Kosovo. Diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East and Colombia were less successful. The principal emphasis was on the creation of enlarged, liberal trading regimes, notably through the North American Free Trade Agreement (1994), the World Trade Organization (1995), and the United States–China agreement (2000). President George W. Bush's initially more unilateralist approach (a nuclear defensive shield, suspicion of international environmentalism) was transformed by the terrorist assaults upon New York City and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001 into actively coalitional diplomacy and a commitment to "war on terrorism."


Combs, Jerald A. American Diplomatic History: Two Centuries of Changing Interpretations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Graebner, Norman A. Ideas and Diplomacy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1964.

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

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987.


See alsovol. 9:American Diplomacy ; The Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary .

Foreign Policy

views updated May 11 2018

Foreign Policy. In the context of U.S. military history, foreign policy can be defined as “the goals the nation's officials seek to attain abroad, the values that give rise to those objectives, and the means or instruments used to pursue them.” This definition has three essential elements with linkages among them. Moreover, it draws attention to the facts that U.S. foreign policy has historically exhibited change over time in each of these elements, and that their relationships with one another have also varied across different periods.

If diplomatic and military historians could reach agreement on the nature of changes in U.S. foreign policy so defined, the task of tracing this history would be relatively simple. But the challenge is difficult, because controversies over U.S. foreign policy goals, values, and instruments abound. Rather than attempting to resolve these controversies, it is more useful to clarify the three major categories within which debate has been conducted.


In the first instance, in modifying the goals of foreign policy, the major issue confronting U.S. leaders has been reconciling the advantages and disadvantages of isolationism and internationalism. At certain times, American leaders and public opinion have sought U.S. withdrawal from international affairs, practicing disengagement and nonentanglement in order to isolate the country from the perils of international dependence and foreign wars. At other times, American foreign policy has swung in the opposite direction, toward active engagement with other nations on the issues at the moment. In fact, U.S. foreign policy exhibits over time an ambivalent “approach‐avoidance” syndrome. What is more, a cycle in these periodic oscillations between isolationism and internationalism is observable, alternating rather rhythmically every twenty to twenty‐five years. As Frank Klingberg documents, an “introvert” foreign policy (isolationism) has been pronounced in the periods 1776–98, 1824–44, 1871–91, 1919–40, and 1967–86, and an “extrovert” foreign policy (internationalism) in the periods 1798–1824, 1844–71, 1891–1919, and 1940–66 (with a resurgent globalist phase underway, predictably, once again since 1986).

At its core, internationalism expresses a desire for American leadership in world affairs. It springs from the motivation for the United States to head the world, to set America apart from others, and to forge a “new world order” compatible with U.S. ideals and interests. “Unilateralism”—a self‐assertive effort to be self‐reliant—represents one approach to internationalism, and speaks to the quest popular at times for the United States not to act in concert with others and to avoid dependence upon them. “Globalism”—the preference to become a hegemonic world leader—is another.

At the extreme, internationalism reflects the desire for the United States to act as an agent of international reform to bring justice and order to world affairs, perhaps through imperialism and interventionism abroad, and at others more passively by serving as a model for countries to emulate. This penchant has not been without its critics. For example, John Quincy Adams counseled (4 July 1821) that a crusading, excessive U.S. involvement in world affairs dedicated to reforming the world in America's image could lead to the prostitution of the very ideals Americans hold most dear—liberty abroad and at home. Unrestrained U.S. international leadership also has been pursued as a goal, however, as seen, for example, in John F. Kennedy's 1961 pledge that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.” This goal is sometimes termed liberal internationalism because it refers to what political scientist Richard Gardner calls “the intellectual and political tradition that believes in the necessity of leadership by liberal democracies in the construction of a peaceful world order.”

In contrast, isolationist goals speak to the U.S. foreign policy preference to sever the country from the corrupting influences of international engagement and despotic foreign governments. George Washington enshrined the reasoning rationalizing withdrawal when he warned the nation in his farewell address to “steer clear of entangling alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” The Monroe Doctrine (1823) stemmed from the same logic and preference, as later did the Neutrality Acts in the 1930s. Detachment and withdrawal are also deeply instilled goals in the American diplomatic tradition, and they have periodically resurfaced as the defining characteristic of U.S. foreign policy.


