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History of American Foreign Policy


Thematic Essay: The History of American Foreign Policy
Thematic Essays combine a broad survey of a particular topic with key supplementary readings to create a comprehensive learning experience. This essay by historian Herbert S. Parmet traces the development of American foreign policy. Accompanying the essay are primary source materials consisting of excerpts from historic documents and the works of influential thinkers.
By Herbert S. Parmet
Throughout much of United States history the pendulum of American foreign policy has swung between the extremes of isolationism and active engagement in world affairs. American foreign policy developed in response to a number of factors, including popular sentiments within the United States, international events, and the opinions of American thinkers and policymakers.
In its first century as a nation, the United States remained largely detached from affairs of the rest of the world both as a result of its geography and its desire to focus on domestic concerns. As the country’s population and economic power grew, political and commercial concerns extended beyond U.S. borders. By the late 19th century, U.S. foreign policy began to display some characteristics of political realism, also known as realpolitik, an approach that acknowledges the constant possibility of ruthless international competition and war. During the first half of the 20th century, the United States preferred to maintain a mostly isolationist stance and entered international disputes reluctantly, long after the other primary actors. Foreign policy developed in response to the requirements of national self-interest, focusing on the maintenance of security and open commerce within the Western Hemisphere.

Early American presidents kept foreign policy squarely focused on issues of immediate concern to the young nation. In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington advised the nation to preserve its unique advantages by avoiding 'permanent alliances' that would limit trade options and drag the young country into distant conflicts. In 1807, after the United States was nearly drawn into the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), President Thomas Jefferson reaffirmed Washington’s stand with his own warning against 'entangling alliances.'

In 1823 President James Monroe delivered an address to Congress in which he asserted that the United States should stay out of European affairs and that European powers should not interfere in the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine, as the assertion came to be called, carried no legal authority, but it defined U.S. policy in Latin America and justified westward expansion across the continent. Aside from occasional disputes over American expansion, until the late 19th century foreign policy continued to be dominated by a desire to avoid foreign crises and, where possible, to live in isolation.

Change was evident as the 19th century came to a close. After the Civil War (1861-1865), the United States’ rapid industrial growth made its isolationist stance increasingly difficult to maintain. The country’s historically rural population was rapidly becoming more urban and diverse. Desire for more markets began to overtake the appetite for more land. Similar changes took place in other countries as the limits of domestic markets touched off enthusiasm for new outlets. Competition with other countries for influence and for overseas markets became inevitable.
American naval officer Alfred T. Mahan wrote in The Influence of Seapower Upon History (1890) that the United States could not permit itself to be left behind in the growing international competition. A powerful navy, he insisted, was vital for that goal. Just a few years after the publication of Mahan’s book, Republicans wrote into their platform a call for 'the achievement of the manifest destiny of the republic in its broadest sense.' Manifest destinywas a term created by journalist and diplomat John Lewis O’Sullivan and was long a rallying cry for the nation’s westward expansion. With the new Republican platform, the concept of manifest destiny now extended to include interests overseas, particularly Latin America.
The U.S. presence in Latin America faced its first major challenge in 1895. President Grover Cleveland strongly objected to British interference in a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guiana (present-day Guyana). The situation briefly threatened a military conflict between the United States and Britain. Cleveland successfully invoked the Monroe Doctrine’s ban against European incursions into the Western Hemisphere.
Cleveland’s success was due in part to Britain’s recognition of U.S. power and to concerns about the growing strength of Germany, which made Britain eager to cultivate the United States as an ally. In 1903, for similar reasons, the British favored U.S. claims in determining the boundary between the Alaskan Panhandle and Canada.

