Global Partners: Narrowing the Focus of US Foreign Policy

By Kaplan, Benjamin | Harvard International Review, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Global Partners: Narrowing the Focus of US Foreign Policy


Kaplan, Benjamin, Harvard International Review


AT HIS CONFIRMATION HEARINGS IN 1993, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher made a resolute pledge: "I want to assure the American people that we will not turn their blood and treasure into an open account for use by the rest of the world." His message was in stark contrast to US attitudes less than 50 years ago, when President John F. Kennedy expressed the nation's willingness "to pay any price, and bear any burden" in the name of global security and President Harry S. Truman assured the world that "we will devote our strength, our resources, and our firmness of resolve" to its wellbeing, proclaiming that "the initiative is ours." The United States needs to examine the causes of this dramatic shift in attitude so that it can structure a new approach to foreign affairs, one which takes into account the United States' new position as a lone superpower, with significant financial burdens in an increasingly complex world.

Twice this century, as the world emerged from the fires of global war, the United States emerged as the dominant power, spreading an optimistic vision of freedom and democracy. As the United States' global prestige and prominence grew, so did the country's opportunities and responsibilities. As the new leader of the free world, the United States had established itself in the aftermath of World War II as a bona fide political, economic, and military superpower. Consequently, for much of the twentieth century, the United States assumed the role of the world's policeman--safeguarding and promoting open societies and open economies across the globe, and keeping often-conflicting spheres of influence in a careful, calculated balance.

The Cold War, which defined the US approach to foreign policy for nearly half a century, further expanded United States' role in shaping world affairs. President Truman developed a cohesive plan designed to safeguard the interests of the United States and to protect other nations with similar political and economic principles. The mission, as defined by the Cold War, was to contain the Soviet Union and the spread of communism while avoiding nuclear war. The mission's goals were reflected in the foreign aid set forth in the Marshall Plan and in the alliance building of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. US actions were consistent, forceful, and deliberate under the umbrella of the Truman Doctrine. There was a sense of urgency in US foreign policy as well. In the eyes of US statesmen, if the United States didn't solidify its interests in a region today, the Soviets could very well seize control of the region tomorrow.

The Cold War compelled the United States to assume the leadership responsibilities of a global policeman. In that role, the United States had authority in shaping the world order and was willing to incur costs and make sacrifices in order to mold the desired balance of power. The attitudes of US presidents during this time period appropriately reflected a willingness to accept the global policeman's demanding list of burdens and responsibilities. For example, Truman believed that trade deficits were a form of humanitarian aid. These efforts finally resulted in sending the Soviet bear into permanent hibernation, stifling communism, and eventually putting a thaw on the Cold War.

Charting New Waters

Although it was a triumph for democracy and capitalism, the end of the Cold War left US foreign policy without a clear purpose and direction. For decades, the "do the opposite of the communists" rule had been the primary navigating principle for the United States. Because today's world lacks the steadfast foreign policy compass of the Cold War, present-day US policy needs to redirect its course by learning to break free of old precedents--choosing instead to follow selectively new and illuminating constellations in the diplomatic sky. The conditions are very different than before: in the current state of affairs, most Americans shy away from the burdens, obligations, and sacrifices necessary to continue the United States' previously-assumed role of global policeman. …

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