Political drivers in the US

In studying the American foreign policy, it does matter, if the policy elite associated with an incumbent president is liberal, conservative or nationalist, although the general orientation and interests are approximately according to the great power position in the international system.

Henry R Nau (2014) has presented the dimensionality of the American foreign policy in the following way:    

In the framework of US foreign policy what matters are the understandings or perceptions held by decision makers and policymakers about domestic and world politics in general and how they play in particular contingencies.

The American ideological concepts are important background factors.

  • Liberal internationalist underlines liberal values, democratic ideals and multilateral engagement in international organizations. Presidents like Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama himself represented this orientation.
  • The views of conservative internationalists resonate with the “speak softly, but carry a big stick” realism, like Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
  • Militant language toward adversaries is found among neoconservatives (neocons) so that the war is usually the only relevant tool to solve international problems. Presidents like George Bush jr. and Donald Trump represent this category. The concept of the deep state, which refers to the whole apparatus of military industrial complex together with intelligence institutions and secret services, is usually connected with neocons (neoconservatives).
  • Nationalists emphasize self-containment, withdrawal from the outside world. Echoes of the nationalist position can still be heard that the US ought not to see itself as the world’s policeman, much less act.

Broadly speaking, a certain watershed in the American foreign policy, was the 9/11 shock in 2001 and the international struggle against terrorism.

Since 2001, the political balance in the US foreign policy elite has turned in favor of neoconservatives.

This tendency has been clearly seen even in the era of President Obama. Neoconservative features in American foreign policy emerged strongly, especially during his second term, years 2012-2016. American foreign policy in practice can be considered in three forms of “tool kits”:

  • constructive or peaceful engagement not only with “friendly” countries but also with adversaries – diplomatic, commercial or financial, cultural and other essentially positive forms of exchange
  • containment, which includes essentially negative measures towards adversaries – deterrence, coercive diplomacy, punitive economic measures (sanctions), and various forms of espionage or covert actions like regime change operations and political assassinations
  • use of force through various armed strikes like UAV’s etc. usually organized by CIA or Units of Special Forces, direct military interventions or using proxies or direct American war actions

The American stance in international affairs seems to be hardening in the unipolarity era, the statistics regarding wars, conflicts and international crisis tell clear message about this.

US presidents and the policy elite generally exhibit little reluctance to use force when they calculate the doing so is necessary or serves their understanding of American interests or national objectives. Indeed, military readiness and the use of force to serve national purposes enjoy substantial legitimacy among American policy elites.

The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the leadership of Russian Federation without either the capability or the political will to balance militarily against the US. Later in the 90’s neither the Russians nor the leaders of other countries saw themselves as having capability or orientation to block the US militarily outside of particular regions that circumscribe the scope of their effective influence. In the absence of effective military countermeasures, balancing behaviors tend to take diplomatic forms in the UNSC or outside of it in other bilateral or multilateral forums. The slogan “might is right” seems to be the incisive motto of the ruling policy elite today in the US.

From theoretical point of view, American foreign policy makers may be identified as being realists, not all structural realists, but nevertheless majority of them seems to share realist assumptions. Economic and military capabilities translate into power in its material definition, and practical realists (decision makers) comprehend power as an integral whole, not divided into components. Moreover, to these policymakers the power available for the use of foreign policy purposes is relative to that power or capabilities of other countries. According to the central arguments of structural realism (Kenneth Waltz), power is a material factor and its distribution defines the structure of the international system.

Although it is normal to presume, based on the Westphalian system, that the sovereign states can act unilaterally, especially the great powers, the US seems to “misuse” this right according to many scholars and researchers stating some examples:

  • the US refused to continue anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABM Treaty), withdrew from the treaty, leading to its termination in 2002 and in 2018 also withdrew from INF-treaty (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty)
  • numerous cases of imposed tariffs and various economic sanctions in violation of global free trade agreements
  • attack against Iraq without permission from the UNSC, nowadays similar operations are more rules that exceptions
  • numerous covered regime change operations, usually orchestrated by CIA
  • excused itself from following the Geneva Convention in its treatment of certain prisoners taken in Afghanistan (Guantanamo prison case is still finally unsolved in 2018)
  • negative actions against international climate agreements, the UN and its family organizations, WTO, ICC etc.

