Chapter Study Outline


Achieving collective action around the “national interest” is essential in foreign policy making. Given the threats inherent in the international system, Americans have an old adage that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” meaning that the nation should come together to achieve its common purposes in foreign policy. In addition to a concept of national interest, historical memory plays a pivotal role in foreign policy. Long ago, George Washington argued that America should have “as little political connection as possible” with foreign nations. Although this, America’s oldest foreign policy principle, still lingers in our political culture, America has nevertheless become an important world power necessarily and strategically tied to the world. This chapter considers the goals of American foreign policy, the relevant players in foreign policy making, the instruments of American foreign policy, and the American role in the world.

  1. The Goals of Foreign Policy
    What are the goals of American foreign policy? How do these goals compete with, and reinforce, one another?
    • Security, prosperity, and the creation of a better world are the three most prominent goals of American foreign policy.
    • Security, the protection of America’s interests and citizens, is a perennial concern, but America has tried to achieve security in different ways throughout its long history.
      • In the nineteenth century, American foreign policy was dominated by a policy known as Isolationism, wherein America sought to avoid involvement in the affairs of other nations.
      • During the twentieth century, two world wars and a subsequent Cold War changed the calculations behind American foreign policy. Necessarily engaged with the world, America turned from isolationism to a more proactive policy of deterrence, wherein the nation would maintain a strong military in order to discourage foreign attacks.
      • Foreign policy changed again at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century when the demise of the Soviet Union decreased the relevance of deterrence and the new threats of rogue states and terrorism caused the George W. Bush administration to shift to a policy of preemption (that is, a willingness to strike first in order to prevent an enemy attack).
    • Economic prosperity, accomplished mostly through trade policy, is a second major goal of American foreign policy. Expanding employment in the United States, maintaining access to foreign energy supplies, promoting foreign investment in the United States, and lowering prices for American consumers are all aims of American foreign economic policy.
    • Promoting international humanitarian polices in ways that make the world a better place is a third goal of American foreign policy. Aims such as promoting international environmental policies, advocating for human rights, and keeping peace between nations all fall under this category.


  2. Who Makes American Foreign Policy?
    Who are the major players that make, influence, and implement American foreign policy? What roles do these various actors play and how do they interact with one another?
    • The president and his top advisers are the principal architects of U.S. foreign policy, though other actors (e.g. Congress, the courts, parties, interest groups, and trade associations) are also important to foreign policy making.
    • The president shapes much of foreign policy; the president is commander-in-chief, who negotiates treaties and receives foreign ambassadors, nominates America’s ambassadors to other countries, and enters into executive agreements.
    • The foreign policy bureaucracy includes the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Homeland Security, along with the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency; the heads of these various departments and agencies serve as key foreign policy advisers to presidents. Since 9/11, these various institutional actors have played increasingly prominent roles in American foreign policy making
    • Congress has the constitutional power to declare war and the Senate must approve treaties; the most relevant congressional actors in the foreign policy arena are the Senate Foreign Relations, Armed Services, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees, and the House Foreign Affairs, Homeland Security, and Armed Services committees.
    • Interest groups—economic, ethnic or national-origin, and human rights and “green” groups—are increasingly important players in foreign policy making.
    • The president dominates foreign policy making; other than the president, the influence of the players varies by issue. During times of crisis, presidential dominance is even greater and decision making involves the fewest players.


  3. The Instruments of Modern American Foreign Policy
    What are the tools that American government officials use to achieve their foreign policy aims? How are diplomacy, economic strength, and military might deployed to advance American interests in the world?
    • Diplomacy is the representation of a government to other foreign governments to promote national values or interests by peaceful means.
      • Although the Rogers Act of 1924 established the initial framework for a professional foreign service staff in America, it was not until World War II and the Foreign Service Act of 1946 that America developed a professionalized diplomatic corps.
      • Given the high stakes of foreign policy and the president’s clear responsibility for success or failure, many presidents are reluctant to entrust major responsibilities to diplomats in the State Department.
      • In 2008, both parties’ presidential candidates criticized the Bush administration for failing in the area of international diplomacy.
    • The United Nations, an organization of nations founded in 1945, serves as an institutional channel for negotiation and a means of settling international disputes peaceably.
      • The UN General Assembly is the supreme body of the organization and consists of one representative of each of the 192 member states; the UN Security Council, of which the United States is a permanent member, is the executive committee of the United Nations.
      • The United Nations can be a useful forum for international discussions and multilateral action.
    • The International Monetary Structure, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, were created in 1944 to stabilize the world economy mostly by providing loans to countries.
    • Through economic aid and, sometimes, the use of economic sanctions, the United States affects the actions of other countries by providing incentives to encourage some types of behavior and disincentives to dissuade countries from engaging in undesirable behavior.
    • After World War II, the United States stepped up efforts to engage in collective security agreements with other countries; multilateral treaties such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and bilateral treaties with individual countries are employed to solidify relationships and maintain security.
    • Military force is the most visible instrument of foreign policy, and the United States now has a large, prepared standing military and a massive build-up of weaponry, both of which it uses to deter foreign attacks and otherwise influence international outcomes.
    • Sometimes international disputes are subject to arbitration in international tribunals.


  4. Americaƕs Role in the World
    What role does America currently play? How does its foreign policy relate to its history and ideals?
    • British statesman Lord Palmerston famously said, “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests.” This “realist” view of foreign policy exhibits a harsh rationality, and a reality of foreign policy that leaders are not likely to espouse publicly.
    • Yet the actions of numerous presidents are difficult to explain aside from such motivations, and these contradictions may diminish America’s ability to derive power in the world system through adherence to its historic ideals.