International Relations and Defense

The U.S. government exists for the welfare of its citizens, a mandate that includes being responsible for external as well as internal affairs. The primary principles of American foreign policy are to defend the nation’s physical territory, to protect citizens from enemy attack, to further the nation’s economic interests and prestige, and to promote American ideals of liberty and democracy abroad. At the end of the 20th century, American foreign policy involved relationships with 159 nations that were sometimes cooperative, often competitive, and occasionally openly hostile.

Role of the President

The executive branch has primarily been responsible for foreign policy in the United States. The Constitution gives the president authority over treaty-making, command of the armed forces, and the right to make executive agreements that do not have to be approved by Congress. As a result, the chief executive is in the best and most well-informed position to define and pursue America’s international objectives.

The president is advised and lobbied in these matters by the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, the House’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, interest groups such as the Council of Foreign Relations, and influential citizens. In addition, foreign policy is influenced by public opinion; the risk of being voted out of office over an unpopular action has often served to restrain overaggressive policymakers.

American presidents today have several different channels by which they can pursue foreign policy goals. One of the most important is diplomatic relations with other nations. The State Department is the critical agency in this regard because it manages diplomacy through ambassadors and envoys who work with other nations. The United States also discusses issues and negotiates with other nations through the United Nations (UN), an international organization of countries created to promote world peace and cooperation. The United States contributes to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The World Bank was created in 1944 to provide postwar development aid through loans, and it concentrated on the rebuilding of Europe. The International Monetary Fund was also established in 1944 with the primary aim of setting up a structure to coordinate and stabilize currencies, and to lend money to help nations weather temporary financial crises. In addition, the United States can influence foreign policy through direct American economic and military aid to foreign countries.

Evolution of Foreign Policy - Isolationism

The first and most enduring principle of American foreign policy was isolationism. As expressed by George Washington in 1796, isolationism meant that there should be no permanent alliances and “as little political connection as possible” with foreign nations. This policy only applied to political relations because the United States continued to trade with other nations and to expand its territory. In the early 1800s the United States extended its isolationist polices to all of the Western Hemisphere with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. This doctrine stated that the United States would stay out of European wars and that European nations should not attempt to extend their influence into the Americas.

America’s policy of isolationism continued after World War I (1914-1918), when European countries created the League of Nations to establish a collective security system. At that time the U.S. Senate refused to join the league despite President Woodrow Wilson’s support for it. It was only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941—the event that brought America into World War II—that isolationism disappeared. After the war ended, the United States became involved in a system of alliances and regional defense associations. These associations, which specified that an attack on one member was an attack on all and would require a suitable collective response, included the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the now-defunct Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). These collective security alliances were adopted when the United States entered a 40-year period of mutual distrust—the Cold War—with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

Evolution of Foreign Policy - Growing Cooperation

The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of World War II to help countries resolve international issues without war. American policymakers enthusiastically embraced it. The United Nations had more authority and prestige than the old League of Nations. The UN had a powerful Security Council made up of 15 members and charged with preserving world peace. The Security Council has five permanent members (China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States), each of whom can veto any resolution proposed by other members. Other UN members take turns filling the remaining ten positions; these nonpermanent members cannot veto resolutions of the council.

Each member of the UN also has a vote in the General Assembly, which over the years has become an international forum where general topics are discussed and recommendations are formulated. The judicial arm of the United Nations is the International Court of Justice, which has jurisdiction only when nations agree that it has. For the most part this body interprets treaties and other international obligations. As the only major power that ended World War II with its economy intact—and the only nation at the time with nuclear weapons—the United States dominated the early United Nations.

Despite a growing cooperation with foreign governments, some Americans feared that international organizations might infringe on national sovereignty. This wariness led the U.S. Senate to pass the Connally reservation, which states that any treaty with respect to the United Nations must be made with the consent of the Senate. The Connally reservation also limits U.S. adherence to UN bodies such as the International Court of Justice by giving the federal government the right to decide for itself which issues are domestic and therefore beyond the court’s authority. The United States also has not accepted a 1998 international treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, which has the power to prosecute individuals for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

By the 1960s the United Nations had grown with the addition of nations from Africa and the Middle East. It was less likely to support American foreign policy positions, and American presidents began to place less importance in the United Nations.

Although the United States no longer dominates the United Nations, the organization continues to be an important instrument of American foreign policy. It provides a forum for negotiations with estranged countries, and it also supports a number of humanitarian endeavors.