In 1898 the United States fought and won the Spanish-American War, a conflict that established the country as a naval power and ushered in an expansionist era in American foreign policy. Despite President William McKinley’s reluctance to enter into hostilities with Spain, the brief war helped establish a new direction for American foreign policy. Cuban resistance to Spanish rule had brought the European power close to American shores, posing a significant threat to the interests defined by the Monroe Doctrine. In order to attract readers, two American newspapers, the New York Morning Journal and the New York World, adopted a sensationalist style known as yellow journalism to depict Spanish oppression in Cuba. The news campaign aroused popular support in the United States for the Cuban people. The newspaper campaign gradually wore down McKinley’s hands-off policy. Americans with commercial interests on the island compounded the pressure on the president to do something about the situation.
McKinley had little choice but to respond. Subjected to criticism and even ridicule, McKinley finally sent the battleship Maine to the harbor at Havana, Cuba’s capital, to establish a U.S. presence, but the ship exploded in the harbor in February 1898, killing 266 men. A U.S. Naval investigative court failed to establish guilt but pointed to a mine as the probable cause. The incident brought demands for revenge, with “remember the Maine” as the battle cry. In that climate, further stimulated by sensationalism in the press, it became easy to blame Spain for the disaster. McKinley, still reluctant to go to war, sought a diplomatic solution. Caught between Cuban resistance to a cease-fire and the position of the Spanish government, in May he finally asked Congress to declare war on Spain.
The swift victory by the United States marked its rise to naval power and brought an end to the Spanish Empire. Less than three months after the war began, it was over in the Caribbean, where a U.S. naval blockade and subsequent land invasions ended the fighting in July. Secretary of State John Hay described it as a “splendid little war.” The Spanish-American War was also fought in the Philippines, where the United States worried that Spanish weakness might create a power vacuum in the Pacific. American troops triumphed in the Philippines in August 1898, but the United States then found itself battling against stubborn insurgents who wanted neither Spanish nor American rule. McKinley admitted his ignorance of the archipelago afterward, saying that when he heard from Admiral John Dewey that the Philippines was taken, he “looked up their location on the globe” because he “could not have told where those darned islands were within 2,000 miles!”

The Spanish-American War left the United States in occupation of the Philippines and holding, at the turn of the 20th century, the overseas possessions Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam. A nation so recently hesitant about overseas involvement wound up adding to its territory an empire of 310,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) with 8.5 million people and swiftly achieved new international stature in the process. The 1898 annexation of the Hawaiian Islands further established the emergence of the United States as an imperial power.
American entry into the imperialist race expanded its vital interests and required more frequent exercises of power overseas. In 1901 Congress refused to end the military occupation of Cuba without an agreement to permit the United States a voice in the country’s diplomatic and political affairs. The Platt Amendment, a U.S. law that stipulated such control, also stated that land was to be ceded for the establishment of a U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay, thereby reversing the hands-off stance taken when war was first declared. Having asserted the right to a military presence, the United States intervened militarily on three different occasions in the 1920s and exerted political influence over the island until the mid-1930s.

At the turn of the century the world’s major powers competed rigorously for influence in China. Secretary of State John Hay’s 1899 Circular Letter first articulated the open door policy, the U.S. stand on this competition for China’s market. American moralists and diplomats agreed that both the American and the Chinese people stood to lose from the attempts of Japan and major European powers to carve China into exclusive spheres of influence. In a round of diplomatic notes, Hay called on world powers to preserve Chinese territorial and administrative integrity and maintain “equal and impartial trade.” Initially specific to China, the open door’s emphasis on equal trade rights for all nations became central to foreign policy as the United States became a major economic power in the 20th century.

The assassination of McKinley in 1901 brought to the presidency Theodore Roosevelt, a military hero with aspirations for American greatness overseas. Roosevelt forever changed international relations. Foreign policy still focused on issues of direct U.S. interest, but Roosevelt eagerly expanded the new overseas presence that he had inherited. The president took to heart Mahan’s assertion of the importance of sea power. Indeed, as secretary of the navy Roosevelt had contributed to the expansion and modernization of U.S. naval forces, and had strongly urged the United States to fight Spain for control of the Philippines. As president, Roosevelt unabashedly pursued big-power policies. Having secured control over the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, the United States under Roosevelt turned toward further expansion of its influence in Asia and Latin America.
Roosevelt’s so-called accidental presidency also inherited the open door policy of equal access to China’s markets. Roosevelt left no doubt about his priorities. He intended to preserve the policy and broaden U.S. interests in Asia. As Mahan had indicated, the strength of the navy proved essential in easing the problems of enforcement. Roosevelt’s concern with maintaining a power balance in the Pacific led him to support Japan when it launched a surprise attack on the Russian fleet in Manchuria in 1904, which began the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Much to his surprise, the Japanese military defeated the supposedly superior Russian forces, thereby establishing Japan as a new power.