The American security culture has been the combination of two major concepts: internal and external security and military might (power and influence) and their background is essentially on the applied Westphalian system with respect to American national interests, American sovereignty and inviolability of borders, American power politics and alliance making.

The incumbent president and his administration have published regularly the report National Security Strategy (NSS) during their presidency.

The summary of these reports is presented here below:

President Georg HW Bush (1989-1993), reports 1991 and 1993

  • four major threats to the US
    • nuclear proliferation stemming from unsecured nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union
    • terrorism, general
    • narcotics and organized crime
    • undefined challenge to American military-strategic dominance

President Bill Clinton (1993-2001), reports 1995 and 1998

  • each report identified a relatively stable set of security threats
    • state-specific threats: Iran, Iraq, North Korea, and other rogue state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction (wmd)
    • proliferation threat of nuclear material and missile technology from Russia
    • terrorism, specific reference to al-Qaeda
    • some new security threats: cyber-vandalism and information warfare, environmental degradation, public health epidemics and narcotic trafficking

President George W Bush (2001-2009), reports 2002 and 2006

  • both reports focused on
    • “War on Terror”: Islamic terrorist groups and their acquisition of chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear devices
    • “Axis of Evil”: Iran, Iraq and North Korea and their acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (wmd)

President Barack Obama (2009-2017), reports 2010 and 2015

  • Obama’s first strategy report 2010 deviates significantly from its predecessors both by its contents and by its spirit and style.  However, behind this “world embracing” approach, there was a hard power politics seen on the base, with increasing financing and investments in national military and homeland security budgets
    • America’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are essential sources of our strength and influence in the world.
    • strategy recognizes fundamental connection between national security and moral issues, international cooperation, need to reduce nuclear arsenal and sustaining American leadership
    • terrorism is still one of main threats
    • promoting a just international order where diplomacy is as fundamental to national security as defense capability
    • while the use of force is sometimes necessary, use of other options before war whenever possible based on careful weigh of the costs and risks. When force is necessary, broad international support is needed and working with such institutions as NATO and the UN Security Council.
  • Obama’s second report 2015 was mainly “a return to more traditional form”
      • top strategic risks to American interests
        • catastrophic attack on the US homeland or critical infrastructure or against US allies abroad
        • global economic crisis, proliferation and/or use of weapons of mass destruction, severe global infectious outbreaks, climate change
        • major energy market disruptions, significant security consequences associated with weak or failing states
      • report especially underlines that India’s potential, China’s rise and Russia’s aggression all significantly impact the future of major power relations
      • terrorism, like al-Qaida, ISIL and others are still threatening
      • strengthening of national defense and reinforce homeland security, as well as cyber security are on the focus

President Obama has been described as “the reluctant realist”, in his foreign policy decision making. Obama made clear his commitment to realism but on the other hand, Obama’s foreign decisions were different from realism in many cases of Middle East and Afghanistan, were his weakness and indecisiveness appeared.

President Donald Trump (2017->), NSS-report December 2017

  • Focus and style changed significantly from previous presidential reports putting “America first” in all possible aspects and underlining tough global competition with the main rivals
    • protect American people, the homeland, the American way of life and prosperity are fundamental issues as well as preserve peace through strength and advance American influence
  • Report names boldly three main external threats to the US
    • revisionist countries – China and Russia – challenge American power, influence and interests, by attempting to erode American security and prosperity
    • rogue states and dictatorships – North Korea and Iran – are determined to destabilize regions, threaten American and brutalize their own people
    • transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations, are actively trying to harm Americans
  • Report notes that the American military power remains the strongest in the world but is shrinking as rivals modernize and build up their conventional and nuclear forces. The contest for power is a central continuity in history. Those three sets of challengers are actively competing against the US.
  • China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. China seeks to displace the US in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders. There is a large description of malign, hostile and dangerous behavior of both countries to the US and its allies and partners as well as a special chapter noting the regional strategies.
  • Given the present adversarial features of the geopolitical environment, the US must renew key capabilities to address the challenges.
    • the US military strength is a vital component in the competition for influence – the US must retain overmatch in all military capabilities including space, cyberspace and intelligence
    • report emphasizes competitive diplomacy and effective use of tools of economic diplomacy (sanctions and other punitive actions) and weaponizing the information and advancing the American influence
    • report includes a special chapter for regional strategies in the Indo-Pacific region, Europe, Middle East, South and Central Asia, Western Hemisphere and Africa

