United States Foreign Policy Styles and History

A foreign policy is a country’s independent strategy or outline of how a sovereign state will deal with the rest of the world or how it will conduct its international affairs; this may encompass such fields as military, economy, and politics. The contours of US foreign policymaking strategies were shaped to a large extent by the advantages conferred by geographical isolation of the country, lack of contiguous enemies, absence of historical baggage, and the indomitable, independent streak of its early settlers who through their sheer perseverance transformed the vast wilderness of the American lands into an economic, political and military powerhouse unrivaled in the modern era. General governmental institutions that make foreign policy decisions account for the head of the state which is certainly the President or perhaps the leader of the government like the prime minister or the cabinet (Clarke, 1989). Since independence, the American foreign policy decision-making framework has been variously driven either by strong presidential personalities or collegiate processes operating through a dominant National Security Council (NSC), the Department of Defense (DOD), or the State Department. The preponderance of each of these styles has been observed in the various Presidential tenures resulting in significant foreign policy successes as well as failures. This essay aims to examine the pros and cons of each of the above-mentioned styles with a view to suggesting a recommended way ahead.

Historical Pattern of Foreign Policy Contours

The advantages mentioned above allowed a steady evolution of US foreign policy from its early defensive doctrine of non-interference in European Affairs, the Monroe Doctrine, the policy of Containment during the Cold War, to the policy of Unilateralism and Preemption that characterized much of the last decade to finally, a shift to a more inclusive and cooperative strategy. Each shift in basic foreign policy stance was affected due to the cumulative result of domestic policies, world events as well as due to the type of predominant decision-making framework in existence during each period. In the initial years after independence, America was still in the process of consolidation of the American state and hence a policy of non-interference was the most logical and rational choice. In those early days sans an NSC, foreign policy decision making revolved mostly with the President with healthy advice from the Cabinet. However, after the Second World War, with the emergence of the Soviet Union as a major threat, foreign policy decision-making shifted predominantly to greater involvement by the DOD. The National Security Act of 1947 “established the National Security Council to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign, and military policies relating to national security ” (Federation of American Scientists 2001). Thereon, the NSC was to play a predominant role in foreign policy formulation punctuated, at times by a strong DOD preponderance. The influence of the State department varied from administration to administration.

Foreign Policy Decision Making Framework with a Strong State Department

During the Vietnam War, foreign policy formulations were handled mostly by a collegiate system with a preponderance of the State Department in the foreign policy-making decision framework. According to Kissinger ” The decisions of the Johnson Administration had been taken too frequently at informal sessions, often at meals—the famous “Tuesday lunches”—without staff work or follow‐up” (Kissinger 1979, p. 25). The Vietnam War foreign policy decisions suffered from yet another infirmity – the absence of a formalized feedback loop from the media and the public. Thus, decisions taken were ill-advised, without due reference to the NSC, and led to disaster.

Foreign Policy Decision Making Framework with Predominant Presidential Leadership

The weaknesses of the Johnson administration’s foreign policy framework apparatus were sought to be rectified by President Nixon. Nixon, however, believed that his own personal leadership qualities needed to take lead over the cabinet. A personal style foreign policy decision-making framework has the advantage of quicker decisions and faster delivery time. However, such a style presupposes that the leader possesses all the requisite knowledge, wisdom, and sagacity to take the right decision. Nixon’s suspicious persona led to frequent clashes amongst his staff and right till the end of the Nixon administration, the State Department and the DOD remained at loggerheads. Thus State leaders are not the sole authority and handle the power over the whole state. It merely suggests that a need for decision-makers other than the leader is a must in creating a model for a sensitive case like this (Krasner, 1978).

Foreign Policy Decision Making Framework with Predominant DOD Influence

The DOD due to the nature of their job has a more militaristic world view. Thus a DOD-dominated foreign policy-making framework suffers from overt military solutions to many sensitive issues, which could possibly have better less-combative solutions. A typical example of a DOD-dominated foreign policy decision-making framework was put together by President Bush with Donald Rumsfeld as the Secretary of Defense. Under Rumsfeld’s personal military strategy beliefs, the war in Afghanistan was launched with a minuscule number of troops contrary to the advice given by the NSC. Similarly, the DoD set about undermining the Secretary of State, Colin Powell who had to toe the administration’s line and deliver a false Iraqi Nuclear weapons report which became the excuse to launch the Iraq war with disastrous results. Under Rumsfeld, the DOD became all-powerful, with the NSC playing second fiddle, staffed with the more ‘amenable’ officials, and its advice ignored. This is succinctly observed by Rashid (2008) that “The cabinet system of the US government virtually collapsed, ruinous laws were enacted that flouted the US Constitution and Foreign policy became the prerogative of the Department of Defense” ( XLII). Belatedly, President Bush has now tried to rectify the imbalance in the foreign policy decision-making framework by removing Rumsfeld and a number of right wing neo-conservative officials that staffed the DoD and giving the State department a more visible role in an attempt to balance the decision making process. It is not that a DOD dominant framework had no successes. The stupendous success of winning the Cold War was primarily because of the Reagan era DoD-NSC centric policies, which ensured the fall of the Soviet Union.

