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Continuity vs change: The trend of American foreign policy.🔷

Populism, the failing democracies, ISIS, North Korea, the rise of China, the challenges from Russia, all of these are problems the United States have to face in 2017. The appearance of these obstacles shows that the current policy is insufficient to fulfil the American leadership.


The emergence of new challenges and significant setbacks are normal in American history; it happens periodically. As history shows, the American foreign policy relies on the strong force of continuity. Continuity dictates the policymaking until a critical historical event or a major setback exposes the vulnerability of the current agenda. The policy makers amend it to address the new challenges and set the tune for the next decades.

The last change to foreign policy was the end of Cold War, and the old theme doesn’t fit the new world anymore. The United States today needs a reassessment and a readjustment of its foreign policies to face newly emerged problems.

Throughout much of the 19th century and early 20th century, the United States practised the “glorious isolation.” The United States upheld the Monroe Doctrine: confront any power that challenges your hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, but stay outside of the geopolitical struggles in Europe.

The United States did not ally itself with any European power. It stayed away from the European treaty system, and avoided conflicting over colonial disputes. However, World War I challenged the glorious isolation. Before joining, the United States monitored the war closely. The German attack on Lusitania and the Zimmermann Telegram showed that it was impossible for the United States, as a rising great power, to stay out of a global conflict. As the situation in Europe deteriorated, the United States breached the glorious isolation and joined the war to defeat the Central Powers. It was the first time the United States participated and played a significant role in a war among European powers.

The American Expeditionary Force led by General John Pershing was crucial for the final victory of the Allied Forces.

Historic documents which marked the beginning of U.S. war with Germany, WWI.
(Flickr / O Suave Gigante)

After the War, President Woodrow Wilson announced his famous 19 Points that became the foundation for the League of Nations. After the “war that ends all wars,” President Wilson proposed to establish an international organization, the League of Nations, to prevent war and provide collective security through diplomatic negotiations and arm-control. However, the Senate did not ratify to join the League of Nations. Despite being at the origin of the idea, the United States did not ratify the League of Nations, which was one of the reasons this international organization did not succeed.

After the failed intervention in the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria and the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, the reputation of the League of Nations, as an organization to prevent warfare, swamped bankrupted.

The foreign policy of the United States experienced a period of ambivalence and readjustment between the two World Wars. On the one hand, the United States utilized its economic power and gradually became an influential player on the world stage. As the European powers struggled to recover from the destructive war, the political and economic center gradually shifted away from the European continent.

The United States started to shoulder more responsibility in the construction of the postwar world. The United States played a significant role in establishing the Versailles-Washington system. The Washington Naval Treaty limited the naval race and significantly benefited the U.S Navy; the Nine-Power Treaty reaffirmed the American Open Door Policy and the equal opportunity among big powers in East Asia. The United States also started to play a significant role in European politics. The United States put forward the Dawes Plan to rescue the Weimar Republic from economic depression and end the Ruhr Crisis.

On the other hand, the failure to join the League of Nations, the Neutrality Act in the 1930s and the non-action toward the aggression of Japan and Italy and the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe also showed the high isolationist sentiment.

World War II symbolized the end of American Isolationism. Even before the United States entered the war, after the Pearl Harbor Attack, the United States already started to react against the aggression of the Axis Powers. On July 26, 1940, the United States passed the Export Control Act to impose sanctions against Japan responding to its invasion of China and Southeast Asia. The United States, along with Britain, Australia and the Dutch Government in Exile cut oil, iron and steel export to Japan. The oil embargo successfully cut 90 percent of Japanese oil supply. Also in 1940, the Congress proposed the Lend-Lease. The Lend-Lease Act, passed in 1941, allowed the United States to provide military and industrial materials to Britain, Soviet Union and China without compensation. The United States, through the Lend-Lease Act, became the “Arsenal of Democracy.”

After the United States joined the war, the U.S. military was forced to play a more significant role in winning the Pacific War against Japan and liberating Europe from Nazi Germany. The experience of World War II showed that, as one of the biggest powers in the world, the United States was playing a significant role in deterring threats against liberty and democracy.

The United States were a global power, and they had to take their responsibility. During the War, American policy gradually moved away from Isolationism and the country took the role of the leader of the Free World through framing the postwar world order and creating the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system. Throughout the 1920s, the Glorious Isolation had been challenged and contested, and the American foreign policy before World War II was ambivalent and self-contradictory.

After World War II, the United States became “Leaders of the Free World.” It is an ideological position the United States took to complete with Communism from the Soviet Union. The Competition between the “Soviet Camp” and the “Free World” became one of the major themes of the Cold War. During that period, the central theme of American foreign policy was Containment, proposed by George Kennan. Kennan believed that the best way to combat Communism was through containing and restricting communism and force the Communist states to collapse one by one. The Containment Policy was strongly related to the Domino Theory, a belief unofficially coined by President Eisenhower that if one country falls into Communism, the states surrounding will fall as well. The Containment theory legitimized the American decision to defend South Korea, South Vietnam and Taiwan, and numerous proxy war in Africa and Latin America. However, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Soviet Union’s global offence in the Third World overstretched the American; the sinkhole of Vietnam further draw America into political instability and economic recession. The global retreat of the United States in the Third World and the de facto failure of the Containment forced foreign policy adjustments during Nixon and Carter Presidencies.

