US Foreign Relations

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Foreign relations refer to the relationships shared between countries and the policy that results from these relations. Sometimes called diplomacy, foreign relations often involve negotiations around sensitive matters such as trade or military actions carried out by representatives of nations. Actions and policies enacted as part of foreign relations can have unexpected consequences at home and abroad.

Throughout the history of the United States, foreign relations have tended to swing between isolationist and interventionist in tone. Isolationism is a policy of noninvolvement with the politics or economics of other nations, while interventionism is taking a more aggressive approach to influence the domestic affairs of another country and which can extend to the use of military forces. The United States has also engaged other approaches to foreign policy to further its national interests and international objectives. These include containment, where a nation seeks to limit the spread of an adversary’s ideology or military, and preemption, in which a country threatens or uses force to prevent an attack or other catastrophic event. For example, preemption was used as part of the reasoning for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Containment was a primary approach during the Cold War (1947–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Further, the United States commonly positions itself as a global leader and defender of freedom, democracy, prosperity, and human rights internationally. The country is a founding member of the United Nations (UN), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the World Bank. As part of its interests in trade and international finance, the United States is also a founding member and a key partner in the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The United States is also one of five permanent members on the UN Security Council. Historically, the United States also has been instrumental in various international alliances related to nuclear nonproliferation and the fight against climate change. The United States maintains formal diplomatic relations with nearly every country and, according to the Department of State, enters into more than two hundred international treaties and agreements each year. A counterpart to the United States’ diplomatic efforts is its military, which is the largest in the world and maintains outposts in more than seventy countries and territories.

In this Article:

  • Foreign relations describe the interactions between countries as each country defines and maintains its policies for involvement with other nations.
  • The United States’ approach to foreign policy has tended to swing between isolationist and interventionist. In addition, the country has met some foreign relations challenges with containment solutions and preemptive policies.
  • For much of its existence, the United States remained mostly isolationist toward conflicts in Europe and interventionist in the Western Hemisphere. The United States’ entry into World War II and its leadership in establishing postwar institutions such as the United Nations and NATO to maintain peace signaled a turn to consistent interventionism.
  • Following World War II, the United States became embroiled in a hostile “Cold War” against the communist nations of the Soviet Union, China, and their allies, attempting to contain the spread of communism to additional countries.
  • Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States was the dominant power in international relations.
  • After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the country turned to a war on terror, attempting to suppress nations it identified as supporting terrorism, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. This led to protracted wars in both countries that lasted nearly two decades.
  • In 2017 President Donald Trump turned the country sharply toward isolationist policies, straining relationships with allies and attempting to withdraw from multiple international agreements and treaties.
  • President Joe Biden came into office in 2021 promising to restore relationships with US allies and move forward with international cooperation on issues like climate change and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under the US Constitution, the executive and legislative branches share jurisdiction over foreign policy. The president may negotiate and ratify treaties but must have the “advice and consent” of the Senate, which must approve foreign treaties with a two-thirds vote. The president is designated as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, but only Congress can issue a declaration of war. Most formal US diplomacy is delegated to the Department of State, headed by the secretary of state, a senior member of the president’s cabinet. The department is responsible for advancing the interests and security of the country and its citizens. With standing offices and bureaus dedicated to advancing policy in areas such as arms control, human rights, economic growth, and education and cultural affairs, the activities of the Department of State reflect the diversity and breadth of US foreign relations.

The founders of the United States feared that the new nation would fall under the sway of existing powers like Great Britain or France and get drawn into European conflicts as the colonies had. The early foreign policy, therefore, was one of isolationism based on neutrality and aloofness, or as Thomas Jefferson put it in his 1801 inaugural address, “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

The Monroe Doctrine promulgated by US president James Monroe in 1823 represented a significant step onto the international stage, warning European powers against colonizing or interfering with any nations of the Americas. In exchange, the United States pledged to remain neutral in wars between European nations and their colonies. In 1846 the United States applied the Monroe Doctrine to counter efforts by Great Britain and France to intervene in the annexation of the Republic of Texas and the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, which eventually led to the United States obtaining enormous swaths of land that would make up all or parts of nine Western states.

