The Basics of American Government 3E

Chapter 14: U.S. Foreign Policy

Read or download the textbook here.


by Jonathan S. Miner and Craig B. Greathouse

Prime Minister of Greece, Andreas Papandreou on official visit with United States President William J. Clinton, Washington, April 1994. Courtesy White House Photo Office, Public Domain.One of the most important areas of public policy in which the American government must engage is relations with other countries in the international system. U.S. foreign policy entails developing and advancing American national interests abroad using all the tools and abilities of government and society. This chapter fits well at the end of this volume as many of the subjects studied so far (the president, Congress, judiciary, bureaucracy, state and local governments, political parties, mass media and general public) have a prominent role in the process of making U.S. foreign policy. In this chapter, a discussion of the nuts and bolts of foreign policy will be coupled with an analysis of the specific actors who make and implement U.S. foreign policy, a survey of its prominent historical themes, and a contemporary application of this process to the crisis in Libya.

Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un shake hands at the Singapore Summit, 2018. By Dan Scavino Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


Chapter 14: U.S. Foreign Policy

I. What is foreign policy?
A. Foreign policy represents the different needs, interests and reasons for U.S. involvement abroad and the ways and means chosen to achieve those goals.
B. Foreign policy is important because it has an impact on the ability of the United States to provide for its citizens.
II. Basic elements of foreign policy
A. Basic elements are used to identity the capabilities of each country and determine what kind of foreign policy it can develop.
1. Power
2. Wealth
3. Values
III. Actors in foreign policy:
A. The president and executive branch
1. President is the undisputed leader of U.S. foreign policy.
2. Presidents use his professional prestige and ability to persuade to influence foreign policy.
3. In the 20th century, the president has been given additional powers in making foreign policy.
4. The National Security Council, a cabinet of executives including the Secretaries of State, Defense, Homeland Security, and the Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff work hand-in-hand with the president in making and carrying out foreign policy decisions
B. The bureaucracy
1. Bureaucracy is immense and complex with competing interests and work cultures.
a. Example: Failures of FBI and CIA as it related to September 11th
2. The Secretary of States serves as the top U.S. diplomat with the State Department as the most public and visible part of U.S. foreign policy.
C. Congress
1. With the powers of oversight and budget, Congress is influential is making foreign policy.
2. Senate must ratify treaties.
3. War Powers Resolution of 1973 placed limitations on the executive branch
D. Interest groups, Media and Public Opinion
1. Congress and the public, the media, and interest groups have an almost symbiotic relationship in that congressional leaders cannot get elected without constituents (voters), and the two groups cannot communicate without a third party, the media.
2. Americans receive news from a variety of sources allowing citizens to develop their own unique opinions in regards for foreign policy.
IV. Traditional foreign policy themes/issues
A. Security through either global isolationism or internationalism
1. Security is first and foremost the theme that underlies U.S. foreign policy
2. Isolationism vs. internationalism
3. Willingness to use force
4. Development of superpowers and the Cold War
b. Gulf War and U.S. involvement in the Middle East
1. Welfare and prosperity of the U.S. has been based on economic growth and trade with other countries
2. Ensure the U.S. will have access to foreign markets
3. Strong economic ties to prevent economic disaster like the Great Depression
C. Morality/American exceptionalism
1. The belief that the American way of life is superior influences how the U.S. acts in the world.
a. Manifest Destiny
2. Foreign policy has continually cited security and the defense of values and ideals as the basis for action in the international system.
D. Case Study: Intervention in Libya

A Civic Engagement Challenge—Becoming Involved in Foreign Policy Decisions

Two of the basic goals of this chapter are to de-mystify the U.S. foreign policy making process and to show that the ordinary American citizen has a real place in influencing how decisions are made and implemented. Students sometimes do not realize the impact they can have on a given issue of importance to them, especially so if that issue is international and seems both complicated and remote from any power they might have. Now that the reader has a better idea of how to become involved into this process and who has the most influence, they can assert themselves into foreign-policy making in a number of ways.

‘‘All politics is local’’ as the saying goes, and support or opposition for any U.S. foreign policy begins in a local arena, such as your university or local community. The civic engagement challenge for this chapter is for students to get involved with a local campaign to support or oppose an issue of U.S. foreign policy. This involvement can be from within a university-sponsored club or organization that promotes awareness or action, with a purposeful vote for a local or national candidate that supports your position, a protest, petition drive, phone call, or letter to your local representative. While students cannot right now hope to have the power to make U.S. foreign policy decisions, they most definitely can influence how those issues are perceived by their peers in the local community. So, recognize what international issue stirs a passion inside you, and get involved!


Test Your Knowledge

Understanding the dynamics of U.S. Foreign Policy can be tricky! Check your understandings using the flashcards below!

Arab Spring


For Further Reading

Please see Chapter 14 References on pages 424-427 of the textbook for primary sources and readings.

American Exceptionalism and the Politics of Foreign Policy By John Gans, Jr.