The striking factor in Trump’s NSS is the declared readiness to conduct preventive wars against the countries posing a threat to US national interests actually presupposing the right to first strike whenever the US deems it appropriate without looking back at international law. The document does not call for promoting cooperation with other countries on the basis of equality but on the terms favorable to America, which is to be “first” in whatever it does. However, the strategy as such does not say anything new. The NSS 2017 document is just the confirmation of the fact that the US global domination remains to be the goal and everything else is a means to that end. Several other official documents and reports of Trump administration in 2018-2019 further confirm the aforementioned statements.

The confirmed features and refocusing of the US foreign policy, as stated in NSS 2017, have been visible from the very outset of Trump’s presidency. The strategy is firmly and visibly based on the neorealism and on the traditional Westphalian state order, expressing the primacy of American sovereignty and security in the anarchic world where great power competition is going and numerous threats are lurking everywhere.

The US list of enemy countries

Now in the Trump Administration as for almost the whole period of the unipolarity, the US has pursued a list of ‘enemy countries’ to confront, attack, weaken and overthrow.  There are two considerations attached:  the level of priority on the list and the degree of vulnerability for a ‘regime change’ operation. The present top of priority enemy list seems to be today: 1. China, 2. Russia, 3. Iran, 4. North Korea, 5. Venezuela.

Master List of regime changes, orchestrated by the US

An interesting utensil in the toolkit of US foreign policy has been the regime change operations. William Blum, an American author and historian, has studied critically for years the American foreign policy and published several books revealing how “the US has overthrown other people’s governments.” Here below is the list of those operations (military coups or “soft coups” or regime changes) since the end of the Cold War (* indicates successful ouster of a government):

Stephen Walt had two critical articles (“The Art of the Regime Change”, “Regime Change for Dummies”) in Foreign Policy, May 2018, regarding regime change operations. He presents nine historical cases of regime changes and asks: What does history teach us about regime changes? Did previous efforts at regime change produce the expected benefits or did they end up making things worse? The answers are pretty obvious as can be seen from the historical cases: It’s almost always a very bad idea.

Comprehensive studies of the “foreign-imposed regime changes” have shown that it rarely produces the beneficial outcomes that its advocates predict. Stephen Walt concludes that “Given this sorry track record, outside powers should understand that regime change is a Pandora’s box that is best left firmly closed.” Finally, in his articles, Walt is pondering that “The real puzzle, of course, is why the United States seems to be incapable of learning this rather obvious lesson.” Disappointed with the foreign policy of Trump’s administration Waltstates that “it is a return not to realism but to cynicism.”

The wars and armed conflicts, since the end of Cold War, with the US military involvement, 1990 – 2019:

  • Gulf War (Iraq) 1990-1991                                                               
  • Disintegration wars of Yugoslavia 1990 – 1999
  • Somalia, since 1990s, continues                                                                       
  • Iraq war & crisis 2003, crisis continues                
  • Afghanistan war 2001, war continues                                             
  • Libya war 2011, crisis continues                                                     
  • Syria 2011, war continues                                                                
  • Ukraine conflict 2014, crisis continues
  • Venezuela crisis, escalating 2018
  • Iran conflict, escalating 2017
  • North Korea a “permanent” conflict, escalating again 2017
  • Taiwan a “permanent” dispute, escalating again 2017
  • South China Sea dispute, escalating 2017                                      

Henry Kissinger, a legendary US Secretary of State, stated (in 2019) that ‘We are in a very, very grave period’. In the mid of Donald Trump’s presidency, Henry Kissinger set out a theory:

“I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretences. It doesn’t necessarily mean that he knows this, or that he is considering any great alternative. It could just be an accident.”

A term has been coined to describe this notion “Trumportunities”. It is the idea that, whether by accident or design, Trump creates chances to solve long-running international problems that a conventional leader would not. 

On the other hand, Trump’s erratic behavior might be doing something else as well, something even more fundamental. Through a combination of instinct, temperament and capriciousness, Trump may be reminding the world of the reality of international relations: Raw military and economic power still matter more than anything else—so long as those who hold them are prepared to use them.