After Japan emerged as a major Pacific power, it quickly became a prominent focus of U.S. foreign policy. In 1905 Roosevelt extended an offer to help mediate an end to the Russo-Japanese War, which had exhausted Japan and Russia. Roosevelt fulfilled his mission as peacemaker by negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth. The terms of the treaty fell far short of Japanese demands and subsequently convinced Japan that the United States had shortchanged it.
Tensions with Japan intensified in 1906 when the public school system in San Francisco, California, segregated immigrant Japanese children. A 1907 agreement between the United States and Japan, known as the Gentlemen’s Agreement, resolved the dispute, but tensions persisted between the two ascendant powers. Roosevelt’s decision to send American battleships on a so-called goodwill mission to Tokyo in 1907 only heightened Japan’s awareness of U.S. power in the Pacific. Distracted by events in Europe during World War I (1914-1918), the United States helped strengthen Japan’s position in Asia, recognizing it as a nation with special interests in China in the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of 1917.

Roosevelt enjoyed enormous popularity at home, but his expansionist policies in Latin America created tensions in much of the Western Hemisphere. In his annual message to Congress in 1904, the president introduced the Roosevelt Corollary, which updated and strengthened the Monroe Doctrine’s rejection of possible European claims to territory in the Americas. Roosevelt vowed that the United States would maintain stability in the region even if it required an exercise of international police power. With an eye on the potential of connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by means of a canal through the Isthmus of Panama, Roosevelt openly involved the United States in a partly contrived revolution against the government of Colombia, whose territory included the future site of the canal. Roosevelt bragged that he “took the Canal Zone, and let Congress debate,” noting that “while the debate goes on the canal does also.” The one-sided terms of the treaty ceded to the U.S. a 16-km (10-mi) strip of land through newly independent Panama and gave the owners “all the rights, power and authority [as] if it were the sovereign of the territory.” Despite such expansion, the United States cautiously continued to avoid alliances with other powers.
Subsequent administrations found themselves drawn into Latin American affairs. Taking office in 1909, President William Howard Taft continued intervention in Latin America through what he termed “dollar diplomacy,” policies that aggressively promoted investment in the region. The Taft administration provided military protection for U.S. commercial activity. His successor Woodrow Wilson criticized these policies in Latin America, but after becoming president in 1912 Wilson found himself involved in a war against Mexico’s popular revolutionary heroes. Elsewhere in Latin America, Wilson vowed to promote democracy and legitimate government, and he compiled a substantial history of interventionism in places such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
United States diplomacy was nowhere as bold and tied to domestic commercial interests as in Latin America. The region became an important source of commodities and a market for manufactured goods. Whether it acted for reasons of commerce or for protection of the Panama Canal, the United States came to be viewed as the colossus of the north. Imperialistic policies planted the seeds for the troubled relationships with Latin American countries that continued through the 20th century. Resentment of the United States grew over several decades and came to a head during the Cold War, when anti-American figures such as Fidel Castro of Cuba and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua denounced “Yankee imperialism” to the delight of their supporters.

While the United States focused on Latin America and its interests in the Pacific, affairs in Europe reached a crisis level. Despite its expanding presence overseas, in the early 20th century the United States remained a relative newcomer in international affairs, especially in places where national interest was not clearly apparent. Even prominent Americans displayed their inexperience. “Where are the Balkans?” William Jennings Bryan asked an American diplomat when he stopped by the U.S. embassy in Turkey in 1906. Bryan, despite his eminence as a two-time presidential candidate and future secretary of state, revealed a common American ignorance of crises in Europe.
Only eight years later, the century’s first great war started in the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe, but few of Bryan’s contemporaries knew or cared about places such as Serbia or Montenegro, which seemed inconsequential to the vital interests of the United States. Brand Whitlock, then the U.S. minister to Belgium, later wrote that he “had never heard of Sarajevo” and “had not the least idea of where it was in the world, if it was in this world.” When World War I began in Europe, most Americans were puzzled and just wanted to stay out of it, but the growing prominence of American power made involvement in major conflicts almost inevitable.

When fighting broke out in Europe after the 1914 assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bryan’s generation reacted with disgust. Two decades of imperialistic competition among the major powers ultimately led to the kind of opposing alliances that the United States had attempted to avoid since the presidency of Washington. Although it was clear from the outset that Wilson’s sympathies were with Britain and its allies and against the Central Powers—Germany and Austria-Hungary—the president immediately urged the public to remain neutral “in fact as well as in name.” Wilson’s diplomatic efforts to negotiate a cease-fire, although futile, underscored his idealism and desire to maintain neutrality. Wilson hoped to safeguard freedom of trade and to maintain the open door policy.

