The Birth of a Superpower: The Changes in the US Foreign Policy Before, During and After the Cold War

Published on Strategy International on 26 November 2011 as part of the research programme US Foreign and Security Policy. Click here to view full report.


If someone examines the US Foreign Policy they cannot ignore its shifts during history. The United States began as a power that supported non-intervention and ended up being a superpower whose presence around the world cannot be ignored. This article describes in brief the main shifts of the US Foreign Policy until the end of the 1990’s in order to explain how the United States ended up becoming the world’s only superpower.

From the early stages of the establishment of the US there were thoughts on the role that they should play in the world arena, however, this role was completely different from the one they have today. As Walter LaFeber mentions, there was one “golden rule” in the USA’s foreign relations, “never tie up the country in alliances, especially with stronger European powers who could dictate terms”[1]. The above statement became even more evident in 1796, when George Washington addressed his “Farewell Address” in which he gave emphasis on the US relations with other countries. With this speech G. Washington made clear that he opposed the idea of the United States forming alliances with foreign countries. He focused on neutrality and on trade relations as them being the policies that would benefit the country.

“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible”[2]

The tendencies of isolationism in the foreign relations of the country were made even more evident in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine[3] which is considered to be the main principle of the US Foreign Policy until the 20th Century. According to the Doctrine, the United States would not be involved in any disputes with foreign countries especially with the European powers. However, that also required that the European powers would not be involved in the matters of any independent country in the American continent[4]. At the same time, the doctrine was perceived by many as a declaration of the US dominance in the western hemisphere[5].

Even though the United States were involved in conflicts[6] during the period after the Monroe Doctrine and until WWI, the idea of non-intervention was still very strong. It is widely believed that another reason of the non-involvement of the US in European affairs during the 19th century was the distance between the countries. However, that was going to change in the 20th century and the ‘abolition of distance’[7] that made easier for any power to attack the United States. During the period from WWI until the end of the Cold war a major shift is seen in the foreign policy of the United States. They are involved in both World Wars and are one of the two counterparts during the Cold War.

WWI began in 1914 but the US got declared war against Germany in 1917 after the attempt of Germany to convince the Mexican government to form a German-Mexican alliance against the United States. The US entered WWI in the side of the Allies after President Wilson convinced the Congress to declare war against Germany[8]. After the end of the War, Woodrow Wilson proposed the famous Fourteen Points which, according to Wilson, were the “only possible programme”[9] to peace. The Fourteen Points are considered to be a milestone in the US Foreign Policy because they give the US a more active role in world politics especially with the establishment of the League of Nation whose role would be to prevent any future conflicts between nations and would guarantee “political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike”[10]. Even though Wilson’s proposals suggested a more active role for the United States, the notion of isolationism was still strong and because of that the Congress did not vote for the USA’s membership in the League of Nations[11].

In the years between 1920 and 1940 the United Stated struggled with the dilemma of their role in the world arena. Before and at the very beginning of WWII the US government, under Franklin D. Roosevelt decided not to be involved and focus on the boost of the US economy. But the attack in Pearl Harbor in 1941 forced the US to enter the War. The end of WWII found the US in the winning side and though they were allies with the Soviet Russian during the war the conflicting differences made them enemies after[12].

What is clear after the end of WWII is that the United States was no longer a nation that excluded itself of the world politics; on the contrary they were a nation in the centre of attention. They became more and more extravert, dominating the world arena. The main ideological approach during the Cold War was the doctrine of containment which was firstly expressed by George Kennan who wrote that “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”[13] According to Michael H. Hunt, this doctrine defined the Communist ideology as the main threat to freedom. Even though the US and the Soviet Union were never involved in a direct conflict they were in constant rivalry not only in military terms but also in ideological. In contrast to previous policies they formed alliances[14] and were involved in conflicts around the globe[15].

President Truman expressed the willingness of the United States to be involved in world affairs and more specifically in European Affairs, with a speech in the Congress which is now known as the Truman Doctrine[16]. In his speech, he emphasised the emerging need of the USA to be involved in Europe and “assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way”[17]. The Truman Doctrine led to the Marshall Plan which provided economic assistance to the European economies while ensuring their support[18]. During the period of the Cold War the USA managed to become the world’s most powerful nation with the strongest economy and the most well equipped military.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US policy makers wondering which role the US ought to play. There were many that supported that they should turn back to isolationism since there were no more big threats for their national security, whereas others supported that the US were obliged to take a hegemonic role in the world. George H. W. Bush declared a New World Order after the invasion of Iraq in Kuwait, which in general terms meant that the United States had to bring democracy in states that needed it[19]. During the 1990’s the US were in a constant search of their foreign policy. On the one hand there was no country powerful enough to doubt them which meant that there were no major threats by foreign states; on the other hand they could not go back to isolationism due to the fact that during the Cold War they took on too many responsibilities and were involved in too many fields. Despite the doubts, the idea of internationalism prevailed since there was no easy way back. During that period the United States were involved in many areas, from the Gulf War and the War in Kosovo to the establishment of NAFTA and the Camp David Peace talks.

