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Foreign Policy

Regional Issues

American Foreign Policy Concerns

Foreign Policymakers

The United States uses a variety of tactics to achieve the security and stability it seeks at home and abroad. Sometimes Washington acts as mediator to resolve disputes, such as when Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton worked to restore peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Other times, the United States relies on trade because many policymakers believe that high levels of trade reduce the likelihood of militarized conflict. Finally, the United States has assumed the role of world policeman a number of times, sending troops on humanitarian missions or to punish rogue states that do not adhere to international codes of conduct.

The Middle East

Much of American foreign policy in the last three decades has centered around the Middle East, the swath of territory on the eastern Mediterranean where Europe, Asia, and Africa intersect. The region is also the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What happens in the Middle East is vital to American interests. The Middle East is rich in oil, which drives the American economy; without oil, none of America’s cars, planes, trains, ships, or industrial machinery would work.

Many rulers of oil-rich countries rely on the wealth generated by oil to sustain their undemocratic regimes and conservative theocracies, which, in turn, fuels dissatisfaction among the people. Some people express their frustration through sectarian violence against neighboring peoples of other faiths, and a minority of people even turn to terrorism to express their anger. Some theocratic regimes have supported the people’s use of violence in the name of religious fanaticism. Peace and stability in the Middle East, therefore, would not only reduce violence in the region but would also curb terrorism abroad and stabilize the global economy.


The key to stabilizing the Middle East lies in the resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, an ethnic group currently under Israeli rule that seeks to carve out territory to establish its own country. Many neighboring Arab countries have declared their support for the Palestinians, and several have used the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to declare wars and holy wars against Israel. Some presidents, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have used their influence to help resolve these disputes peacefully. Other presidents’ peace plans have been less successful. Many believe that peace will be harder to achieve in the wake of Israel’s failure to destroy the Islamist group Hamas in 2006.


Iraq has been at the center of American foreign policy since the Gulf War of the early 1990s, when the United States and its Allies liberated the oil-rich nation of Kuwait from its Iraqi occupiers. Rather than oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power, the United States merely removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait and forced Hussein to end all his nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. In 2003, President George W. Bush believed he had proof that these programs were still operational and therefore ordered the military to invade Iraq, remove Hussein from power, and establish a pro-American democratic government.

Poor management of the war, a shortage of troops, accusations of corruption, human rights violations, rampant sectarian and anti-American violence, and the lack of any weapons of mass destruction have all turned Iraq into a quagmire. Some Americans and foreign policymakers argue that the United States should pull out of Iraq immediately, whereas others say that the United States must remain and stabilize the country in order to keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.


The United States has had a rocky relationship with Iran since the late twentieth century. The United States and Britain, for example, orchestrated a coup against a democratically elected government to reinstall the pro-Western Muhammad Reza Pahlavi as the shah, or ruler, of Iran after he’d been deposed. The coup outraged Iranians and fueled suspicion of the West. In 1979, the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini overthrew the shah and then attacked the American embassy and held more than sixty Americans hostage for 444 days. The United States supplied Iraq with weapons and equipment in its war against Iran throughout the 1980s, driving the two countries even further apart.

In recent years, Iran has been trying to acquire nuclear technology, ostensibly to build nuclear power plants. The United States and the European Union, however, believe that Iran is trying to construct a nuclear weapon for protection against Western encroachment or for possible use against Israel. Iran is, therefore, at the center of American efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons, especially in light of the recent failure of the United States to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons.


For all of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, Europe lay at the heart of American foreign policy. For the most part, the United States remained nominally neutral, hoping to trade with the great European powers and avoid becoming involved in their costly wars. World Wars I and II transformed the United States into a major military and economic superpower and prompted Washington to assume a leadership role in the postwar world.

The United States and its Western European allies waged much of the Cold War in Europe as well, carving the continent into spheres of influence. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 and the formation of the European Union in 1992, Europe has become one of the most politically and economically stable regions in the world. As such, it has become less of an American foreign policy concern. Nevertheless, the United States still has a number of vested interests in the region and has fostered democratization and humanitarianism.


