International and Domestic Sources of United States Foreign Policy

(Another atypical blog post. A long piece on the underlying sources of U.S. foreign policy)

Over the long term, American foreign Policy has been profoundly influenced by three sets of factors: geography, political culture and state-society relations. The combination of these factors helps to account for America’s tardy emergence as a great power, its unique brand of civic nationalism, the moralistic terms in which the aims of U.S. foreign policy are often cast, the lack of consistency in American diplomacy and the hesitation the United States has often shown about accepting or adhering to multilateral commitments.

Political Geography

Geography may not be (manifest) destiny, but geographic realities do set the parameters within which a nation’s foreign policy is formulated. This is certainly true in the case of U.S. foreign policy. The role of geography has been conditioned by the relative power of the United States and the degree of external threat, producing varying policy outcomes at different points in U.S. history.

For example, geography helps to account for America’s late emergence as a great power. The relative geographic remove of the United States from other great powers permitted its leaders to pursue isolationist policies for more than a century after the founding of the republic. Surrounded by oceans to the east and west and less powerful neighbors to the north and south, the United States enjoyed a position of relative safety. The insecurities that drove other powers toward conflict with one another were mostly absent in the case of the United States. Moreover, while the nineteenth century witnessed the establishment of far-flung overseas empires by European states, the United States was instead preoccupied with westward expansion across the North American continent. This further limited America’s interest in adventures beyond its immediate neighborhood. The most ambitious external policy pursued during this period was the Monroe Doctrine, which sought to limit European influence within the Western Hemisphere.

By the first half of the twentieth century, America’s size, population and economic resources positioned it as a potential leading power. Yet policy-makers were largely content to pursue a strategy of offshore balancing. Only when territorial expansion by aggressive powers threatened to unify the resources of Europe or Asia under the control of single states did American leaders perceive sufficient threat to commit the United States to major military engagements abroad, as during World War I and World War II (Mearshiemer, 2003). Geographic isolation meant that the United States possessed the resource attributes of a great power well before it chose to use these capabilities to influence the structure of world politics.

These circumstances changed after World War II. The Soviet Union possessed the potential, if unchecked, to dominate both Europe and East Asia. With the development of nuclear weapons, moreover, geographic isolation no longer served to insure the security of the U.S. homeland. As a result, the U.S. abandoned its traditional reserve about exercising international leadership and sought to organize a broad array of alliances and institutions toward the goal of containing Soviet power around the world.

Geography has resurfaced as an important factor in the post-Cold War period. Now geography helps to explain why the end of the bipolar Cold War international system has not led to hard balancing by other states against unipolar American power. The geographic remoteness of American power – especially the buffer provided by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans – has served to reassure other states against the possibility of territorial aggrandizement by the United States. Instead, the states of Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa perceive greater threats arising from nearby rivals than from the distant, even if potent, military power of the United States. This has not prevented anti-Americanism from taking other forms, such as terrorism or soft balancing. But it has meant that the United States faces little prospect of traditional military balancing coalitions forming as checks to American power (Brooks and Wohlforth, 2002; Walt, 2006).

Political Culture

The American Creed, built upon individual liberty, limited government and democratic politics among other things, lies at the center of American political culture. In a country of immigrants, the Creed serves as a form of civic nationalism, as distinguished from nationalisms based upon ethnicity, religion or place (Pei, 2003; Leiven, 2004). Louis Hartz (1991) notes the “universality of the liberal idea” in America, where liberalism did not vie with competing ideologies and identities as in Europe. The universalistic character of America’s national identity has infused the rhetoric of U.S. foreign policy with a pervasive moralism (Osgood, 1961; Packenham, 1973; Wills, 1973; Hofstadter, 1989). The tenets of the American Creed applied not just to a particular people or place, but could be exported to reform the institutions and cultures of other societies. In the early years after America won its independence from Great Britain, the United States was thought to serve as a “shining city upon the hill” – an exemplar from which others might learn. By the twentieth century, America’s growing power allowed its leaders to embrace a more crusading approach to spreading American ideals, as epitomized by Woodrow Wilson’s zeal for “making the world safe for democracy (Baritz, 1986).”

America’s political culture of civic nationalism has had two main effects. First, Americans have difficulty understanding the power and meaning of ethnic nationalism in other societies (Pei, 2003; Muller, 2008). While the “melting pot” metaphor may be overly simplistic, the United States has nonetheless accommodated recurrent streams of immigration with relative success. Perhaps for this very reason, overly optimistic expectations that American values and institutions could be easily transplanted abroad have been repeatedly frustrated by nationalist backlash against American efforts to remold other societies. Commenting on the uniformity of American political culture and the myopia this produces when dealing with the rest of the world, Louis Hartz (1991: 19) asked “whether American liberalism can acquire through external experience that sense of relativity, that spark of philosophy which European liberalism acquired through an internal experience of social diversity and social conflict.”