In conclusion, even though it is very difficult to describe the US foreign policy during such a long period this article presented in brief the main historical events that helped shape the US Foreign Policy until the 1990’s. The main point that needs to be taken into account is the fact that the United States went through three basic identity changes in order to assume the role that they have nowadays. Isolationism or non-interventionalism played the most important role in the US foreign policy and even today is deeply rooted in many Americans, especially to those who lean in the conservative right. Maybe the most notable example is Ron Paul[20], who is a strong supporter of the US isolationism[21]. The second period that of the US Foreign Policy is during the Cold War where the main feature of the period is the continuous race with the Soviet Union in military and diplomatic terms. During this period the United States seek to form as many alliances as possible in order to prevent the Soviet threat. The final period of the US Foreign Policy (before 9/11) is right after the end of Cold War, a period that the beginning of which I like to call the “Question mark period” since the political elites were not sure which role to play. However, at the end the United States assumed and embraced their role as a hegemon and they were involved in many international issues.

References

[1] LaFeber, W. “The US Rise to World Power, 1776-1945” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 47

[2] “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible” G. Washington The Farewell Address available at: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

[3] “(…)In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves we have never taken any part, nor does it comport with our policy so to do. (…)With the movements in this hemisphere we are of necessity more immediately connected, and by causes which must be obvious to all enlightened and impartial observers. (…)We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.” More on the Monroe Doctrine at: http://eca.state.gov/education/engteaching/pubs/AmLnC/br50.htm

[4] The need for the Monroe Doctrine came after several events including the claim of all land and waters north the 51st parallel (which includes Alaska, Oregon and other territories in North America) by Russian Czar Alexander II. In addition the constant involvement of the European powers in Latin America was considered to be a national security threat to the newly founded American state. (Axelrod, A. & Philips, C. “What every American Should Know About American History” 2nd edition, Adams Media, 2004.)

[5] LaFeber, W. “The US Rise to World Power, 1776-1945” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 48

[6] These events include the Spanish-American War in 1898 with the involvement of the US in the Cuban War of Independence and the Philippine-American War the next year. [Axelrod, A. & Philips, C. “What every American Should Know About American History” 2nd edition, Adams Media, 2004. Deudney, D., Meiser, J. “American Exceptionalism” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 37]

[7] “American Exceptionalism” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) 37

[8] Axelrod, A. & Philips, C. “What every American Should Know About American History” 2nd edition, Adams Media, 2004: 219-223

[9] Transcript of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points (1918) available at: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=62&page=transcript

[10] Ibid.

[11] Axelrod, A. & Philips, C. “What every American Should Know About American History” 2nd edition, Adams Media, 2004: 223

[12] LaFeber, W. “The US Rise to World Power, 1776-1945” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008: 59

[13] X. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Foreign Affairs 25, no. 4 (1947)

[14] For example the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1952

[15] The most notable ones are the Korean war in 1950 and the Vietnam War in 1953

[16] The speech was delivered because of the concerns of the implications that the Greek Civil would have if the communist side won. The influence of the Soviet Union in the region would be evident and it would cause implications in the US policies. Saull, R., “Foreign Policy During the Cold War” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008:72

[17] Truman, H. S., “Special Message to the Congress on Greece and Turkey: The Truman Doctrine” available at:   http://www.trumanlibrary.org/publicpapers/index.php?pid=2189&st=&st1

[18] Saull, R., “Foreign Policy During the Cold War” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008:75

[19] Dumbrell, J. “America in the 1990’s” in US Foreign Policy, ed. Cox, M. & Stokes D. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008:92-93

[20] Ron Paul is a member of the House of Representatives from the 14th District of Texas.

[21] Karakoulaki, M., “U.S. Presidential Elections 2012: Profiling the Next Republican Candidate, Part 1”, The GW Post, 2011 available at: http://thegwpost.com/2011/08/04/u-s-presidential-elections-2012-profiling-the-next-republican-candidate-part-1/

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