The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain surrounding the Eastern-Soviet bloc ushered in a new era for democracy and stability in Europe. Many Eastern European governments crumbled or voluntarily relinquished power in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall, including Poland, Hungary, Romania, and the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Not all countries have made the full transition to democracy and the United States continues to support the peoples in Eastern Europe who are still struggling to end corruption and authoritarianism. The United States, for example, purportedly helped train many of the agitators who peacefully ousted the corrupt regimes in the Velvet Revolution in the Republic of Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004.


Although the United States welcomed the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Soviet Union and its satellite governments brought only chaos. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yugoslavia, where bitter ethnic rivalries and tensions between Serbs, Croats, Albanians, and Bosniaks led to the Bosnian War in the early 1990s and the Kosovo War in 1999, which the United States participated in through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The United Nations still maintains peacekeeping forces in Kosovo to prevent any further conflict.


A handful of foreign policy analysts argue that Russia remains a threat to American interests in Europe in spite of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Even though Russia is no longer communist, Russian president Vladimir Putin has consolidated so much power in the early twenty-first century that many people have questioned whether the country is a democracy anymore. The NATO alliance remains in effect too, which has kept Moscow on its guard, and relations between the United States and Russia have chilled somewhat after several diplomatic spats. It remains to be seen what role Russia will play in Europe in the coming decades.


Africa has always been a relatively low priority for American foreign policymakers, simply because Africa has few tangible resources to offer the United States. American involvement in Africa has usually revolved around peacekeeping, either independently or as part of a larger United Nations force. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have taken some steps to improve American foreign policy in Africa, particularly because Africa contains a significant Muslim population. Bush has also pledged millions of dollars to help fight the AIDS pandemic, which has ravaged much of the continent.


The last time the American troops served as peacekeepers in Africa was in 1992, to prevent warlords from stealing relief food intended for the starving civilians. Militia groups attacked and killed several U.S. marines, and many Americans at home wondered why the United States was in Somalia as they watched the body of a dead marine being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu on CNN. Politicians in Washington withdrew the troops immediately, and the United States has not sent a peacekeeping force to Africa since, not even to prevent genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s or in Darfur, Sudan, in the early 2000s. Clinton has since apologized for not sending troops to Rwanda. Some Americans have argued that the United States should use its vast resources to prevent genocide anywhere on the planet, regardless of whether doing so would directly benefit the United States.


The United States trades heavily across the Pacific with a wide variety of partners and actively seeks to tap into the large markets of Asia, especially in China and India. The United States also takes an active interest in security matters in Asia.


Since the 1990s, China and India have developed rapidly, bringing more than a third of the world’s population into the global market. American investors, business, and the federal government have vested financial interests in each of these emerging markets. Although India is quickly cornering the services and technology sectors, China has led the way in manufacturing. In fact, America’s trade deficit with China has been one of the federal government’s top concerns in recent years as the United States buys more goods from China than China buys from the United States. But many U.S. policymakers hope that increased trade with China will reduce the likelihood of any hostilities erupting between the two countries.


Despite high levels of trade in the past decade, the United States’s relationship with China has soured considerably since the end of the Cold War. Beginning in the 1970s, China and the United States worked together to check the power of their mutual enemy, the Soviet Union. With the Moscow threat gone, however, neither country needs the other as it once did. China has sought more political authority in East Asia as it grows more powerful. The two countries butted heads on a number of occasions in recent years. Foreign policy analysts in both countries see the other country as their primary military threat, although tensions have died down considerably since China pledged its support for the American War on Terror in the aftermath of September 11th.


If China and the United States ever fought a war, it would be over Taiwan, a small but heavily populated island off the coast of China. The United States has always supported the government in exile in Taiwan, which for many years claimed to be the rightful government of mainland China. Over the years, Taiwan has moved toward democracy, and its capitalist economy has always been one of the strongest in Asia. Although the Taiwanese government no longer challenges the communist government in Beijing, many Taiwanese have pushed for independence, which Beijing would interpret as an act of war (because China still claims sovereignty over the island).