Second, many around the world have looked to the United States as a model of freedom and democracy. The dissolution of the Soviet empire, for example, was the product not only of internal strains but also of the attraction that the West in general and the United States in particular held for those within the communist world who longed for greater freedom and prosperity. Yet the moralistic rhetoric that often surrounds American foreign policy brings charges of hypocrisy abroad when American behavior, influenced by national interests at odds with proclaimed principles, inevitably departs from or even contradicts noble proclamations of U.S. intent.

State-Society Relations

Another important consequence of American liberalism has been the survival of a set of political institutions designed to disperse rather than concentrate political power and authority (Huntington, 1982, Katzenstein, 1978; Krasner, 1978; Risse-Kappen, 1993). In Europe, war and the threat of war led to the development of relatively strong, centralized states. By contrast, the deep-seated nature of American liberalism has combined with the security provided by geographic isolation to allow the maintenance of weak political institutions alongside the growth of a strong and highly organized civil society. Only with the second World War and the advent of the Cold War did the United States finally create a large national security apparatus. This large and partially insulated bureaucratic structure for national security has, however, co-existed uneasily with the underlying openness and divided character of American political institutions.

The decentralized character of the American state – the shared responsibility for foreign policy between Congress and the president, the common phenomenon of divided government, the super-majority required for treaty ratification by the Senate, the many points of access to the policy-making process and the relative autonomy of certain bureaucratic agencies – creates a fertile environment for the growth of veto players capable of obstructing unwelcome policy initiatives (Moravcsik, 2002:258-59; Patrick, 2002:18-20). The weak nature of American political institutions is exacerbated by the presence of a strong society featuring a robust and independent media, a dense array of interest groups, a competitive party system and an anti-statist culture.

Michael Mastanduno (2005: 248) points out that this “dispersal of power has an external disadvantage, in that it poses a potential constraint on the ability of the United States to conduct effective foreign policy.” Although this has generally been the case for much of U.S. history, the Cold War period was a partial exception. Cold War presidents enjoyed greater scope for the pursuit of broad national interests (as they perceived them) than presidents before or since. Despite the “weak” character of the American state, conditions of high external threat tend to reinforce the power of the president and to push decision-making authority toward the apex of the governing structure (Lowi, 1979: 128-148). Presidents face fewer constraints at home at times when international constraints are highest. International crises, for instance, tend to produce a strong “rally around the flag” effect among the American public. Although presidents did not always enjoy the domestic support provided by acute crises, the Cold War constituted a period of chronic crisis and threat – thus enhancing presidential freedom of action and more often allowing broader interests to trump special interests.

The waning of the Cold War has weakened this centralizing tendency and empowered particularistic interests. Moreover, American political institutions have become even more open and decentralized over the past three decades through a series of reforms to political parties, Congress and presidential nominating processes that were designed to render the system more democratic. Fareed Zakaria (2003:161-198) argues that these measures had the paradoxical result of further empowering highly organized special interests at the expense of the general public by weakening the aggregating role of political parties and the autonomy of office-holders.

Although the influence of public opinion on foreign policy is the subject of disagreement among scholars (Graham, 1993; Holsti, 1992, 1994; Page and Shapiro, 1992), recent studies suggest that the gap between elite and public opinion has widened in recent years. In particular, survey research shows that the public would prefer a much more multilateralist foreign policy than has been the case over the past decade or so (Aspen Institute, 2002; Kull and Destler, 1999). One study (Jacobs and Page, 2005: 376-377) finds that “public opinion – the foreign policy preferences of ordinary citizens – was repeatedly estimated to exert little or no significant influence on government officials.” By contrast, these authors found evidence that “business has a strong consistent, and, at times, lopsided influence upon U.S. foreign policy.”

The unilateralist preferences of concentrated interest groups as compared with the multilateralist inclinations of the general public may help to explain the unilateralist turn in U.S. foreign policy in recent years (Skidmore, 2005). Three types of anti-multilateralist groups play significant roles in shaping U.S. foreign policy. The first among these are the long list of special interest groups who have lobbied against particular international initiatives that threaten the interests of their members. 0il and gas companies, for example, opposed the Kyoto treaty on climate change, the National Rifle Association objected to a proposed treaty to restrict trade in small arms and anti-abortion groups succeeded for a number of years at holding hostage U.S. dues to the United Nations.