Although the United States remained neutral until three years into the war, it provided Britain with crucial military supplies. United States relations with Germany worsened in 1915, when a German submarine sank the British passenger liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 people, including 128 Americans. In 1917 Germany concluded that engaging the United States in the war might be less harmful than allowing it to trade freely with Britain. Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson realized that participation in the war was now inevitable and that entry would give the United States a prominent role in shaping the peace process after the war’s end. Wilson asked for a declaration of war, which Congress granted on April 6, 1917.
Unprepared, the United States was slow to make a significant military contribution in the war but succeeded in swiftly reopening essential supply lines. Not until the last months of the fighting did the doughboys, as the U.S. soldiers were called, become decisive in the final land offensive that defeated Germany. The war effort resulted in an enormous increase in American military power. By the end of the war a selective service system, established just a year before in 1917, managed to induct 2.8 million men between the ages of 21 and 35 into the military. With a force of about five million, the nation’s fighting manpower had increased nearly twenty-fold since the beginning of the war. The Spanish-American War had established an international foothold for the United States. World War I raised it to another tier.

Although Wilson did not make World War I the “war to end all wars” as he had hoped, his idealism played a significant part in finally bringing peace to Europe. The Fourteen Points he delivered in a January 1918 speech outlined his blueprint for settlement and ultimately helped lead to the armistice, signaling to the Germans that they would be spared a humiliating surrender. Wilson’s vision of a just peace encouraged German military leaders, who had suffered an accumulation of battlefield setbacks, to press their government to stop the fighting.
In his proposals Wilson envisioned a world in which freedom and self-determination would eliminate imperialism and colonialism. The president faced serious obstacles. Nationalism and politics drove the postwar negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, and Germany was hit with a penalty far more severe than Wilson had proposed in the Fourteen Points. However, the last of the points, the creation of an international alliance called the League of Nations, remained intact. At home in the United States, Wilson waged a noble battle for U.S. acceptance of the League. In September 1919, during an extensive speaking tour of the American West, Wilson collapsed from a massive stroke. By this time the tide of isolationism was rising in the United States. Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts seized on the League of Nations as a threat to “the vital principles of American foreign policy,” and Congress killed the drive for American membership.

Analysis of post-World War I isolationism suggests that U.S. membership in the League of Nations would not have done much to change the course of 20th-century history. More significant in the long run was German resentment at having to swallow a harsh settlement. Far from the “peace without victory” that Wilson envisioned, the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to acknowledge guilt for starting the war and pay a massive bill for reparations. Significant changes occurred in the international balance of power during the war years. In 1917 the October Revolution in Russia overturned a short-lived parliamentary government and established a Communist government. In the Far East, Japan’s growing power and ambitions continued to threaten stability.
For two decades following World War I, the United States remained largely aloof of world affairs, and foreign policy focused on promoting disarmament schemes that sought to avoid future wars. The Washington Conference of 1921 and 1922 set limits on naval armaments with a view toward checking Japan’s power in the Pacific. The interwar years were also marked by a failed disarmament conference at Geneva and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which naively sought to negate the danger of conflicts by declaring war to be illegal.
The United States also distanced itself from the world economically, and protectionism ruled the day with the 1930 Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which imposed the highest import duties in U.S. history. As tensions began to rise in Europe and Asia, planting the roots for World War II (1939-1945), President Herbert Hoover focused on repairing an economy hit hard by the Great Depression and worsened by the tariff. The president rejected Secretary of State Henry Stimson’s proposal to counter the Japanese incursion and establishment of a puppet state in Manchuria.

The Senate’s Nye Committee inquiries of 1934-1936 reinforced popular perceptions that U.S. involvement in World War I had been a blunder. The report suggested that American policy had been manipulated by so-called merchants of death—bankers and munitions makers who lusted for wartime fortunes. The coming of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 led Congress to strengthen existing neutrality laws by forbidding the export of munitions “for the use of either of the opposing forces in Spain.” The Neutrality Act of 1937 led the way for similar measures designed to avoid another European entanglement. Nor was President Franklin D. Roosevelt able to enforce his call for a “quarantine against the aggressor” when Japan invaded China in 1937.

