American presidents and foreign policy

Even though domestic issues have for many years been considered as fundamental in the agendas of American presidents, the fact is that American presidents have formulated the foreign policies of the US, in many cases influenced by their own personal perceptions or political beliefs. With respect to American foreign policy following World War II, it is possible to depict two major phases, namely the Cold War and the Post-Cold War periods. In this paper, the general lines and characteristics of foreign policy under each president of the US since the end of World War II in 1945 will be discussed.

The policies of President Roosevelt, the man who led the US to victory in World War II will not be discussed because of his death in 1945. His vice president, Harry S. Truman, however, was elected president in the same year. Harry Truman is known as the man who planned the nuclear end of World War II, and at the same time, as the president who took the US to the Korean War. However, for policy formulators, he is the man who turned George Kennan’s “policy of containment” into diplomatic action. Truman’s vision was based on the containment of communism as the ultimate threat to the US, Europe and the free world. To pursue this policy of containment, Truman reflected, the US had to achieve military superiority over the USSR, and at the same time, to prevent the spread of communism in the Third World. It is in the light of this policy that Truman sent troops to South Korea while at the same time maintaining significant military presence in Japan. This policy was not only intended to stop the communist attack on South Korea but also to maintain balance against the increasing threats of the USSR in East Asia. Truman’s policies were not only reflected in military terms but were also expressed in the form of lasting legislation and rules such as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the Containment Policy, and the National Security Act of 1947. As he presided for two terms, Truman was able to maintain a stable foreign policy based on the containment theory and at the same time, leading to escalation of the cold war against the USSR and its allies.

The foreign policy of the american presidents

Dwight Eisenhower, Truman’s vice president and at the same time, the commander of the allied forces on D-Day was more militant in his views. Eisenhower perceived Truman’s foreign policy as weak and reluctant and accordingly, pursued an escalatory attitude towards the USSR. This was particularly manifested in his famous three threatening C’s for foreign policy, namely Corea (Korea), China and Communist coddling. Eisenhower had a very strong belief in NATO as a military tool for US foreign policy against communism and Soviet threat. Eisenhower was ultimately a military man and accordingly, his foreign policy vision was based on confrontation and defense. Indeed, he focused on improving US military defensive and offensive abilities to keep the Soviet Union in check. At the same time, he empowered NATO and tried to increase the network of military allies of the US in East Asia and later in the Middle East through what became known as the Eisenhower Doctrine. Eisenhower’s policies were thus based on a more militant version of the containment theory and only led to additional escalation of the Cold War.

In 1963, John F. Kennedy was elected as the youngest president in the history of the United States. However, he was also the first president who almost led the US to a nuclear showdown with the USSR following the Bay of Pigs operation. It was the first time that the US would face a direct threat from the USSR after Castro succeeded in establishing the first communist state in the western hemisphere. Kennedy was not a military man, but he was willing to take military action in order to maintain American superiority in the Cold War. Kennedy’s confrontational policy towards the Soviets ultimately led to a serious escalation of the arms race with the Soviets. This reflected in the increasing tensions in Indochina where Kennedy finally decided to upgrade the US presence there which eventually led to the outbreak of the Vietnam war. Although Kennedy was assassinated two years through his office, his foreign policy involvements had a major impact on the US foreign policy, especially towards the USSR where the threat of a third world war was very eminent.

Following the death of Kennedy, his Vice President, Lyndon Johnson was elected president. From day one in office, Johnson found himself facing a major paradox, namely the military involvement of the US in Vietnam and the disastrous outcomes that resulted. Behind the Vietnamese threat stood the Soviet involvement, and the war in Vietnam thus became a cornerstone for American foreign policy for over a decade. Like the presidents before him, Johnson based his foreign policy on containment, although to a less confrontational degree than during the Kennedy term. During this period, Johnson worked on increasing military support of the US to its allies in the Third World and at the same time, on empowering NATO to face increased Soviet threat. However, the continuous involvement in Vietnam and Johnson’s inability to reach a possible solution for that involvement were the cornerstones of his foreign policy in the 1960s.

Of all American presidents, Richard Nixon who came to office in 1969 was perhaps the most knowledgeable about foreign affairs. In a serious turn from the traditions of US foreign policy since World War II, Nixon was determined to put an end of hostilities with the USSR. Indeed, he was the first American president to visit China and the USSR. During his office, the US and the USSR were also able to sign a number of treaties to curb the arms race and to increase cooperation in order to reduce the nuclear threat to both countries. Most importantly, Nixon was the engineer of the US pullout from Vietnam after he realized that American military presence there was not only going to keep escalating the tensions of the Cold War, but also to keep draining American resources in terms of finances, arms and human lives. Nixon also increased the involvement of the US in the Middle East, seeking a solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially after the 1973 war and the Arab oil embargo that made energy an urgent national security and foreign policy priority. Although he was elected for a second term, Nixon was forced to resign to avoid resignation after the Watergate affair. Despite the tension and instability that dominated domestic affairs during his term, Nixon’s foreign policy was pioneering, especially towards the USSR and China.