The push for two seemingly incompatible foreign policy goals springs from the political beliefs in which U.S. foreign policy is rooted. The values that give rise to fluctuations and alternating cycles in defining U.S. goals and postures include two quite different world views—idealism and realism—both of which at various times have dominated the thinking of U.S. leaders and shaped their foreign policies. The two value systems stem from very divergent beliefs about the ways to best reconcile the tension between ideals and interests, between principle and power, and between moral purpose and military primacy.

At the core of idealism is the belief that American foreign policy should be guided by its fundamental liberal values—what may be called the “ideology” of American foreign policy. But throughout U.S. history, Americans have often differed about the relative importance of particular liberal ideals. Still, underlying idealism has been the fundamental belief that the United States has a special mission to use power for moral purposes. Adlai Stevenson stated this “exceptionalist” version of America's international purpose, for example, when he argued that “America is much more than a geographical fact. It is a political and moral fact.” Similarly, Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that “America was established not to create wealth but to realize a vision, to realize an ideal—to discover and maintain liberty among men.”

At the risk of sounding simplistic and selective, the idealist‐liberal tradition may be said to stress the Enlightenment's faith in reason, progress, the essential goodness of human nature, popular sovereignty, and the benefits of equal access to opportunity. Idealism counsels the search for international cooperation through U.S. support for international law, international institutions and organizations (such as the League of Nations and the United Nations), a liberal trade regime, arms control and disarmament, and the promotion of democratic governance, collective security, and multilateral approaches to international peace.

This liberal‐idealist conception of a transcendent national purpose differs from the realist conception with which it is often juxtaposed. To this alternate frame of mind—whose roots are equally deep—raison d’état and national interest are, necessarily, primary goals, and in a contest between principle and power, power must be paramount. To the realist tradition, it is prudent for the United States to acquire military capabilities and use them not only for defense but also to exercise influence abroad and to compete with other states in the international struggle for power. To advocates of realpolitik, the U.S. goal should be to put the military means to American prosperity, privilege, power, and position ahead of a drive to exalt liberty or any other grand ideal.

Like internationalism and isolationism, the history of American diplomacy also can be largely written in terms of cyclical swings between idealism and realism. In general, idealist moods have been particularly dominant in the immediate aftermath of America's major war experiences and in times of optimism and prosperity, when hopes for successful American reform of international practices have risen—for example, during and after World War I when Woodrow Wilson championed an idealist American foreign policy dedicated to building “a world safe for democracy” under a rule of law, managed by an international organization (the League of Nations). But, instructively, the idealist program was promptly repudiated, and values based on realist assumptions again prevailed in the thinking of U.S. policymakers. This reversal illustrates the general tendency for a realist mood to capture the thinking of policymakers prudently concerned more with core national interests such as defense than with ideals when war scares have been perceived to threaten U.S. security (as, for example, during the Cold War).


Identifying the most effective means to the ends of foreign policy (consistent with the values that inspire choices about goals) has always been a challenge. The most difficult decisions facing leaders are often not about definitions of national interests and foreign policy priorities, but about the instruments to serve them.

Whereas there are observable patterns and periodicities in the goals and values underlying U.S. foreign policy, the record with respect to choices about instruments is more erratic and episodic, depending on different leaders' perceived needs and their estimates about the probable efficacy of different tactical tools.

Salient in the U.S. experience are military instruments. Here a basic choice involves the desired level of military preparedness to deter an attack on the United States or to project power abroad and, potentially, to deploy U.S. military might overseas. Both military expenditures (as a percentage of the national budget) and force levels have exhibited short‐term perturbations and long‐term trends, as seen in the framers' rejection of a large standing army and in just that kind of massive military commitment after World War II to enforce America's contest with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The actual U.S. use of armed force abroad has displayed more repetition and regularity. Military engagement has ranged from large‐scale protracted involvements like those in World Wars I and II to frequent practice low‐scale intervention overseas. Nearly every U.S. administration has used coercive diplomacy on numerous occasions, but especially when internationalist goals shaped by realpolitik have been pursued.

