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United States Foreign Policy

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    The contemporary foreign policy of the United States represents an evolving continuum of principles, conceptions and strategies that in part, derived from the particularistic American Cold War experience. As such, United States foreign policy is neither a static entity, nor is its intentions or direction uncontested. This essay will examine the underlying issues of identity and how, beginning with the Truman Doctrine, a distinct articulation of the national interest was evinced that has defined America’s role in the world.

    In doing so, focus will be given to the development of alliance policy, containment and its effect on transforming the US posture in the post-Cold War international order. Firstly, it is pertinent to reconsider the traditional narratives that underpin American identity. Inherent in this is Manifest Destiny, which asserts that Anglo-Saxon American’s are God’s chosen people, with a superior culture and who are pre-ordained to spread civilization to inferior peoples.

    This tradition offers instructive themes for the formulation of American exceptionalism and its manifestation into a missionary foreign policy. It also raises to the forefront the Manichean character of American policy, its solipsism and tendency to justify geopolitical objectives in moralistic terms. Thus, US foreign policy is a discourse for reproducing American identity, containing threats to its core principles and legitimating global actions. The Cold War era ended America’s historic vacillation between isolationism and internationalism.

    The Truman Doctrine committed, in part to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures”. Consonant with American identity, it rapidly became the cornerstone of American Cold War foreign policy. The doctrine enshrined in popular culture the notion that America is vulnerable in a dangerous world. For this reason, it was a statement of both identity and global purpose, signaling to the Soviet Union that the United States was prepared to counter any Soviet expansionism.

    While the Truman Doctrine articulated an enduring strategic vision, it was National Security Council Report 68 that expressed a posteriori justification for American aspirations to global hegemony. Declaring that the exigencies of the international system compel US intervention – the report emphasized that absence of order is inimical to US interests. It recommends the United States create an international community based on the principles of freedom and democracy to counter the Soviet threat. Implicit in this is the assumption that every situation is controllable and could be resolved in-line with US interest.

    Furthermore, the imperatives of hegemony were already producing a bifurcation between lofty ideals and policy, with Kennan’s very realist calculation that the US would need to dismiss with sentimentality and altruism if it wanted to attain a superior geopolitical position. Discursively speaking, suspicion and anxiety continue to characterize American identification with the outside world. While specific opinions relating to foreign policy issues have changed, the underlying belief structure remains intact.

    Where civilization was imperiled by the “red cancer”, the Reagan administration began rejuvenating the civilized versus savagery dichotomy, this time targeting terrorism. Likewise, American exceptionalism remains a central rallying cry with its moral and emotive force used as rationale for American intervention in the Middle East. There is no clearer reaffirmation of the Truman Doctrine than from former President George Walker Bush who declares it the responsibility of the United States, if not its messianic mission to promote freedom worldwide.

    More recently, the Obama administration maintains the US objective to shape the international order and ensconced within it is justification based on the ingenuity of the American people. American alliance policy is both reflective of ideological divisions and indicative of an intention to maintain centrality in the international order. Mired in the power struggle that was the Cold War, alliances became a competition for allies and were sought for economic and security interests. As such, the United States constructed an interconnected web of relationships, positioning itself as the centripetal entity.

    With a confluence of identity and interests, the North Atlantic Treaty enjoined Europe and the United States into a multilateral institution, defending the collective security of Western civilization. Contrastingly, attempts at forming collective security institutions in East Asia, principally the Eisenhower administration’s South East Asia Treaty Organization failed due to Asia’s fissiparous identities and incongruent interests. Instead, the United States reverted to a hub and spoke structure, a network of bilateral alliances with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan amongst others.

    Without a single common thread, this informal structure has relied on United States security guarantees and more latently, shared economic interests to maintain stability. Formed under the rubric of anticommunism, by the end of the Cold War an order had emerged built on two pillars – the US dollar and the US security umbrella. Though the US has lost its reliable satraps from the Cold War era, it continues to hold a unique economic and military presence in East Asia. However, the US is now one of many important players in a region trending toward deeper multilateral cooperation.

    Pressure on allies to oppose regional security forums in favor of their US alliance has failed. The American presence is still valued except in a different context, to balance that of China’s rise. Coming to grips with this reality necessitated the eschewing of past ideological differences as non-traditional partners, including Vietnam have been sought for bilateral economic ties. Further, the US has implicitly accepted Beijing’s rising status and conferred upon China the leadership position on some regional issues, principally those of common concern such as North Korea’s nuclear program.