Following the resignation of Nixon, his Vice President Gerald Ford was elected president. Ford was not as enthusiastic and interested in world affairs as was Nixon. This, coupled with changes in Soviet leadership and vision led to a reverse in the trend that was started by Nixon. Accordingly, the Cold War took a new increased level and the escalation and arms race were once again to dominate the foreign policy of the US. As Vietnam was a very painful lesson for American foreign policy makers, Ford was reluctant to engage the US directly in the affairs of other countries. Accordingly, during this period, intelligence agencies were given increased and additional powers. In the Middle East, however, Ford’s foreign policy was focused on bringing a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflicts. In general, Ford’s policy in world affairs was more conservative and limited that most of the presidents who preceded him.

When Jimmy Carter arrived in office in 1977, he had to deal with two priorities on the international relations level. The first was the Soviet threat and the second was the Middle East crisis which was beginning to influence the stability in the region, especially with the spread of terrorism and instability in Europe. Carter continued the policy of containment and escalation, ultimately involving in a speeding of the arms race as communication with the Soviet leadership was not positive. In the Middle East, however, Carter was able to achieve major accomplishments, particularly in the sponsoring of the Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel. However, Carter’s foreign policy was soon to face several serious challenges, first in Afghanistan in 1978 and then in Iran in 1979. In Afghanistan, Carter’s administration succeeded applying the lessons learned in Vietnam, thus supporting the Islamic revolutionaries against the USSR. In effect, the US successfully pushed the USSR into the same position that it faced a decade earlier in Vietnam. This success did not eliminate the Vietnam fear among US foreign policy makers, but it gave the US a morale boost.  The result, however, was not similar in the following year when Carter’s admininistration found itself pulled into a direct encounter when the Islamic militias and militant students broke into the US embassy in Teheran and took the personnel there hostages. A military attempt to release the hostages resulted in a humiliating defeat to the US and an embarrassment to Carter. In fact, the ongoing hostage situation in Teheran eventually to Carter’s loss when he attempted running for another term against the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan era ultimately led to a major change in American foreign policy. Although Reagan himself had very little education or interest in foreign affairs, the turbulence during the 1980s led to major developments in American foreign policy. Reagan based his foreign policy on escalating the Cold War, particularly through the space defense program known as Star Wars which would eventually cost more than $200 billion. This ultimately pushed the Soviets into an expensive arms race that would eventually lead to the demise of the USSR. Reagan also adopted a policy of confrontation and containment against communism on all levels, especially in Nicaragua where he was determined that it would not become another communist basis after Cuba. At the same time, American involvement in Afghanistan and Angola aimed at containing communism and draining the military and economic resources of the USSR. The year 1983 added another important dimension to Reagan’s foreign policy when the US embassy and Marines base were brought down to ashes and hundreds of American soldiers and personnel were killed in Beirut. From then on, Reagan’s foreign policy became more focused on fighting terrorism directed at American interests. This eventually culminated in the bombing of Libyan targets as a result of Libya’s support of terrorism against the US. In this respect, Reagan formulated his foreign policy closely with his British ally, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In the Middle East, Reagan’s foreign policy was strongly in favor of empowering Israel as America’s most important ally in the region, and accordingly no development was achieved towards a peaceful agreement in the region. Reagan’s foreign policy, however, received a serious blow in the mid-1980s with the Irangate affair. Although the president himself remained outside the scandal, American foreign policy lost much of its credibility.

In 1988, President Bush who was the vice president during the Reagan term came to office. During his term, the Cold War came to an end when the USSR finally collapsed as a result of the expensive arms race that it could not afford. For the first time since World War II, the US found itself without a threatening equal. The beginning of the New World Order, however, was not as peaceful as it was supposed to be, particularly as foreign policy in the US became oriented towards globalized interests. Accordingly, the war against Iraq following the invasion of Kuwait established a leading world role for the US. Bush’s policy towards the former Soviet Union was not yet clear due to the speed at which developments took place, but he made it clear that the US was willing to cooperate with Russia and the former communists as long as American interests were concerned. At the same time, more resources were mobilized to fight terrorism, especially Islamic terrorism. The results of the war in the Gulf, the increased American prestige and power gave Bush an opportunity to achieve a breakthrough in the Middle East, but he was defeated in the presidential elections before any of these opportunities would be realized.

President Clinton started his term in the middle of a changing world. Economic growth at home forced him to focus his efforts on international affairs. Clinton led a proactive supportive policy towards Russia, especially his ally President Yeltsin. Clinton also focused on enlarging rather than reducing NATO, and this was definitely witnessed in the war led by the US and NATO against Belgrade. Clinton’s administration had previously been engaged in the making of peace in Bosnia-Herzgovina and in a military operation in Somalia to establish peace there. Ironically, while Clinton’s foreign policy was aimed at the protection of human rights and the establishing of global peace, he perhaps engaged in more military adventures than any other president in the twentieth century. Yet, Clinton also focused on the peace process in the Middle East which he had sponsored since 1993. Although his term is coming to an end now without a final conclusion of this process, it is obvious that major developments that were not even viable more than a decade ago had already been achieved. Moreover, with the elimination of the Soviet threat and other serious threats of terrorism, Clinton’s foreign policy became more focused on issues of national security related to international trade and commerce, war against drugs, and the enhancement of the US role and prestige inside the United Nations.

In conclusion, American foreign policy during the term of each and every president was influenced by a large number of variables, the most important of which perhaps were the personality of the president, his knowledge of and interest in international relations, the degree of economic stability and growth at home, the perception of threat of the enemy, and above all, the ideological enmity against communism.