The United States has always supported the Taiwanese with economic aid and military equipment, and it is unclear how far Washington would go to protect a fellow democratic country. When the Chinese conducted missile tests off the coast of Taiwan in 1996, President Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier groups to sail between Taiwan and the mainland as a warning to China. Both China and the United States have placed enormous pressure on Taiwan to refrain from declaring independence in order to prevent war.


Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush issued an ultimatum to the ruling Islamist Taliban regime to hand over Osama bin Ladin and others in the al Qaeda leadership. When the Taliban refused, the United States and a coalition of allies invaded the country, ousting the Taliban, routing terrorists, and establishing a pro-Western government. Osama bin Ladin has eluded capture, but the American military continues to hunt al Qaeda cells.

North Korea

The United States is also concerned with communist North Korea, particularly ever since dictator Kim Jong Il declared that he had successfully developed and tested nuclear weapons in 2006. For many years after the end of the Korean War in 1953, North Korea threatened to destroy neighboring Japan and forcefully reunify North and South Korea. Almost all of the nation’s scant resources go to feeding and maintaining the North Korean army, which is one of the largest in the world, with more than a million soldiers.

The North Korean people, meanwhile, have suffered numerous famines and survive only on food donations from China, Japan, South Korea, the United States, and the United Nations. The United States has called on other countries to impose harsh sanctions to punish North Korea for developing nuclear weapons. It remains to be seen how a nuclear-armed North Korea will change power relations in the region.

Latin America

In 1823, President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, declaring that the European powers should not involve themselves in the Western Hemisphere. President Theodore Roosevelt amended this policy around the turn of the twentieth century with the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which states that only the United States could interfere in Latin America. These two doctrines have dominated American foreign policy regarding Latin America ever since. In recent decades, the United States has been most concerned with immigration, trade, drugs, and the spread of socialism.


Immigration issues dominate American relations with many Latin American countries, particularly those in Central America. In recent decades, the majority of American immigrants have come from Mexico, Cuba, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and Guatemala, among other countries. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people cross the border to work in the United States or permanently move to start new lives. The vast majority of these people come legally, but the increasing number of illegal immigrants has become a growing concern for ordinary Americans and U.S. politicians.

The issue of immigration has deeply divided Americans; some argue that illegal immigrants drain resources from the state governments, whereas others believe that all immigrants regardless of their legal status drive the economy. Bowing to political pressure, however, Congress passed the Sensenbrenner Bill in 2006 to erect a 700-mile-long fence along the Mexican border to help curb illegal immigration.


In recent years, the United States has sought to expand free trade in North America with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the United States, Canada, and Mexico, which went into effect in 1994. Much like the larger World Trade Organization, NAFTA seeks to integrate these economies and reduce trade barriers and economic inefficiencies while simultaneously promoting regionalism. Critics have argued, however, that NAFTA is weak and has only succeeded in giving American jobs to Mexican workers, who work for lower wages. Proponents argue that free trade lowers the prices and raises the standard of living for the average American.


Most of the illegal drugs that enter the United States come from Latin America, particularly Colombia. Washington has funneled millions of dollars into fighting drug cartels and cutting off cocaine production in Colombia since the Reagan Administration, with little visible success. Officials have also sought to increase border security, not only to prevent terrorists and illegal immigrants from entering the United States but also to curb the flow of drugs.


American presidents since the Cold War have invoked the Monroe Doctrine to prevent the spread of communism and socialism in the Western Hemisphere. The most notorious example occurred in the early 1960s when the Central Intelligence Agency tried to depose and assassinate Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Castro survived and retaliated by inviting the Soviet Union to install a number of nuclear missiles in Cuba to threaten the United States during the Cuban Missile Crisis. More recently, relations between the United States and Venezuela soured when Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chavez denounced the United States as an imperialist world power.

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