Issues in Foreign Policy

For almost half a century, the main objective of American foreign policy has been to counter the threat from the Soviet Union. While national security questions and relations with Russia remain high on the foreign-policy agenda, new questions have come to the fore. Increasing global interdependence in economic development, communications, and the environment is blurring the distinction between domestic and foreign policy.

National security issues

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pace of nuclear disarmament quickened. American and Russian nuclear missiles are no longer targeted at each other, and the United States has worked with the newly independent countries of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan to dismantle the nuclear arsenals on their territory. Nuclear proliferation and the danger of terrorist groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) — nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons — remain major foreign policy concerns. The United States was successful in persuading Libya to abandon its nuclear program, and there are signs of similar progress with North Korea. The belief that Iraq had a stockpile of biological and chemicals weapons and was developing a nuclear arsenal was a key justification for the 2003 invasion; the failure to find any WMDs undermined support for the war. Iran continues to pursue the development of nuclear power, despite United Nations sanctions.

U.S. foreign policy was dramatically affected by the events of September 11. The attacks marked the beginning of the global war on terrorism, the war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, and soon the conflict with Iraq. The latter is an example of a new defense strategy known as preemption. The United States has the right to use military force to prevent an attack, not just in response to an attack.

Throughout the Cold War, the United States relied on NATO to check Soviet expansion in Europe. With that danger removed, the military alliance has expanded both its membership and the scope of its operations. A number of countries from behind what was the Iron Curtain and from the former Soviet Union are now NATO members, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. NATO troops comprise the majority of the force fighting the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

International economic policy

Decisions made about international economic policy have a direct domestic impact. Economic policy is also used as a tool in foreign policy. American companies are prohibited from doing business with countries that are identified as state sponsors of terrorism. After the first Persian Gulf War, the United States, working through the United Nations, tried to make sure that Iraq cannot sell its oil on the world market to rebuild its military strength. The so-called "oil for food" program was marred by corruption and hurt the Iraqi people more than the regime. The UN also imposed economic sanctions on Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.

Environmental issues

The environment is a comparatively new issue in foreign policy. The discovery of a hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica and evidence of global warming demonstrate that environmental change has a global impact and requires international action. Through international agreements, progress has been made in reducing the production of chemicals that destroy ozone. Global warming, which many scientists believe has already begun and is traceable to the burning of fossil fuels, is a more difficult problem. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, better known simply as the Kyoto Protocol, mandated significant reductions in greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, for example) for developed countries by 2012. Developing countries, including China and India with their rapidly growing economies, are not required to meet specific emission targets. The Kyoto Protocol has been ratified by 174 countries to date (2007); the United States is a notable exception. The Senate refused to consider the protocol in 1997 because of the exemptions given to developing countries, and President Bush stated in 2001 that he would not submit it for ratification. Failure to support the treaty was seen as an example of unilateralism in American foreign policy.