The “strategies” guiding military methods of foreign policy, for both deterrence and compellence, comprise a related dimension. These have been defined by the various doctrines specifying the purposes for which military might should be put. Also related to overt military instruments of foreign policy are a cluster of other, less blatant tools such as covert operations, clandestine intelligence activities, so‐called public diplomacy designed to disseminate information abroad to bolster the United States and influence public opinion, and so‐called gunboat diplomacy relying on shows of force abroad to signal U.S. resolve and commitments.

A second subcategory of instruments may loosely be defined as political, inasmuch as they refer to tools on which U.S. decision makers sometimes rely to exercise influence over other nations to get them to do things they might not otherwise do. Alliances are key here, as the recruitment of allies (and prevention of states' alignment with adversaries) comprises the primary method by which leaders seek to maintain a favorable international balance of power. Foreign assistance and foreign military sales add to the arsenal of policy tools by which political influence can be exercised; for the United States, these were particularly popular during the Cold War. So, too, was the creation of international organizations, such as the United Nations, constructed less for idealistic reasons than as mechanisms through which the United States could shape international events in directions compatible with its national interests.

A third basic subcategory of foreign policy instruments is economic. To serve the goal of increasing U.S. prosperity, leaders have depended on a range of divergent strategies. At one end of the philosophical spectrum are mercantilist approaches, which seek American power through trade protectionism, tariff walls, export and import controls, and, at the extreme, colonialism and imperialist expansionism. Alexander Hamilton's national industrialization policies to develop “infant industries” and the “open door” policies with respect to China in the 1890s reflected this approach, which sought to expand American power and territory at the expense of others; this drive is colored in realpolitik. At the other extreme, shaped heavily by liberal‐idealism, are policies designed to lower barriers to free trade of the sort advocated in Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points address. This approach was successfully pursued by the United States after World War II, when the United States led in the promulgation of the liberal international economic order that, through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) culminated in creation of the World Trade Organization. Between these positions lie a variety of less controversial economic practices, such as embargoes and sanctions, that have been used as policy instruments to influence relations with foreign targets.

Rethinking the Concept of Foreign Policy.

Scholars have disagreed about the emphasis that should be placed on pronouncement and doctrine (words) and observable behavior (deeds) as indicators of foreign policy by which changes might be measured. Beyond conceptualization, substantial disagreements exist about the best ways to characterize the goals, values, and instruments of American foreign policy. It is unlikely that consensus will crystallize, because the subject is complex and amenable to differing but equally plausible interpretations. The term foreign policy is elastic. Goals, values, and instruments have habitually taken new directions as global circumstances changed and American leaders sought to cope with them.

It is worth speculating that global conditions have changed so rapidly recently that traditional conceptions of foreign policy may be becoming anachronistic. With the radical expansion of international trade, travel, and communications, the international system has become perhaps unprecedentedly interdependent, and there is little prospect that this “globalization” trend will reverse direction. Borders that traditionally have divided sovereign territorial states no longer separate and buffer them from external influences as in the past. As a result, the classic distinction between “domestic” and “foreign” policy is collapsing. If this trend continues, if “domestic” policy truly becomes “foreign” policy, and vice versa, then the very meaning of foreign policy—its goals and implementations—will require reconceptualization.
[See also Commander in Chief, President as; Nationalism; National Security in the Nuclear Age; Peace; Peacekeeping; Strategy.]


Lloyd C. Gardner , Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in American Foreign Policy, 1970.
Edward Weisband , The Ideology of American Foreign Policy: A Paradigm of Lockean Liberalism, 1973.
James N. Rosenau , The Scientific Study of Foreign Policy, 1980.
Frank L. Klingberg , Cyclical Trends in American Foreign Policy Moods: The Unfolding of Americas World Role, 1983.
Richard N. Gardner , The Comeback of Liberal Internationalism, Washington Quarterly, 13 (Summer 1990), pp. 23–39.
Charles W. Kegley, Jr., ed., Controversies in International Relations Theory: Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge, 1995.
Charles W. Kegley, Jr., and and Eugene R. Wittkopf , American Foreign Policy: Pattern and Process, 5th ed. 1996.

Charles W. Kegley, Jr.

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