Background of American Foreign Policy

Actions taken by the United States to promote its national interests, security, and well-being in the world come under the heading of foreign policy. These actions may include measures that support a competitive economy, provide for a strong defense of the nation's borders, and encourage the ideas of peace, freedom, and democracy at home and abroad. Foreign policy may contain inherent contradictions. For example, an aggressive foreign policy with a country whose activities have been perceived as threatening to U.S. security could result in a confrontation, which might undermine freedom and democracy at home. Foreign policy is never static; it must respond to and initiate actions as circumstances change. 

In his farewell address, George Washington warned the United States to steer clear of foreign entanglements. From the conclusion of the War of 1812 to the Spanish-American War (1898), this advice was largely followed. American foreign policy was isolationist; that is, U.S. leaders saw little reason to get involved in world affairs, particularly outside the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine (1823) stated that the United States would not interfere in European affairs and it would oppose any European attempt to colonize the Americas. The second part of the doctrine was effectively enforced because it reflected British desires as well. American energies were applied to settling the continent under the banner of manifest destiny.

The Spanish-American War and its aftermath

The Spanish-American War marked the emergence of the United States as a world power. As a result, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines became American territories; the Hawaiian Islands were annexed separately. A few years later, President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in Central and South America, including supporting the independence of Panama from Columbia in 1903, which led to construction of the Panama Canal. With the European powers carving out spheres of influence for themselves in China, the United States called for an Open Door policy that would allow all nations equal trading access. 

World War I and World War II

The United States entered World War I in April 1917, after remaining neutral for three years. President Woodrow Wilson, who hoped his Fourteen Points (1918) would become the basis for the postwar settlement, played an active role in the Paris Peace Conference. The Republican-controlled Senate, however, refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which provided for the creation of the League of Nations. The United States returned to isolationism during the interwar period and never joined the League. In response to the growing threat from Nazi Germany, Congress passed a series of neutrality acts (1935-1937) that were intended to keep the United States out of a European conflict. It was only after the outbreak of World War II (September 1939) that President Franklin Roosevelt was able to shift American foreign policy to aid the Allies. 

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), the United States formally joined the Grand Alliance that included Great Britain, free France, the Soviet Union, and China. During the war, the Allied leaders met on several occasions to plan military strategy and to discuss the structure of the postwar world. The important wartime conferences were Casablanca (January 1943), Teheran (November 1943), Yalta (February 1945), and Potsdam (July-August 1945). Although the status of Eastern Europe was one of the main topics at Yalta and Potsdam, the fate of these countries was not determined by diplomacy but by the facts on the ground. At the end of the war, Soviet troops were in control of most of Eastern Europe behind what Winston Churchill would later call the Iron Curtain.

The Cold War and Vietnam

The American response to the expansion of communism and the influence of the Soviet Union was the containment policy. The term was coined by State Department staffer George Kennan and was based on the premise that the United States must apply counterforce to any aggressive moves by the Soviet Union. This policy was reflected in the creation of a network of political and military alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO). Both the Truman Doctrine (1947), which committed the United States to protect "free peoples" in Europe from attack, and the Korean War (1950-1953) are examples of containment in practice. American policy also recognized the importance of economic assistance to prevent communism from gaining support. Under the Marshall Plan, named for Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the United States pumped billions of dollars into Western Europe to help with reconstruction after World War II. Foreign aid, direct financial aid to countries around the world for both economic and military development, became a key element of American diplomacy. 

U.S. foreign policy was also guided by the domino theory, the thought that if one country in a region came under communist control, other nations in the area would soon follow. It was the reason the United States became involved in Vietnam, which ultimately cost 58,000 American lives, many billions of dollars, and a bitterly divided country. 

The Cold War was punctuated by periods of thaw in U.S.-Soviet relations. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson met with the leaders of the Soviet Union in what was known as summit diplomacy. The 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was negotiated in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962), was one of the positive results of these meetings. 

Détente and the end of the Cold War

American foreign policy took a new direction during the 1970s. Under President Richard Nixon, détente, an easing of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, led to increased trade and cultural exchanges and, most important, to an agreement to limit nuclear weapons — the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). In the same year, Nixon began the process of normalizing relations with the People's Republic of China. 

Superpower rivalry continued for a time, however. The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan resulted in an American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. President Reagan actively supported anti-communist, anti-left-wing forces in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, which he considered client states of the Soviet Union (the "evil empire"). He increased American defense spending significantly during his first term. The Soviet Union simply could not match these expenditures. Faced with a serious economic crisis, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev instituted new policies called glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring) that eased tensions with the United States. By the early 1990s, the Cold War had effectively come to an end. The Soviet Union ceased to exist with the independence of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, and the Central Asian republics. 

The new world order

The collapse of the Soviet Union did not mean an end to conflict around the world. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 prompted the United States to put together an international coalition under the auspices of the United Nations (UN) that culminated in the brief Persian Gulf War in 1991. Both the UN and NATO were involved in seeking a resolution to the ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. While the United States arranged a settlement in the region known as the Dayton Accords (1995), it did not prevent a new outbreak of fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. NATO aircraft bombed targets in Serbia, including the capital Belgrade, in response. This was the first time that NATO forces conducted combat operations in Europe.