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Chapter 1

Chapter 1: The Strategic Context: Foreign Policy Strategy and the Essence of Choice

Chapter Review

American foreign policy has been and will continue to be about the dynamics of choice. One set of these choices is about foreign policy strategy – of what the national interest is and how best to achieve it. The other set of these choices is about foreign policy politics – of which institutions and actors within the American political system play what roles and have how much influence. Setting foreign policy strategy is the essence of choice, while foreign policy politics is the process of choice.

Foreign policy strategy choices are made within the context of the international system. The international system, according to international relations theory, is characterized by three guiding principles:

  • Anarchy
  • System structure based on the distribution of power
  • The structural position of states within the international system

Following the national interest is the essence of the choices to be made in a nation's foreign policy. The US national interest can be defined by four core goals:

  • Power
  • Peace
  • Prosperity
  • Principles

Power is the key requirement for the most basic goal of foreign policy – self-defense and the preservation of national independence and territory. The realist school of international relations most emphasizes the objective of power. Power is key to maintain a strong defense and credible deterrence. The principle foreign policy strategies that follow from the realist line of reasoning are largely coercive ones.

In a certain sense, all four of the national interest objectives ultimately are about achieving Peace. International Institutionalism stresses the importance of peace and promotes two types of foreign policy strategies. International Institutionalists see cooperation as viable between states and stress the importance of international institutions as the basis for "sustained cooperation."

Foreign policies motivated by the goal of Prosperity give high priority to the economic national interest. One school of thought regarding American economic interests emphasizes, through foreign policy, the potential general economic benefit to the nation. The second school of thought sees American foreign policy as dominated by and serving the interests of capitalism, such as multinational corporations. This school of thought often results in imperialist or neocolonialist policies.

The fourth core goal, Principles, involves the values, ideas, and beliefs that the US has claimed to stand for in the world. Democratic Idealism emphasizes the principles rooted in American history and holds two central tenets about American foreign policy: "right" is to be chosen over "might" and in the long run, "right" makes for "might."

At times, the 4P's are complementary. During the Persian Gulf War all of the 4P's were served in some way. Likewise, the Marshall Plan was able to achieve the goals of peace, power, and prosperity. In other instances, however, trade-offs must be made between the 4P's. Finally, in some cases, the foreign policy debate is less about which P should take priority and more about a deep dissensus over the basic nature of the national interest. This is evidenced by the debate surrounding the 2003 Iraq War.

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