In September 1939 World War II began after Germany invaded Poland. The Roosevelt presidency carefully charted a course of assisting the Allies without entering the war. Roosevelt articulated his design for the U.S. contribution in his Four Freedoms speech of 1941. Unlike Wilson, Roosevelt did not try to pretend neutrality in the conflict. Roosevelt’s concerns led to efforts such as the Lend-Lease program, which allowed for the transfer of military materials, vehicles, and arms, and the movement of 50 aging U.S. warships to British bases in the North Atlantic to help both U.S. defenses and the survival of the British government. By this time, the Nazi troops of German leader Adolf Hitler extended westward to the English Channel and pushed the Eastern Front deep into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
In August 1941 Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, on a ship off the coast of Newfoundland. Roosevelt stopped short of promising direct American involvement in the fighting, but the meeting resulted in the Atlantic Charter, which established a blueprint for Allied conduct. The two leaders agreed that in the event of victory the Allies would not seek to extend their borders or impose a system of government on the defeated powers.

In the United States, resistance to intervention collapsed only with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which resulted in U.S. entry into the war. Germany subsequently declared war against the United States. From its preferred position at the perimeter of the conflict, the United States was now drawn into hostilities across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In Europe the United States joined with its British allies along with what was left of the French resistance, and also provided the Soviet Union with supplies. In the Pacific, American soldiers waged war with Japan. By early 1945 an Allied victory in Europe seemed likely, and in February, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin met in Yalta (in present-day Ukraine) to discuss the postwar division and occupation of Germany. After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the Allies concentrated on defeating Japan, the only surviving Axis power. United States airplanes dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, ending World War II.

The United States had entered the war reluctantly, but it emerged as a leader of the postwar order. Prior to World War II, American foreign policy had developed in reaction to international events that directly concerned the national interest. After the war, the new role of the United States as a great power forced it for the first time to devise foreign policy from a position of leadership. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage four months before the war’s end, but like Wilson a generation earlier, he left designs for postwar order. Roosevelt had set the foundations for a lasting peace through his contribution to the Atlantic Charter and the Yalta Agreement. The United Nations was created to avoid the weaknesses of the failed League of Nations and soon became the stage for new assertions of different political, military, and economic objectives.

New challenges consumed American foreign policy shortly after the end of World War II. Having long avoided lasting international commitments, the United States found itself at the center of a great alliance that sought to prevent the expansion of Soviet power in Eastern Europe and in other areas of Western interest. Soviet exertion of power over Poland, Hungary, and the Balkans led the United States, under the leadership of President Harry S. Truman, to institute a policy of containment to prevent the spread of Communism around the world. In 1947 Secretary of State George E. Marshall outlined his design for European recovery, the Marshall Plan. One of the plan’s goals was to rebuild West Germany as a strong ally and buffer against westward Soviet expansion. The strengthening of West Germany and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 and other regional pacts, helped hold the line against Communism.
In the most famous statement of containment policy, American diplomat George Kennan advised that policy should consist of “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.” Stated simply, the United States sat poised to respond to any move by the USSR. The goal of containment became more complicated when China became a Communist power after the overthrow of the Nationalist leadership in 1949. With varying amounts of emphasis on covert operations becoming part of the strategy, containment became the essential U.S. response to what became known as the Cold War. The Cold War drove the foreign policies of the presidencies of Truman through that of Ronald Reagan.

While World War II and the Cold War established the United States as a superpower, the new position of the United States limited the range of options for U.S. involvement with the rest of the world. Cold War politics required maintenance of a strong Western alliance through NATO. The advent of nuclear weapons brought new dynamics to foreign policy. The fear of nuclear conflict between world powers may have prevented direct military confrontation. Many observers believe that the threat of mutual destruction was the most effective deterrent to another world war. A variety of Cold War crises—disagreement over the divided city of Berlin, China’s claims on Taiwan, competition between the United States and the USSR for influence in Latin America, and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis—could all have conceivably exploded if not for the specter of nuclear war.
Although the superpowers did not clash directly, the Cold War drew the United States into major wars against Communist forces in Korea and Vietnam. American troops, fighting under the flag of the UN, fought in Korea from 1950 to 1953, checking a North Korean invasion of the South. From the late 1950s to 1973 the United States and the South Vietnamese government battled against Vietnamese Communist forces who were backed by China and the USSR. Both major Cold War battlegrounds were desperate and costly efforts by the United States to frustrate the spread of Communism. The United States achieved some success in Korea, where Communist rule was not allowed to spread to South Korea. In Vietnam, a long military commitment and subsequent disengagement ended with a Communist takeover. In both cases American presidents paid a heavy political price at home.

