The foreign policy of the United States is influenced by varying factors that precipitate the way it behaves in the international community. Various decision-making processes and institutions formulate policy that protects the independence and sovereignty of the country. Congress oversees the varying, and sometimes overlapping, institutions that shape the president’s framework in crafting grand strategy. The way a nation-state operates stems from the multitude of institutions and procedures that define different interpretations of policy. The State Department, Defense Department, National Security Council, and the Intelligence Community make up the backbone of foreign policy decision-making and contribute vital information in defining the many security challenges of the United States.
Foreign policy is often shaped by the ability of policymakers to forecast the level of deterrent capabilities of strong countries and determine the probability in which they can offset our primacy of air, land, sea, as well as the future battlefields of (0uter) space and cyberspace. Bureaucratic organizations, such as the Department of State and Defense, must ensure they have excellent data procurement as well as the best analytical models to survey the best approach to both current and future events. Calculating an appropriate balance of deterrence measures to assuage and/or nullify threats to both our homeland and global security architecture is an ever evolving and challenging task that rests on the ability of our interagency institutions to build a comprehensive map of political, social, economic, and military trends happening around the world. Packaging it to the president is an ardent task that will influence not just the tone of foreign policy but also the strategic maneuverability of various assets.
Looking at the time period of the Cold War, the trends of that era where defined by the lack of stability in formerly occupied/colonially controlled countries and the ideological battle of the two larger powers (that being the U.S and Soviet Union) to build operational influence and control a larger sphere of political/military dominance. Weapons advancement and the development of nuclear capabilities was the outcome of the power dynamics between a newly-minted and inexperienced super power (the United States) and a slowly dissolving, politically deconstructing empire that understood how to use ambiguity as a political weapon. It was a bipolar order where two relatively unequal super states challenged the influence of the other.
The attitudes of today are determined by the waning primacy of U.S power and the relative rise of regional powers (China, Russia, and to some extent Iran). Post-Cold War institutions are being challenged, where multilateralism is perceived as a vehicle for stagnating national interests. Foreign policy is being influenced by the onset of a transitional era that is shaking up Post World War II Western-dominated order and will be shaped by the irrelevance of nineteenth century political organization to twenty-first century problems. The post-Great Recession hangover we are currently living through has given rise to populist parties in the Western World. This is due to slow moving reforms that act mostly as a band-aide to mitigate the effects of the Recession on the middle class. There has been no overarching reformation or re-institutionalization of our current economic system, yet.
A new global framework that engenders economic equilibrium will have to come to fruition. Worldwide trends are already forecasting this necessity. Economic uncertainty leads to political instability where countries compete to control resources. The urgency for stability often leads to an era with rampant instability with competitive powers riled into provocation. With Russia trying to calibrate the measure of dominance it can use over both its European and Asian neighbors and China testing the usage of hard power to build regional hegemony, nineteenth century power politics is seemingly setting the tone for the architecture of U.S foreign policy.
Building new institutions for twenty first century problems is inevitable, whether we get there by peaceful ventures or by war will be credited with the grand strategy set out by America’s precarious and consequential president, President Trump. With the decline of global economic growth, a diminished Eurozone, and U.S willingness to impose protectionist policies there is a lingering stalemate toward conventional models of negotiation through multilateral treaties and organizations. A darkened tone is sharpening not only the mood of the current environment, but also the tools needed to survive it. The psychological impact on foreign policy can be a grave threat to the infrastructure of good policy.
Influencing Factors on Foreign Policy
In the era of President Trump, will we see an objectivist foreign policy? Will the architecture of his grand strategy be guided by his principle slogan, America First, upheld by maximalist notions of rational self-interest? Trump’s handling of international relations is resoundingly unconventional, where most will see brutish crassness in his present (anti-ideological) disposition, some will foresee a deliberative style that intentionally upends traditional processes of foreign relations in order to better understand (and break down) the boundary lines, triggers, and weaponized bluffing points of both allies and enemies.
At the moment it seems as though Trump does not have a foreign policy, this is likely due to the fact that he is gouging the breaking point of the entire world in order to build an unimpeachable upper hand in negotiating policy. Is this statecraft? Probably not. Is this dangerous? Of course. The subtle irony being, as we are beginning to see the reemergence of nineteenth and twentieth century great power politics with grave emphasis on competition over economic corridors, access routes, and renewable energy resources, Trump looks as if he is retreating from traditional geopolitics by not looking at the world as it is shaped by geography, but by crafting foreign policy based on which leader can break to his will.
Traditionally, foreign policy has been determined by diplomatic procedures. The diplomatic measures of a nation state are formulated by how it defines what it wants in terms of power. At any given moment power can shift, which means it is of utmost vital importance to have leverage over competing powers, whether they be states or international institutions. Being a centralizing force in balance of power disputes is a good indication of a nation’s ability to project power on the world stage. It helps foster communicative power in terms of both reality and of that perceived. Diplomacy is the inter-communication between states which factors in the prevailing circumstances that encases the objectivity of state actors. The communication should not be dominated by the opinions of one state and each actor should work together for a solution to any pending misconceptions proceeding from a partner state’s rhetoric and/or action.
Another factor in formulating foreign policy is being able to calculate the objectives of other states in terms of the power they have available. The power each state has is relative to its ability to produce threats, whether through soft or hard power, and the extent to which competing states are able to assess the risks of confrontation. The United States must set up the right tools to deal with distinct threats to its international standing. How it counters threats posed by China should be different than the methods used to counter Russia.
China is a regional power whose economic growth poses real challenges to U.S led institutions. China traditionally likes to underplay its cards but has increasingly been displaying military power in international waters it seeks to control. As we enter a pivotal stage in U.S-China relations, how the U.S defines its principle approach toward both countering and courting China will have grave affects on its strategic leverage for the rest of the century.
Russia is a different case as it is an economically declining power. It is seeking to make up for this by trying to assert regional dominance in the Baltics and Eastern Europe while attempting to reconstruct its old sphere of influence over the Eurasian landscape. Russia will need to make deals in accordance to its economic needs, the most important being the export of its oil and gas. Although its projection of power in the Syrian Civil War and throughout the wider Middle East is disconcerting, it is mainly a short-term objective. Russia will pick fights where it think it can win and will continue to test how long it can maintain (and stretch) its influence in the Levant. The U.S will have to balance the worst tendencies of Russian power while building mechanisms for partnership in areas of collective interest, such as joint anti-ISIS operations. As Eastern Europe quickly becomes one of the new international buffer zones of competing interests between U.S led NATO powers and Russia, the U.S will have to construct clear rules of engagement and clarify the degree to which it will allow Russia to operate in strategic countries like Ukraine.
One of the most difficult tasks in setting out the diplomatic agenda of a nascent foreign policy is crafting the right balance between cooperation and competition. Commitments to common interests will be anchored by a state’s ability to weigh the benefits of self-interest with the levers of influence of competing powers.