Skip over navigation

Foreign Policy

Tools of Foreign Policy


American Foreign Policy Concerns

The term foreign policy refers to a state’s international goals and its strategies to achieve those goals. Foreign policymakers follow the same five steps with which public policy gets made:

  1. Agenda setting: A problem or issue rises to prominence on the agenda.
  2. Formulation: Possible policies are created and debated.
  3. Adoption: The government adopts one policy.
  4. Implementation: The appropriate government agency enacts the policy.
  5. Evaluation: Officials and agencies judge whether the policy has been successful.

Unlike domestic policy, however, foreign policymaking usually involves fewer people and less publicity. In the United States, the president serves as the chief diplomat and is charged with running American foreign policy. The president employs three tools to conduct foreign policy:

  1. Diplomacy
  2. Foreign aid
  3. Military force


Diplomacy is the act of dealing with other nations, usually through negotiation and discussion. Diplomacy involves meetings between political leaders, sending diplomatic messages, and making public statements about the relationship between countries. The American president, for example, often hosts leaders and chief diplomats of other nations at the White House in order to discuss a variety of issues. Most diplomacy occurs behind the scenes as officials hold secret negotiations or meet privately to discuss key issues.

Approaches to Diplomacy

States generally pursue diplomacy in one of three ways:

  • Unilaterally: The states acts alone, without the assistance or consent of any other state.
  • Bilaterally: The state works in conjunction with another state.
  • Multilaterally: The state works in conjunction with several other states.

There are pros and cons to each of these three approaches. Acting unilaterally, for example, allows a state to do what it wants without compromise, but it must also bear all the costs itself. Acting with allies, on the other hand, allows a state to maintain good relations and to share the diplomatic burden, but this often requires compromise.

American Isolationist Versus Internationalist Attitudes

Americans have always debated what role the United States should play on the global stage. Those people who advocate a strategy of largely ignoring the rest of the world are called isolationists. In contrast, those people who advocate taking an active role in world affairs are called internationalists. Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has taken an active leadership role in international politics.

Foreign Aid

States often help each other to improve relations and achieve their own foreign policy objectives. There are two types of foreign aid:

  1. Military aid: States donate, sell, or trade military equipment and technology to affect the military balance of power in certain key regions of the world
  2. Economic aid: States donate or loan money to other counties to boost economic development.

Military Force

In some cases, states use military force or the threat of military force to achieve their foreign policy objectives. The use of military forces often involves stronger states pressuring weaker states to get what they want.

Example: The practice of forcing a weak state to comply with a stronger state via the threat of force is sometimes called Finlandization. In the final days of World War II, Finland reached a peace agreement with the Soviet Union. Even though both countries knew that the Soviets could have easily overwhelmed the Finns, neither wanted war, and the Soviets preferred to use their military elsewhere. The terms of the peace treaty basically gave the Soviets everything they wanted, so much so that Finland almost became a puppet of the Soviet Union.


Deterrence refers to the build up of military force as a threat to warn another state not to pursue a particular course of action.

Example: Throughout the Cold War, the United States relied on the strength of its nuclear and conventional weapons to deter the Soviet Union from invading western Europe.

Follow Us