By the 1980s the arms race between the two superpowers became unaffordable to the USSR. The burden was much more easily weathered by the prosperous market economies of the United States and its other Western allies than by struggling centrally planned economies of the Eastern bloc. The Soviet leadership also became less able to suppress domestic pressures for increased political freedom. Such pressures, which were tightened by President Ronald Reagan’s escalation of the arms race against what he dubbed the “evil empire,” resulted in an implosion under the reformist rule of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In November 1989 the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, a major symbol of the Cold War, dramatically illustrated the decline of the Communist threat. Within the next two years, the Soviet Union disintegrated economically and politically and collapsed at the end of 1991.
The end of the Cold War left American diplomacy struggling to maneuver—the world’s most dominant superpower was without the clear objectives that had led American foreign policy through the two world wars and competition with the USSR. The quest for a rational world order was easier to articulate than execute. The warming of relations with China two decades before offered a precursor to the end of the Cold War. President Richard Nixon’s bold opening with the Chinese government in Beijing in early 1972 brought about only a limited relationship between the two countries. American influence failed to keep the Chinese government from crushing pro-democracy Chinese dissidents at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 as China reasserted control against dissidents. The lack of any move by China to embrace Western-style freedoms also emphasized the complexities involved in promoting capitalist democracies.

The presidencies of George Bush and Bill Clinton struggled to cope with the new realities. Both had to work without a clear congressional consensus and sought to maintain open commercial relationships even when, as with the Chinese, they had to deal with behavior that made relationships awkward. The end of the Cold War also replaced the relatively simple, broad disagreements of the superpowers with a seemingly endless array of dormant ethnic and national rivalries. Western hegemony was carried to the doorstep of the former Soviet republics by Bush’s collective intervention in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which was sanctioned by the UN after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and by Clinton’s responses to crises in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, a province in Serbia.
The century closed with the United States far less able to distance itself from the rest of the world than it had been at the start of the century. Isolationism had become, for some, an outmoded concept. The United States was faced with the question of how to best utilize the nation’s resources and define the criteria for involvement. Many Americans called for increased American leadership in global issues such as the environment, economic development, and human rights.
By the dawn of the 21st century American participation in international affairs often came in the form of multilateral responses. The United States acted through international organizations such as the UN and regional organizations such as NATO, rather than taking the sort of unilateral action it used when going to war against Spain in 1898. Trade relations also developed multilaterally through the World Trade Organization (WTO). On the eve of street protests and the collapse of a WTO conference in Seattle, Washington, in late 1999, President Clinton hearkened back to John Hay’s Open Door of a century earlier and to Wilson’s call for “an equality of trade conditions.” In terms that could have described the thrust for expansion at the end of the 19th century, Clinton said, “We cannot grow the American economy in the 21st century unless we continue to sell more to a world that is prospering and that is more connected with everything else in the world.”

As the 21st century progressed, challenges arose within the U.S. foreign policy establishment to the traditional multilateral approach to foreign policy. The September 11 terrorist attacks had a profound impact on U.S. foreign policy. In response to the attacks President George W. Bush articulated a new set of principles that radically altered U.S. foreign policy. Known as the Bush Doctrine, the principles were outlined in 2002 in a document titled The National Security Strategy of the United States. In it Bush said the United States would pursue a policy of preventive war if an unfriendly nation attempted to develop weapons of mass destruction or gave aid to terrorist organizations. The new policy also said the United States would act unilaterally if necessary. The doctrine represented a shift away from multilateralism, a strategy of seeking consensus among allies, which had marked U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Although the United States had long asserted the right to wage preemptive war in the face of a possible attack, the new doctrine of preventive war meant that the United States might use military force even if it did not face an immediate or direct threat.
The Bush Doctrine also announced that the United States would maintain unquestioned military supremacy by not allowing any other nation to emerge as a potential military rival. This aspect of the doctrine, however, had been articulated prior to the September 11 attacks and represented ideas that had been explored among Defense Department intellectuals during the administration of President George H. W. Bush.
The first application of the doctrine came in 2003 when the United States and Great Britain invaded Iraq because the regime of Saddam Hussein was thought to possess weapons of mass destruction. The United States acted with few other allies because the United Nations Security Council rejected the use of military force in this instance. The two pillars of the Bush Doctrine—preemption and unilateralism—were subsequently questioned after the invading forces failed to find any weapons of mass destruction and the onus of the invasion and occupation fell largely on the United States. Defenders of the new policy argued, however, that the invasion had toppled a dangerous dictator and made the region safer and more open to democratic reforms.
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