Evolution of Foreign Policy - Economic and Military Aid

After World War II, American policymakers developed new tools to advance U.S. foreign policy goals. The United States provided economic and military aid to European countries devastated by the war. It helped repair broken European economies through the Marshall Plan (European Recovery Program) and later through President Harry S. Truman’s Point Four Program. The Marshall Plan of 1947, which was named after Secretary of State George Marshall, provided relief for the war-ravaged economies of Europe. The Truman Doctrine, proposed in 1947, was a response to the news that Britain could no longer maintain commitments to help Turkey and Greece. Fearful of Communist influence in these countries, Congress promptly approved Truman’s request for $400 million in direct aid. During the Cold War, nations that received military and economic assistance were expected to develop democratic institutions and ally themselves with the United States against the Soviet Union. In return they would be protected by the powerful U.S. military.

Between 1946 and 1988, while pursuing these policies, the United States gave a total of $212 billion in economic aid and $131 billion in military aid to other nations. After the Cold War ended, however, the proportions shifted. In the 1980s the United States extended $82 billion in economic aid around the globe and just half that amount in military aid.

Americans have disagreed about whether economic and military aid was actually useful. Critics of these programs complain that foreign aid rarely reaches the people of a nation; it mostly reaches only the governments and the leaders. Thus if the United States intended its contributions to be used for democratic or humanitarian efforts, the contributions were most likely wasted.

National Defense - Defense Policy

In its early history, the American government relied for defense on a small number of professional soldiers and a citizen army that could be quickly mobilized before an enemy reached its shores. Protected by two oceans and sandwiched between friendly Canada to the north and weak Mexico to the south, the United States developed without the kinds of military challenges that were common in Europe. Even after World War I, the United States slipped back into a comfortable isolationism.

But American policy changed after World War II, when the USSR developed nuclear weapons and missiles powerful enough to reach the United States. U.S. policymakers adopted the new idea of nuclear deterrence. The basic idea of this policy was to amass such a huge nuclear arsenal that even in the event of a full-scale attack by the USSR, the United States would still be capable of retaliating and completely destroying the Soviets. This idea became known as mutually assured destruction, or, appropriately, MAD.

With the adoption of this policy, federal budget outlays for national defense began to grow dramatically. By 1975 the United States was spending more than 25 percent of the entire federal budget on national defense. In the 1980s expenditures reached 28 percent, as the United States undertook a costly program to develop military weaponry based on sophisticated technology. One proposed program of this type was the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. This program would have used new technology, such as electronic beams and computer-guided missiles, to destroy incoming missiles. Congress balked at the cost of the program, which the media dubbed “Star Wars.”

With the end of the Cold War, military deterrence became less relevant to the United States. Acts of terrorism, such as the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001, were a more immediate threat to national security. To protect against terrorism, Congress in 2002 created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with a mission to prevent terrorist attacks and assist in recovery in the case of an attack. The DHS combined dozens of federal agencies, including the United States Coast Guard, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the Secret Service.

The U.S. government also began a war on terrorism targeting both terrorist organizations and governments that supported them. Their first action was to lead a military operation with an international coalition into Afghanistan. There, they worked to eliminate al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization responsible for the September 11 attacks, and to topple the Taliban regime, the government that had given refuge and support to al-Qaeda. By 2002 the Taliban regime had fallen, and al-Qaeda members had scattered. The United States pledged to continue its fight against terrorism throughout the world.

National Defense - Defense Structure and Spending

The Department of Defense reflects the continuing ethic of civilian control of the military. The Secretary of Defense is a civilian, and civilian secretaries direct each branch of the armed forces. The Department of Defense originally combined the Army and Navy departments and integrated them with the Air Force. Over time, however, the Department’s structure has diffused and grown to include such offices as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the National Security Agency, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

For the most part the Department of Defense has jurisdiction over the substantial amounts of tax money spent on the military. In the late 1990s the annual budget of the Department of Defense was over $250 billion. The Defense Department employed more than 3 million people, both civilians and armed forces personnel. In 1998 that figure included 480,721 people on active service in the Army, 377,039 in the Navy, 173,031 in the Marine Corps, and 365,639 in the Air Force.

Current Trends and Issues

At the beginning of the 21st century, Americans’ lives are interwoven with international issues, concerns, and events that have local effects. When the USSR collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War ended, the United States developed new foreign policy principles. Among the most important of these principles is an effort to define national interests more narrowly. The end of the Cold War has meant that the United States does not view all international controversies as necessarily requiring some response. Americans are also inclined to pursue national objectives through diplomacy and negotiations and to deploy military force only for obvious, achievable goals. They are less tolerant than they were during the Cold War of involving the U.S. military overseas if the goals are not clearly defined. Moreover as the executive and legislative branches have become more partisan, Congress is less likely to support military actions without full disclosure of information. Future presidents will be required to lay out clear reasons for their use of force.