Following the Civil War (1861–1865), the United States adopted Pan-Americanism as a foreign policy goal, ostensibly to unite the nations of North and South America as model democracies, aiming to further US access to the region’s natural resources and commerce. Pan-Americanist ideals, however, served to justify a more aggressive US foreign policy to repel European influence and consolidate political and military domination in the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine was again invoked as justification for President William McKinley’s decision to intervene in Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain led to the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States won the war, marking its emergence as a world power.

In 1904 US president Theodore Roosevelt issued his “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine, amending the doctrine to permit intervention by the United States when other nations of the Western Hemisphere failed to pay their international debts, violated the rights of the United States, or invited foreign aggression through their actions. These tenets formed the basis for interventions in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.

The United States remained neutral for much of World War I (1914–1918). Continued attacks on US ships by German submarines had severely strained US relations with Germany in 1917 when the United States received an intercepted telegram sent from Germany and intended for the Mexican government. The telegram proposed German military and financial aid to Mexico to attack the United States if the United States decided to enter the war in Europe. This final provocation led the United States to declare war on Germany. After the United States and its Triple Entente allies (Russia, France, and Great Britain) won the war, President Woodrow Wilson proposed one of the most ambitious and idealistic foreign policy programs in the country’s history. His Fourteen Points called for an end to all trade barriers, a worldwide pledge to reduce arms stockpiles, and the creation of a League of Nations—a precursor the UN—among several other items.

However, after the carnage of the war, policy makers and the public opposed future entanglements on other continents, and the United States returned to isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s. This continued even when Nazi Germany invaded neighboring countries and ignited a second global war. Only when Germany’s ally, Japan, attacked the US naval installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941 did the United States enter the war—though it had been providing material assistance to its allies for some years previously. Allying against a common enemy, the United States and the Soviet Union seemed to be entering a new era of cooperation. Planning for the end of the war led to the founding of the United Nations and Bretton Woods Institutions to provide arenas for diplomacy to stave off future conflicts. However, attempts to control the political structures of the countries of postwar Europe after 1945 brought the Soviet Union and the United States into the ideological conflict of the Cold War.

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Following World War II, US foreign policy was chiefly concerned with the perceived threat of the spread of communism. From the 1950s through the 1980s, the “domino theory” was widely accepted by US policy makers, who asserted that the emergence of a communist government in any part of the world would cause surrounding countries to fall under communist control. The United States helped found NATO in 1949 to act as a military alliance to prevent further expansion of communism in Europe and to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.

The most controversial and costly US intervention in the twentieth century was the Vietnam War. To prevent Vietnam from falling under the control of North Vietnamese communist forces, the United States funded and fought alongside the anti-communist South Vietnamese for over a decade, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, finally withdrawing with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. The war, which cost about three million deaths, including more than fifty-eight thousand American lives, and led to bitter divisions within the United States, largely extinguished the country’s enthusiasm for foreign intervention for years to come.

President Richard Nixon, elected in 1968, began a period of détente, a deliberate reduction in tensions in US foreign relations with the Soviet Union. Several arms limitation agreements were enacted with the Soviet Union, and the United States also established relations with China for the first time since the Communist government had forcibly seized power in 1949.

President Jimmy Carter committed his presidency to issues in the Middle East. In 1978 he brokered talks between Egypt and Israel, leading to a peace treaty between the long-time enemies. While Carter succeeded in bringing peace to one part of the Middle East, the late 1970s saw an escalation of hostility toward the United States from most of the region, due to prior US interventionism in the region centered around staunch US support for Israel. This hostility reached a crisis point in November 1979 when Islamic militants seized fifty-two members of the US diplomatic mission in Tehran, Iran, and held them hostage for the next 444 days. The crisis impacted Carter’s bid for reelection.

The inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981 marked a return to interventionism under the “Reagan Doctrine.” This doctrine introduced a goal of “rollback,” or reduction of the number of communist nations, by funding anti-communist insurgent movements in those countries. Reagan’s aggressive anti-communism was also marked by an enormous surge in military spending. Toward the end of the 1980s, the Soviet Union began to crumble. Its decision to try to match US military spending came at the expense of important domestic programs and infrastructure. By 1991 the Cold War superpower had disintegrated.

