Foreign policy refers to a government's goals and actions toward actors outside the borders of its territory. These foreign actors may include other countries, multinational corporations, intergovernmental organizations, nongovernmental organizations, or groups that fall outside these categories.
Strained relations rather than actual battles marked the Cold War, waged from 1947 to 1989 between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American foreign policy of containment sought to halt the spread of communism in all parts of the world. Having achieved that goal, American leaders are still developing a foreign policy for the post–Cold War era and the war on terrorism.
The three basic types or categories of foreign policy each tend to be dominated by different actors. Crisis policy requires immediate decision making and is controlled by the president and his national security advisers. Strategic policy (long range) tends to be formulated within the executive branch. Structural defense policy, which deals primarily with defense spending and military bases, is most often crafted by the Defense Department and Congress, which has the ultimate authority when it comes to spending.
The American public and its leaders since World War II have embraced internationalism, the active role of a country in global affairs. Internationalists endorse free trade and favor involvement in the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Other actors, whose focus is mostly domestic, advocate both economic protectionism and isolationism from foreign affairs.
The United States has three basic foreign policy goals: security of the homeland, economic growth, and support of democracy in the world. However, when these goals conflict, support for democracy often loses out. The anarchical international system and increasing global economic interdependence ensure that security and economic problems will be top priorities.
American foreign policy makers use many strategies and tools to create effective policy, including deterrence and compellence strategies and economic tools such as foreign aid and sanctions, political tools such as diplomacy and covert operations, and, when these options fail, military action.
American foreign policy is made by a variety of actors—executive, legislative, and judicial—acting on behalf of the federal government. The president is the chief foreign policy maker, with the assistance of a huge network of federal agencies and the intelligence community. With different constitutional responsibilities, the president and Congress often wrangle for control over foreign policy.
Ongoing foreign policy challenges include dealing with the war on terrorism, the legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, forming alliances in a post–Cold War world, protecting American interests in a global economy, managing problems without borders (like global climate change), and balancing pragmatic security concerns with the desire to extend democracy throughout the Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Tension may be unavoidable between foreign policy and democracy. Some degree of secrecy can be essential for successful foreign policy; crisis policy in particular requires both surprise and quick decision making. Democracy, on the other hand, demands openness and accountability on the part of public officials.