    This is not without its realignments, expressly with Taiwan, where the US is involved in a delicate balancing, keen to maintain reputational interests but with a growing desire to engage with China. Despite advancing regionalism, American alliances continue to form the foundation of security and US relations with East Asia. Having largely lost its raison d’etre with the conclusion of the Cold War, it’s ostensibly contradictory that NATO has expanded and diversified. Reinforced by shared political values and the legacy of four decades of cooperation, the US had ample reason to preserve it.

    NATO’s expansion eastward to the Russian border reinforces the European security community and imbues within it a lasting American influence. Further, US dominance within NATO has subordinated it to a body in service of American interests – preserving the ideologically important transatlantic relationship whilst concealing US actions within a multilateral facade. Absent the Soviet threat and reminiscent of the Truman Doctrine, justifications for expansion fell on defending human rights globally (Frederking 2003, 371).

    Moreover, the abject failure of US nation building in Iraq, contrasted with the relative success of Kosovo sends a clear message that with intensifying global fragmentation, there is no viable alternative to collective action. Given US military supremacy, NATO will remain a desirable coalition for Europeans whilst also serving as an instrument of US interests. Alongside alliances, the Cold War strategy of containment acted as a bulwark to preserve American identity and interests. Advanced chiefly by Keenan, on one hand containment recommended a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies”.

    Likening the Soviet Union to a bent tree, Kennan argued that sustained counter-pressure over time would allow that tree to grow back in another form. In this way, the “redemption” of the Soviet Union, its repudiation of communism, became the ultimate policy goal. On the other hand, containment represented a vociferous enunciation of American identity, declaring that Soviet defiance compelled American’s to accept destiny and lead the global resistance. Having attained great-power status, containment initially accentuated America’s moralistic tendencies.

    By depicting ideological adversaries as illegitimate, this left little room for negotiation until detente made possible a limited modus vivendi . Strategically, containment allowed America to build spheres of influence, managing other powers in a global system under American aegis, creating the prelude to the post-Cold War Pax Americana. While often referred to as outmoded, containment remains pervasive in American foreign policy. In postulating that terrorism demands pre-emptive action, former President George Walker Bush asserted that “containment is not possible”.

    Yet Gaddis argues the Bush Doctrine supplements Cold War containment, retooling it for a geographically unbounded struggle. Others have argued for a similar reinvigoration of containment to deal with Iran. Recent policy documents confirm this approach; inviting Iran to renounce its ideology, join the international community and offer engagement with America. The latter offer of engagement demonstrates the experience gained during detente is providing logical boundaries for modern containment. At the same time, the ideological basis for containment persists.

    Evocative of the Cold War reasoning, containment during the War on Terror was envisaged as a process of everyday securitization, policing of the border between the Self and Other. There can be no compromise of fundamental American ideals as according to former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, “they will either succeed in changing our way of life, or we will succeed in changing theirs”. This ideological bifurcation is the unifying idea behind the assertion and legitimization of American global hegemony.

    Hence contemporary containment, while more reflexive, continues as a mechanism for restricting threats to strategy and identity. As the only power left standing at the end of the Cold War, the US sought to complete its objectives from NSC-68 and cement its dominance. With a universal agenda, – it sought to fill the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Imperial ambitions collided with the tenets of former US grand strategy – restraint, accommodation and institutionalism. In this way, it revolted against the very system it created.

    American unilateralism is often held as symbolic of this, yet it is nothing new. The crucial difference is in part perception; as the hegemonic state, the US is perceived as exploiting its advantage and threatening the position of other states. Reflecting on a much earlier period in international relations, Kissinger notes the “desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others”. Often unwilling to be restricted by international law, the US undermines the legitimacy of international society and the attractiveness of its leadership.

    While maintaining the international order remains critical to American foreign policy, its expanding interests endanger other states and the mutual benefits of a US led system. In a rapidly evolving international system, the US is at the forefront and yet is most threatened by the emerging multipolar order. The contemporary foreign policy of the US reflects an evolution of the policies pursued during the Cold War. Using a combination of ideology, alliances and containment, the US cultivated a global order that defeated the Soviet Union.

    Having achieved pre-eminence, the signatures of these same philosophies remains embedded in US policy and strategic thinking. Perhaps the best indication of this is the designation of a new ideological enemy in terrorism and its resulting revalidation of Cold War dogma into a modern raison d’Etat. Most critically, the US is utilizing this new calling to consolidate its alliances and contain adversaries in light of the emergence of an increasingly decentralized, multipolar global order.

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    United States Foreign Policy. (2016, Sep 03). Retrieved from

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