The United States Foreign Policy


The results of the World War II and the termination of the Cold War made the United States of America the world’s superpower. Foreign policy played a crucial role in gaining the stable leading position in the world and establishing the dominance in many areas. Post World War II Presidents employed both idealistic and realistic approaches to foreign policies; this fact demonstrates that America’s priorities include both national interest and global values such protection of human rights and democracy.

Idealism with Realism

Political realism is based on the belief that humans have a competitive and self-centered nature. Such approach to foreign policy suggests that war between nations is permanent and expected, and the aim of state’s foreign policy is to ensure its favorable position protecting the national interests (Strohmer par.16).

According to this approach, the state should give the primary importance to its security when arranging its international relations and consider the interest of other nations and international organizations the secondary ones. Political idealism is based on the belief that human nature is good. Such approach puts the interests of the world community into the center of priorities of the state’s foreign policies (Strohmer par. 25).

Political idealists consider effective coexistence of states and world peace the most important goals of establishing foreign policies. Idealist policymakers tend to value international organizations and laws highly.

Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy

Roosevelt’s foreign policy while being the President of the United States is considered to be based on political realism. Though Roosevelt’s decision to enter the war can be seen as the manifestation of the idealistic foreign policy aimed at establishing world peace, his argumentations for America’s entry into the war had realistic nature.

Roosevelt considered German’s victory to have serious negative effects on American interests due to the change of historic European balance of power, which was crucial to ensuring the security of the U.S. Besides, Roosevelt understood that America’s passivity during the war could result in the little opportunities it would have during the rearrangement of world powers after the defeat of Hitler’s allies. Therefore, Roosevelt’s foreign policy during and after the World War II can be defined as a realistic one, as it was focused on defending the national interests of the state.

Truman presents an example of the President whose foreign policy was influenced by the idealistic approach. He highly valued the international role of the United States and focused on the contribution of the country to the world peace. His work in the Senate aimed at gaining support for the emergent United Nations illustrates his determination to international interests (McCormick 38).

The financial aid provided by the United States to Greece and Turkey confronted by the Soviet Union also reveals Truman’s dedication to idealistic foreign policy. However, the creation of NATO, as the ultimate result of Truman’s policy, can be considered as the contributor to the protection of American national interests. Therefore, Truman’s dedication to international interests was interrelated with the achievement of the national goals.

Eisenhower continued America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union started by Truman but used the approach to foreign policy that was more realistic. He used the threat of nuclear weapons to end the Korean War and refused to send American soldiers to help France in Vietnam (U. S. Department of State par. 4). He pursued purely self-centered objectives in American foreign policy, including ordering coups in Iran and Guatemala and preventing Lebanon pro-American government from falling after the revolution.

The aggressive, realistic strategy of Eisenhower was followed by the idealistic strategy of John Kennedy. He, as well as Truman, was dedicated to opposing the world’s tyrants and advancing freedom and peace. However, some of his actions aimed at confronting dictators led to Cuban Missile Crisis that put a serious threat to the world peace. Kennedy signed Partial Nuclear Ban Treaty, issued the Peace Corps, and enforced the participation of the U.S. in the Vietnam War.

The analysis of the approach to foreign policy employed by the first four post-World War II Presidents reveals that both realistic and idealistic approaches were employed. The idealists, such as Truman and Kennedy justified their approach by stressing the global role of the United States in confronting the dictators’ regimes and bringing democracy and freedom to the countries of the world.

The realists, such as Roosevelt and Eisenhower justified their approach by stressing the importance of correspondence between foreign policy and the national interests. They participated in international confrontations only in the case it was necessary for ensuring America’s safety.

Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter

Johnson is considered the successor of Kennedy’s idealistic approach to foreign policy. He sent half a million American soldiers to Vietnam and nearly twenty-five thousand troops to the Dominican Republic (Staten par. 8). Johnson’s dedication to preventing the aggression towards foreign states resulted in America’s declining ability to exercise power. The nation’s resources were exhausted by interventions in foreign states, which caused the shift from the idealistic approach to the realistic one.

Johnson’s successors Nixon and Ford employed the realistic approach to foreign policy justified by the need to rehabilitate the state’s power after exhaustive war operations. The Nixon’s administration policy was “closer to the realist tradition than that of earlier postwar Presidents” (McCormick 86).