Two masterminds, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, shaped the readjustment for American Foreign Policy in the 1970s. After the policy of Containment proved its insufficiency, the United States needed another strategy to combat the spread of Communism. Instead of the passive Containment Theory, the United States had to strike the Communist Camp directly.

Brzezinski with President Carter.
(Flickr / Center for Strategic & International Studies)

The biggest policy readjustment during the decade was the rapprochement with Communist China. After 20 years of hostility, the United States seized the opportunity of Sino-Soviet Split and established the anti-Moscow quasi-alliance with China. The Champion of Human Rights policy during Carter era was also another important policy that contributed to the creation of the Camp David Agreement between Israel and Egypt.

Although the United States was the self-proclaimed “guardian of the Free World” since the Cold War, in cases such as supporting Mobutu of Congo, Pinochet Chile and President Diem of South Vietnam, the containment policy sometimes overran the value of democracy and human right. With the Islamic Revolution of Iran, for instance, the Human Right Diplomacy became a burden for quick reaction and decision. However, President Carter’s Human Right Diplomacy became the pillar of American Foreign Policy, until today. The Sino-America partnership and the Human Right Diplomacy became essential components of the Reagan Offense during the 1980s and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

After the Cold War victory, optimism emerged among American scholars. The United States defeated the Soviet Union, a robust “Red Empire” with single-party dominant bureaucracy, massive heavy industry, and a larger nuclear weapon stockpile. Moreover, the United States achieved victory not through military conflict, but through its superior ideology. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States became the only superpower; no other country came close to the United States regarding military power, economy and ideology.

Francis Fukuyama, with his renowned The End of History and the Last Man, became the leader among the optimistic scholars. He declared that after the defeat of the Soviet Union, no country could challenge the supremacy of the United States. The western democracy would become the endpoint of humanity’s political evolution and final form of government. The course of history would keep moving in the direction of democratization. The decade of the 1990s reflected Fukuyama’s prediction. The decade of the 1990s was the golden years of democratization. There were 52 states with a democratic institution in 1989, before the collapse of Eastern Bloc. The number jumped to 81 in 2001.

The optimism quickly faded in the 21st century, however. The rise of Islamic Terrorist groups and the unsuccessful War on Terror shows that Islamic Fundamentalism challenges Western Democracy and provides an alternative ideology in the Middle East. The Iraq War exposed the United States’ inability to impose its governmental system in a foreign country. Building a democratic institution is more complicated than most American States Department officials, military generals and President Bush himself had expected.

The first free election held in Tunisia since the country's independence in 1956,
as well as the first election in the Arab world held after the start of the Arab Spring.
(Flickr / Stefan de Vries)

The Arab Spring was another setback for the promotion of democracy. People of several Arabic countries walked on the street, protested against the dictatorship and brought down the authoritarian regimes. Indeed delighting the American public and the scholars. However, as the zeal faded away, looking back to the 2011 events, the role of the United States has arguably been deteriorating in the region. In Syria, the United States failed to bring down the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and the chaos in Syria encouraged the rise of ISIS within the region.

The Libya Civil War turned into a humanitarian disaster, and the Benghazi Attack was one of America’s worst Diplomatic incidents since the Iran Hostage Crisis. In Egypt, before 2011, the military ruled for almost 60 years. After 2011, Egypt had a short-lived, democratic elected Muslim Brotherhood regime, but only followed by another coup and a new military rule.

As History lessons shows, the foreign policy of the United States strongly depends on the force of continuity. American foreign policy stays on the same track until some new challenge arises, then the policy makers amend the current policy to address the new problems. The force of continuity certainly provides policy stability and predictability and traditions decision-makers can follow. However, it also means a relative lack of flexibility; it is hard to estimate the weaknesses of current weaknesses until key historical events and major setbacks happen.

The United States today is facing “the crossroads of history” again. The rise of China as a new superpower and the new challenges against western democracy portray the deficiency of its current policy. After the failure of Francis Fukuyama and his “end of history,” the United States is searching for a new foreign policy that not only addresses the current challenges but also sets the tone for the years to come.

In the coming decades, American policymakers will have to find solutions of two topics: the new great power relationship with China and the more efficient means to promote human right and democracy around the world. Now is the time to adjust American foreign policy. Opportunities always come with a crisis. If the United States don’t grab this opportunity and change their foreign policy to address the new challenges, they will face even larger setbacks in the future.🔷


(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Ted Eytan - U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C.)


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Manassas Park, Virginia, USA