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Approaches to Foreign Policy Summary


Classic theories of foreign policy divide into the isolationist camp and the internationalist camp. The use of hard versus soft power comes into play in the internationalist route. Neoconservatism, a more recent school of thought in foreign policy, takes the view that the United States should go it alone as a single superpower, retreating from foreign involvement with the exception of trade and economic policy.

In the end, the complexity of international relationships, combined with a multifaceted decision-making process and a multiplicity of actors, leads to a U.S. foreign policy approach that uses a bit of all the schools of thought. The United States is being neoconservative when drone strikes are carried out unilaterally within the boundaries of another sovereign nation. It is being internationalist when building a coalition on the Iran nuclear deal or when participating in NATO initiatives.

Practice Questions

  1. What are the pros and cons of the neoconservative foreign policy approach followed in recent decades?
  2. In your view, what are the best ways to get the community of nations working together?
  3. What are the three most important foreign policy issues facing the United States today? Why?
  4. Which is more important as an influencer of foreign policy, the president or a cabinet department like the Department of State or Defense? Why?
  5. What do you think is the most advantageous school of thought for the United States to follow in foreign policy in the future? Why?
  6. If you were president and wanted to gather support for a new foreign policy initiative, which three U.S. foreign policy actors would you approach and why?

Sample Answer:

1. The pros are that the United States is less bogged down in international process and can move more quickly to squelch conflict. The cons are that the United States, in acting alone, might offend other countries that would prefer everyone act together, and that the country might decide to go directly to military-based solutions rather than using diplomacy.


containment: the effort by the United States and Western European allies, begun during the Cold War, to prevent the spread of communism

isolationism: a foreign policy approach that advocates a nation’s staying out of foreign entanglements and keeping to itself

liberal internationalism: a foreign policy approach of becoming proactively engaged in world affairs by cooperating in a community of nations

neoconservatism: the belief that, rather than exercising restraint, the United States should aggressively use its might to promote its values and ideals around the world

neo-isolationism: a policy of distancing the United States from the United Nations and other international organizations, while still participating in the world economy

selective engagement: a policy of retaining a strong military presence and remaining engaged across the world

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