It was based on the principles of balance of power and fostered American interests. Though his administration encouraged the signing of such agreements as Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms and Anti-Ballistic Treaty, its aim was to ensure the security of the United States. Nixon was reluctant in opposing the human rights issues related to other countries, as did not consider them the part of national interests (McCormick 92).

Ford continued employing Nixon’s approach to foreign policy. The years of his presidency were marked by final withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. Ford put much effort in continuing the thaw in the relation with the Soviet Union and positioned U.S. as the country that is less interested in being involved in foreign conflicts that it had been during the past decades. The President signed Helsinki Accords, which positively affected the relations with Soviet leaders.

The election of Carter as a President of the Unites States became the beginning of the new shift in American foreign policy. Carter believed that the foreign policy of the United States should reflect the country’s highest moral values and serve for such idealistic purposes as propagating democracy all over the world and participating in dealing with the issues related to the establishment of peace and freedom throughout the international community. Carter enforced America’s participation in dealing with problems in South Korea, Iran, Argentina, South Africa, etc., and proclaimed America’s commitment to serving mankind.

The analysis of the approaches to foreign policies employed by such post-World War II Presidents as Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter, reveals that their governments occupied different positions during the Cold War. Johnson and Carter justified their idealistic approach by emphasizing the America’s opportunities to become the cause of global change due to the wealth and military power it possesses. Nixon and Ford justified their realistic approach by exhaustion of resources caused by America’s active position in the international community.

Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush

The years of Reagan’s presidency were marked by an abundance of events affected by America’s activity in the international arena. Though Reagan mostly appealed to idealistic ideas of America’s global role in his speeches to American citizens, the actual actions made by his government reflected his purely realistic approach to foreign policy.

Reagan put much effort in confronting the foreign rivals of the U.S. by using the methods that were greatly criticized by the world community due to the support provided by Reagan to various terrorist groups acting for the profit of the United States in foreign states.

Reagan’s approach to foreign policy was proactive and aggressive, as he proclaimed the Soviet Union an Evil Empire and managed to defeat it by ending the Cold War with the America’s victory. Though Reagan’s methods were far from idealistic, he managed to use the idealistic framework for justifying his actions in front of the American society effectively.

George H. W. Bush was the example of the President using realistic approach to foreign policy. He strived for ensuring the protection of national interests much more than the protection of the global values. The bright example illustrating his approach to foreign policy is the restrained position of the United States related to the Chinese military suppressing a pro-democracy movement demonstrating and killing hundreds of protestors in 1989. George H.W. Bush strived for restraining America from actions that can put any threat to its security. However, he wisely participated in Gulf Wars to ensure the protection of America’s interests.

Clinton’s presidency was marked by the new shift to idealism in America’s approach to foreign policy. Clinton proclaimed national conscience one of the main priorities of his administration. Clinton’s administration is famous for the participation of the U.S. in conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, the Balkans, etc. Clinton launched intervention in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia. Though the initial goals of that interventions were not achieved, Clinton deserved much appraise of the American public and was considered one of the most successful Presidents of the United States during the XX century.

George W. Bush proclaimed the course on the realistic approach to foreign policy. He criticized Clinton’s dedication to nation-building and promised to focus on protecting the national interests. However, the events of September 11th in 2001 forced Bush to make America an active player in the foreign arena. America’s invasion of Iraq became the ultimate demonstration of Bush’s determination to the protection of national interests. Bush justified the war in Iraq by the potential threat Iraq put to the security of the U.S. Bush’s presidency was also marked by warm relations with Russia.

Reagan justified his realistic approach to foreign policy by idealistic ideas about America’s global role. George H. W. Bush continued with employing the realistic approach by pointing to the importance of protecting the national interest. Clinton’s dedication to enlarging America’s role in international relations was shifted by the realistic position of George W. Bush who justified it by the urgent need to protect the country’s national security.

The constant shifts between idealistic and realistic approaches to foreign policies among the post-World War II Presidents reveal that America faces a continuous dilemma related to considering, what is more important – protection of national interests or active participation in the embodiment of such values as world peace and democracy.

Works Cited

McCormick, James. American Foreign Policy & Process, Boston, Massachusetts: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014. Print.

Staten, Cliff. U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II. 2005. Web.

Strohmer, Charles. Realism and Idealism in International Relations. n.d. Web. 2015.

U. S. Department of State. Foreign Policy under President Eisenhower. n.d. Web. 2015.