Why are anti-multilateralist groups such as these stronger in the U.S. than in most European countries and less effectively balanced by groups favoring international cooperation? One possible explanation is that, despite the global power of the United States, the forces of interdependence have cut less deeply in the U.S. than in most other countries. As compared with its European allies, for example, the U.S. is less dependent upon foreign trade and investment, less exposed to foreign media and its people are less well traveled and less well-informed about the world beyond their own borders (Johnson and Caruson, 2003). Under these conditions, the organized social forces favoring international cooperation are weaker in the U.S. than in many other countries.

Second, the military-industrial complex – proportionately larger in the U.S. than in any other advanced industrial country – often serves as a brake on multilateral initiatives that impinge upon the resources or autonomy of the U.S. defense establishment. American military leaders and their allies in the Congress and the private military-industrial sector have lobbied against a number of recent international agreements with considerable effectiveness. Military officials have opposed U.S. participation in the International Criminal Court and the Landmine Ban Treaty. Pentagon officials also opposed strengthened verification measures under the Biological Weapons Treaty and supported U.S. withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. More generally, the shift toward unilateralism in American foreign policy has coincided with the growing dominance of the Department of Defense over the Department of State in the bureaucratic competition for resources and influence. Although it is difficult to discern cause from consequence, the unilateralist turn has clearly empowered bureaucratic advocates of hard power (i.e., military force) relative to those responsible for the deployment of soft power (i.e., diplomacy). Beginning in the mid-1980s through the 1990s, both the overall State Department budget and that of the Agency for International Development suffered steep cuts. In relative terms, overall non-defense spending on international affairs equaled roughly one half of the defense budget in 1948, but averaged only 6% as much as defense spending in the 1990s (Hook, 2003:25).

A third category includes groups and individuals motivated by strongly nationalist ideological commitments. In Europe and Japan, nationalist movements were closely associated with authoritarian regimes and imperialist policies. The defeat of fascism and the collapse of imperial systems in the middle decades of the twentieth century discredited and disempowered right wing nationalist forces in these countries. In the U.S., by contrast, nationalism (often labeled “patriotism”) developed within the context of a liberal political culture centered on the shared commitment to a national creed rather than attachment to blood and soil, as discussed above (Pei, 2003). This melding of nationalism and liberalism, along with the fact that the United States has been spared the experiences of defeat in war or imperial decline, accounts for the continued potency of nationalist symbols and appeals in American politics. Nationalist ideas and movements have taken varied forms in American society ranging from isolationism to neo-conservatism. All have in common a deep sense of American exceptionalism, a strong commitment to unfettered U.S. sovereignty and an aversion to international commitments that constrain American power and freedom of action (Moravcsik, 2002: 353-357; Spiro, 2000).

The Main Currents of United States Foreign Policy

American foreign policy has been shaped by three macro-level factors: a favorable geographic position that offers relative security from external threats, a liberal political culture marked both by a civic variety of nationalism and a universalistic moralism and the development of relatively decentralized political institutions that are open to the influence of concentrated interest groups. These characteristics have, in combination, produced several underlying tendencies in U.S. foreign policy.

The internal or domestic constraints that policy-makers face are often more severe than the external constraints. The combination of geographic remoteness and great power have allowed for relative freedom of action abroad. At home, however, well organized societal groups enjoy many potential points of access and influence. Before (and even well into) America’s rise as a great power, this confluence of external freedom and internal constraint produced a policy of isolationism. Under contemporary circumstances, these traits more often give rise to unilateralism and domestic constraints on the ability of policy-makers to make or keep multilateral commitments.

The exceptions in American history have come when the U.S. faced serious external threats, as during World War II and the early Cold War. Under these conditions, authority became concentrated in the executive branch and the sense of common insecurity promoted relative domestic unity. The accomplishments of American arms and statecraft under these conditions have been impressive: victory in two world wars, the construction of a strong Western security and economic community after World War II and ultimate success in the Cold War.

An awareness of these realities influences how policy-makers go about seeking domestic legitimacy for their policies during periods when external threats are more modest. Policy-makers often find it expedient to exaggerate threats and justify policies through moralistic appeals to the tenets of the American Creed in order to lessen or escape typical political constraints at home. The politics of fear can cow critics while promises to meet the posited threat by remaking the world in America’s own image inspires support around idealistic purposes (Lowi, 1979; Trout, 1975).

The international consequences of these legitimating devices, however, may be less than desirable: the unnecessary escalation of tensions with rival states and either unrealistic expectations or cynicism abroad and at home when American actions fail to match the soaring idealism of its public rhetoric. This exaggeration of threats combined with intense moralism contributed to major missteps in Vietnam during the sixties and in Iraq in more recent years.

In general, the combination of geography, political culture and weak political institutions produces a foreign policy that has provided essential global leadership during periods of intense threat but that, at other times, is less consistent, less multilateralist and less prudent than one might hope for from a nation whose choices matter so much to Americans and peoples everywhere.


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