Foreign Policy Decision Making Framework with Predominant NSC Influence

Thus from the above narrative it can be surmised that none of the models namely, the personal style, predominant State department and predominant DOD have really served the purpose of evolving a balanced foreign policy decision making apparatus. Therefore, a framework centered on the NSC could be the best way forward. A NSC centered framework had been tried before during the Eisenhower administration. The fallacy of that model had been that Eisenhower, being an ex-general followed a rigid formalized staff procedure. This ‘rule based’ decision making framework resulted in the President receiving only one solution for a specific foreign policy issue on which he had to give either a positive or a negative ruling. This approach sapped the US foreign policy during Eisenhower’s time its creative and innovative qualities. Therefore it can be derived that while an NSC centric framework is lesser of the other evils, it requires suitable modifications to be able to absorb the external and internal influences and dynamics of the environment.

Present Foreign Policy Orientation

Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, the American foreign policy makers have been grappling with visions of a unipolar world. The temptation to impose America’s will and spreading of Western Democracy globally has not been grounded in a well thought out coherent foreign policy. One of the chief roadblocks to global reapproachment has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which serves to inflame the Muslim world. America’s victory over the Soviets in Afghanistan was achieved by supporting the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden and Pakistan who had their own vested interests. Thus, the present contours of war on terror are by and large, a product of American Foreign policy gone wrong. To counter the events of 9/11, the US embarked on a Strategy of Pre-emption by invading Afghanistan and later Iraq. This strategy of pre-emption however, had its limitations as state and non-state actors further modified their strategies to face up to the US might. Islamic fundamentalism grew at an alarming pace and terrorist found safe havens in as diverse a region as Africa, Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand to name a few. According to Gordon, (2007), this “approach to the war on terror has created more terrorists than it has eliminated” (para1). The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has bogged down the US military which now is faced with an unenviable situation of having to commit a sizeable strength of forces to these two theatres and be left with no capacity to deal with problems elsewhere. The US policy makers have now realized the dangers of Overstretch. They have also understood that the Global war on Terror would require international support to counter it. This has forced a landmark shift away from the unilateralist strategy of pre-emption and Forward – From the Sea. The latest strategy unveiled by the US maritime forces has been called The Cooperative Strategy for the 21st Century Seapower. This combined strategy of the US navy, Coast Guard and the Marines readily acknowledges that to make the world a safer place requires cooperation from all the like minded navies and nations of the world. Against China, the US has embarked upon an Engagement and Hedging strategy using India as a countervailing force. Russian resurgence is being sought to be contained with a shield of former East European countries but a coherent Russia strategy is yet to emerge. The complexities of global geopolitics therefore necessitate that the US foreign policy framework evolve comprehensively wherein all expertise resident within the country and abroad can be made available in time to arrive at the right decisions. Thus a suitable foreign policy decision making framework is required.

Suggested Foreign Policy Decision Making Framework

The author of this essay opines that a foreign policy decision framework centered on the NSC is the best way forward. The model as depicted in the graph placed at Appendix could form the basis for the new administration. Some changes to the graph are warranted as the feedback loop for the administration as well as the inclusion of the Department of Homeland Security to the NSC has not been indicated. As per the suggested model of policy making framework, linkages with the media and the public require a formal platform as also with think tank institutions resident in America and the world. The membership of the NSC requires suitable augmentation with Secretary Homeland Defense being made a statutory member. A feedback loop emanating from the media and formal public opinion platforms is important as “quantitative analyses by students of public opinion have found, for example, that 62 percent of U.S. foreign policies changed in the same direction as public opinion” (Jacob and Page 2003, 10). Such a model will allow the policy makers, availability of the constructive criticism, which often gets drowned in an effort to toe the ‘party line’. The model suggests greater horizontal interaction amongst the various branches of the government instead of a strictly hierarchical system.

In the end it can be concluded that US foreign policy has evolved considerably since its genesis as an inward looking defensive doctrine. The foreign policy approach adjusted to the requirements of the international system and the imperatives of the Cold War. Along the way, the US polity experimented with various permutations and combinations of developing a decision framework with personal style, dominance of State department, DOD and the NSC in varying degrees. During these experimentations many successes and failures were experienced. There is now a growing realization that America’s ‘unilateral moment’ is over and that the nation will have to deal with a multi-polar global paradigm for which right wing ideologies would not work. It would also mean evolving a more comprehensive, inclusive and more open foreign policy decision making framework centered on the NSC which would be flexible yet efficient enough to measure up to the challenges of the future.


  1. Clarke, M. 1989. ‘The Foreign Policy System: A Framework for Analysis’, in M. Clarke and B. White (eds) Understanding Foreign Policy: The Foreign Policy Systems Approach (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar), pp.27–59.
  2. Federation of American Scientists. National Security Presidential Directives. 2001.
  3. Gordon, Philip H. “Can the War on Terror be won?” Foreign Affairs. 2007.
  4. Jacob, Lawrence R, and Benjamin I Page. “Who Influences U.S. Foreign Policy Over Time?” 2003.
  5. Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1979.
  6. Krasner, S. D. 1978. “Defending the National Interest”, ed. By Andrew K. Hanami, Princeton University Press.pp. 101- 104.
  7. Rashid, Ahmed. Descent into Chaos. London: Penguin Books, 2008.


Refers to Page 6

US Foreign Policy Model
Figure 1. US Foreign Policy Model

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