On Russia in World Affairs

U.S. Foreign Policy vis-à-vis the World: Is America an External Authority Still?

October 1, 2013

Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2010, Roger Altman and Richard Haass had forecast an age of "American austerity," arguing that U.S. global power will be contingent on the success of American policymakers in reducing the national debt and sustaining economic growth – an argument, which is deeply rooted in the Hamiltonian tradition. "It is not reckless American activity in the world that jeopardizes American solvency" — Altman and Haass wrote – "but American profligacy at home that threatens American power and security." The world without the U.S. as an external authority will likely be chaotic and unpredictable, the authors surmised. Whether this scenario is true or not, a large number of experts and foreign policy scholars opined on the Obama Administration’s handling of foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, as lacking leverage, resolve, and long-haul strategy. Moreover, President Obama’s complex relationship with the GOP in Congress compounds his task of implementing the Affordable Care Act. Will America, following decades of foreign interventions and proxy-wars with the Soviet Union, lose its primus inter pares role in world politics? What geopolitical dynamics are likely to follow from the Obama administration’s internal policies?




It is commonly held that, in the early years of its history, the U.S. pursued a peaceful foreign policy course while, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “all the rest of the universe was at war.” But it also true that the rationale behind Washington and Jefferson’s foreign policy calculations lay in the inability of the U.S. to exert foreign influence over major powers, who, in fact, considered the U.S. incapable of posing any threat to their interests. Writing on the just causes of war in the Federalist Paper 3, a Founding Father of the U.S. and a diplomat, John Jay, held that just wars “for the most part arise either from violation of treaties or from direct violence.” Further, he also considered it to be “of high importance to the peace of America that she observe the laws of nations towards all these powers.”


But as America’s economic power grew, so did its involvement in foreign affairs. The Monroe Doctrine – which proclaimed the Americas independent of continental powers’ meddling – was integral to the development of U.S. foreign policy thinking in the ensuing century. Despite the legacy of Wilsonian ideals, however, American foreign policy during the Cold War years was seldom democratic, given the ongoing conflict with the Soviet Union and America’s commitments to its allies’ security. As South Korea’s prominent politician, Kim Dae Jung, once wrote about U.S. support for the authoritarian regime in Seoul: “there was certainly democracy within the United States but when it faced outward, that democracy was not there” (quoted in Brazinsky, 2007: 244).  


In the 1990s, following the implosion of the Soviet Union, the third wave of democratization reached its apex as more than thirty states across the globe parted ways with authoritarianism and embarked on a path towards democracy, sometimes under the tutelage of the West, oftentimes not. The democratic euphoria of the late 1980s-early 1990s was consequently embodied in Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” theory, which posited a world without wars among liberal democracies. What emerged instead was an international system predicated on geopolitical unipolarity and neoliberal international political economy.


A corollary of American hegemonism in the last decades has been the world too reliant on the U.S. as an external authority in the times of crises. In his recent press statements regarding Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama stressed out that Washington is not, indeed, a global cop anymore. But “just as the state that refrains from applying force is said to betray its weakness,” the prominent IR theorist Kenneth Waltz (1967: 225) held, “so the state that has trouble in exercising control is said to display the defectiveness of its power.” Does American indecisiveness on the Syria issue mirror the defectiveness of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy – especially given such internal issues as the Affordable Healthcare Act debate in Congress, modest economic recovery, and miniscule public support for Obama’s foreign policy initiatives?


Seeking to explain the rationale behind not acting on Syria in World Politics Review, Justin Logan and Christopher Preble addressed the issue of public preferences insofar as foreign policy making is concerned:


“Foreign policy should not be conducted by polls and focus groups, but in this case [Syria -D.B.] the public is right, and the interventionist consensus in Washington is wrong. The threats facing us are not so urgent that we must maintain a vast military presence scattered across the globe and consistently make war in multiple theaters at once. The United States is the most secure great power in history, and if policymakers would act like it, the evidence suggests the public would support them.”


Logan and Preble might be right: America’s military, technological, scientific, and economic capabilities will undergird American power in the future. In his book about the era of post-transatlantic world politics, a French economist Laurent Cohen-Tanugi made a similar point arguing that the U.S. will have two comparative advantages: U.S. military power and a “mastery of innovation,” especially in such industries as biotechnology. One of Cohen-Tanugi’s (2008: 116) most consequential conclusions, however, is the one that “non-western powers will have an increasing influence on virtually every aspect of world affairs and, eventually, on the domestic affairs of the Western world.”


To be sure, reflecting on American exceptionalism in his infamy op-ed in the New York Times, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin said: “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin’s words certainly irked many in the U.S., but Russian President expressed an idea that resonates with many other former-developing and authoritarian countries alike: “there are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.” In other words, Putin told Obama to mind his own business in a quintesentially realpolitik language.



With such critique coming from America’s former rival, the onus is on the Obama Administration to resuscitate its international prestige by following through on their words when it comes to “drawing red lines,” be it in the Middle East or elsewhere. The Obama administration’s efforts to solve the Syria crisis have thus far been destructive, and if the U.S. continues to experience with fueling the flame in Syrian conflict, Washington will lose a lot of its clout amongst many countries. Although many analysts say that the success of Obama’s presidency will largely depend on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, his foreign policy will certainly shape the new era of international relations. Whether America’s economic recovery will translate into a more assertive behavior abroad remains to be seen, but the argument that American profligacy at home threatens U.S. power abroad, which Altman and Haass articulated, has so far appeared to be true.




Altman, R. C., & Richard N. Haass (2010). "American Profligacy and American Power- The Consequences of Fiscal Irresponsibility." Foreign Affairs, 89(6): 25-34.


Brazinsky, G. (2007). Nation building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy. University of North Carolina Press.


Cohen-Tanugi, L. (2008). The Shape of the World to Come: Charting the Geopolitics of a New Century. New York: Columbia University Press.


De Tocqueville, A. (1988). Democracy in America. 2 vol. (Ed.) Lawrence, G., New York: Perennial Library. 


Hamilton, A., Madison, J., & Jay, J. (2008). The Federalist Papers. Oxford University Press.


Logan, J., & Christopher A. Preble. “For U.S. Interventionists, ‘Isolationism’ Is Just a Dirty Word.” World Politics Review, June 22, 2011. Available at: http://www.cato.org/publications/commentary/us-interventionists-isolationism-is-just-dirty-word


Waltz, K. N. (1967). "International Structure, National Force, and the Balance of World Power." Journal of International Affairs, 21(2): 215 - 231.

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