During the 1990s, the United States found itself with enormous power but no clear guiding foreign policy philosophy. The United States led several military interventions including in Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq in 1990 and as part of NATO forces in the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999. In addition, President Bill Clinton’s diplomatic envoy helped broker the 1995 ceasefire and 1998 peace agreement between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

On September 11, 2001, the terrorist group al-Qaeda launched coordinated attacks on the United States, hijacking four airliners and flying them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to gain control of the final plane. Nearly three thousand people died in the attacks, and President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror,” which directed American foreign policy for the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Al-Qaeda had received support from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. The United States, with broad international backing, launched an invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, which quickly forced the Taliban from power and into retreat but left the country in chaos, beset by violent guerilla warfare.

In 2003, citing intelligence that suggested Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, the United States invaded Iraq and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. No WMDs were found, but in the power vacuum that ensued the United States became embroiled in a complex civil war. As both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars dragged on, the conflicts lost support from the American public while straining US relations abroad.

Elected in 2008, President Barack Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, repair ties with US allies, and restore the United States’ prestige in the world. After taking office in January 2009, Obama pledged to withdraw the majority of troops from Iraq within a year and a half but initially increased the number of troops in Afghanistan to one hundred thousand. Obama slowly drew down troops beginning in 2011. Obama stated that further assistance was necessary to avoid the possible expansion of terrorist groups and the remaining troops were to aid Afghanistan’s military. At the end of Obama’s term, about 8,400 troops remained in Afghanistan.

Though troop withdrawal in Afghanistan went fairly smoothly, the loss of US military presence in Iraq led to a number of conflicts and violent outbreaks between the government and insurgency groups. Civil war broke out in Iraq in 2014 as an extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) sought control over a number of areas of the country. The conflict led to a number of retaliatory efforts by the United States.

What do you Think?

  • What is the domino theory, and what consequences did it have on US foreign relations?
  • In what ways did President Donald Trump’s foreign policy symbolize a major departure from that of his predecessors, and in what ways did he continue established policies?
  • Comparing different foreign policy approaches such as interventionism, isolationism, containment, and preemption, which do you think can best advance the interests of the United States in the 2020s? Explain your answer.

US foreign policy shifted dramatically when President Donald Trump took office in 2017. Both Afghanistan and Iraq remained unstable, with ongoing threats from extremist groups; however, by January 2021 only 2,500 US remained troops in each location. Under the slogan “America First,” Trump favored a more isolationist stance than the United States had seen since World War II and distanced himself from traditionally close allies such as Germany and France while attempting to ease tensions with regimes such as Russia and North Korea. Trump adopted an aggressive economic stance toward China, attempting to use tariffs (taxes on imported goods) to reduce US trade deficits with China.

Trump’s aggressive policies to limit immigration into the United States and to bar even temporary visitors from some Muslim countries caused friction with targeted countries and other nations critical of such policies, including Canada, Mexico, and most European Union countries. At a time when nations allied with the United States were taking in civilian refugees from an ongoing civil war in Syria, Trump cut the United States’ refugee numbers to their lowest in decades.

President Trump took other steps to limit the United States’ participation in international and multilateral agreements, including announcing that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords and multiple trade agreements, and repeatedly questioned US participation in the NATO defensive alliance in Europe. Trump also withdrew the United States from a multilateral nuclear deal with Iran and the UN Human Rights Council in 2018.

When the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic began in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, Trump attempted to shut down all travel and trade with China, blaming the Chinese government for the spread of the disease. He continued to pursue an isolationist policy, announcing that the United States would not cooperate with other countries on vaccine development and distribution and moved to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations organization attempting to coordinate the international pandemic response.

In November 2020 Joe Biden won the presidential election promising to restore US foreign policy and international leadership, including renewed relationships with traditional allies, and rejoining international agreements and organizations rejected by Trump. President Biden signed executive orders to rejoin the Paris Accords and the WHO during his first day in office after his inauguration on January 20, 2021.

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