Do People Matter in U.S. Foreign Policy?

Feb 5, 2010

Is U.S. foreign policy determined by individual policy-makers and core values, or by external threats and domestic pressures?

Many suggest that the external environment and domestic pressures lead to an underlying consistency in U.S. foreign policy.

So, does it matter what decision makers believe? Do divergent interpretations make a difference?

Analysts suggest that Realism dominated the debate during the Cold War. Neo-con views came to the forefront after 9/11/2001. Neo-liberalism was expected to dominate the Obama administration.

These major approaches diverge on fundamental issues:

1.) Should the goals of U.S. policy look beyond American interest?

2.) Are states or other institutions the center of international politics?

3.) Is hard economic and military power the core of relationships or is soft power now crucial?

4.) Should values be central to policy choices or overridden by national interest?

5.) Should the U.S. act mostly in cooperation with others or alone?

However, these approaches face certain facts. Unlike in states, there is no overarching international authority. Using force is often legitimate. Cultures and domestic political structures differ widely.

For instance, there is a lot of global cynicism regarding the American emphasis on democracy, human rights, and free markets. These values can be real expressions of American intent, empty rhetoric, or Trojan Horses for imperial expansion.

What do you think? Does the administrations' approach matter, or is this analysis window dressing? Are the values you start with crucial or is foreign policy determined by threats and pressures?

By William Vocke

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