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Foreign Policy

American Foreign Policy Concerns

Tools of Foreign Policy

Regional Issues

As the greatest military and economic power in the world, the United States has taken an active role in international politics. The United States values security and stability, both at home and abroad, above all else, and focuses on a number of areas to achieve those ends:

  • Terrorism
  • Nuclear proliferation
  • Free trade
  • Humanitarianism
  • Environmental issues


Terrorism has been used by groups of all ideological and political views, from the leftist Red Brigades in Europe to the right-wing terrorist Timothy McVeigh, who bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1994. A number of foreign and domestic terrorists have launched attacks against American interests since the early 1980s. In 1982, a suicide bomber killed 241 American military personnel in Lebanon. A group of Islamic fundamentalists attempted to destroy the World Trade Center in 1993, and al Qaeda attacked American embassies in Africa in 1998. Al Qaeda’s devastating, coordinated attacks on September 11, 2001, prompted officials in Washington to make combating terrorism the central focus of American foreign policy.

September 11th

Using passenger planes as weapons, nineteen terrorists damaged the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center complex in New York City, killing nearly 3,000 people in the process. The terrorist network al Qaeda carefully planned the attack to protest American foreign policy in the Middle East.

The War on Terror

Following the attack, President George W. Bush rallied the nation to fight back against the terrorists responsible. The United States successfully led a coalition force in an invasion of Afghanistan, where the governing Taliban regime had sheltered and aided the core leadership of al Qaeda, including Saudi exile Osama bin Ladin. Bush also created the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate efforts at home to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Bush’s War on Terror broadened the scope of the American response from fighting al Qaeda and other groups intent on attacking the United States to fighting all terrorists around the world. Since 2002, the United States has funded many wars on terror being fought by other governments in Asia, Africa, Europe, and Latin America. The United States has even sent military consultants to other countries. As a result of these wars, a few terrorists groups, including the Irish Republican Army, have voluntarily renounced violence.

The Bush Doctrine

In 2002, President Bush argued that the United States has the right to eliminate its enemies before they attack American interests, a policy now known as the Bush Doctrine. Although previous presidents had always believed that the United States could defend itself by striking its enemies first, Bush was the first president to put that policy into effect when he authorized the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to prevent dictator Saddam Hussein from using weapons of mass destruction against the United States and its allies. Numerous critics, however, have challenged the Bush Doctrine, claiming that this largely unilateral policy has damaged American integrity abroad. Other critics have contended that the Bush Doctrine has undermined America’s ability to criticize other aggressive states.

Nuclear Proliferation

The United States has worked hard to prevent other countries from acquiring and developing nuclear weapons. The United States worries that rogue states might use nuclear technology irresponsibly to attack their enemies without thinking of the global repercussions. In 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty tried to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. At the time, only five states had nuclear weapons: the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China, all of which had a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Nearly every country in the world signed the treaty, thereby agreeing not to seek or spread nuclear weapons.

Despite the agreement, however, a few states have still acquired or developed nuclear weapons, including India, Pakistan, and, most recently, North Korea. Most foreign policy analysts believe that Israel also has nuclear weapons, even though Israel refuses to reveal whether this is true. Iran is currently seeking to acquire nuclear technology, ostensibly to be used only for electrical power, even though few world leaders believe this claim.

Free Trade

Since the end of World War II, the United States has led the way in creating a number of international institutions that govern international trade. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the largest and most powerful of these institutions. It seeks to promote free trade among member nations by reducing or eliminating domestic subsidies and protective tariffs. WTO members must agree to abide by the organization’s trade regulations, and almost all the world’s countries are represented in the membership.

The governing body of the WTO has the authority to punish any member state that violates these rules. Many American laborers believe that such organizations hurt American industry and lead to outsourcing, transferring jobs formerly available to American workers to workers in other countries. Proponents of free trade—including the American government—however, argue that the benefits of free trade far outweigh the costs because free trade lowers the price of consumer goods and allows Americans to purchase more with their money.


The United States has always been one of the major proponents of international human rights and has criticized many developing countries around the world for abusing those rights. President Jimmy Carter even made humanitarianism a major tenant of his foreign policy in the late 1970s. Since the end of World War II, the United States has also been the largest donor of international aid.

At the same time, the United States still lacks a codified humanitarianism foreign policy, responding to some global humanitarian crises (Somalia in 1992) but not others (Rwanda in 1996, Darfur in 2004). In fact, both conservative and liberal presidents and senators have refused to sign most international human rights treaties out of fear that Americans may be stripped of their rights as U.S. citizens when tried in international courts for crimes against humanity. This refusal has prompted much international criticism, especially in the wake of gross human rights violations, most notably at the American-controlled Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003 and at the American military detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Americans and foreign policymakers alike are divided on whether the United States should make humanitarianism a more formal component of its foreign policy. Proponents argue that the United States should promote human rights as the so-called leader of the free world and as the country with the most resources to help others. Others, however, argue that promoting human rights and sending troops on humanitarian missions achieves nothing tangible for the United States and could lead to wasteful uses of resources and the needless loss of American lives.

Environmental Issues

Environmentalism has taken center stage in foreign policy as well. Many people around the world have realized that some environmental issues require transnational solutions, so they urge their political leaders to reach agreements over a variety of environmental matters. The most ambitious such agreement is the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 treaty signed to curb global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A number of states, however, including China and the United States, refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, claiming that it had been formulated on faulty science. It remains to be seen whether the treaty can be effective without American participation.

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