The Failures of America’s Foreign Policy

For the first time in decades, America’s influence on the global stage is declining after poor foreign policy decisions, and we’re running out of time to stop it.


Cecil Stoughton, White House, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

President John F. Kennedy meets with members of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (EXCOMM) regarding the crisis in Cuba in October 1962, during an era regarded as a golden age of U.S. strength and international relationships.

As Americans, we’re constantly reminded of our country’s recent failures. In the news, bold print headlines describe the latest setbacks. Investment portfolios depreciate and the stock market falters due to an impending recession. Even at home, energy and fuel bills skyrocket, caused by oil sanctions and supply cuts. Our international allies suffer as well; Ukraine is fending off a Russian invasion, which some believe to be the current President Joseph R. Biden’s fault, Taiwan faces the threat of a war with China, and European countries have begun to lose faith in America’s ability to protect them, which has led them to compensate with a dangerous level of militarization. As the impacts of a weakened America are undeniably felt throughout the world, it is time to address the hard truth: America’s foreign policy is failing, and we’re running out of time to do something about it.

Twenty years ago, if you said America wouldn’t be the preeminent superpower for decades to come, nobody would believe you. Now, it seems as if America is merely a trailing competitor against China and Russia in a race for global dominance. A strengthening Russo-China alliance has alarmed Europe since their combined economic and militaristic power could rival NATO, and by extension, the U.S. To compound it, China and Russia have worked to establish relationships with anti-American states, such as Afghanistan, which has spread their spheres of influence into regions that could possibly pose a threat to U.S. international security.

Americans know this shift of power didn’t happen overnight, or even as the result of a single presidency. Since the start of the millennium, we have witnessed backward policies, international concessions, and an emphasis on external reliance chip away at America’s integrity. But only now are we starting to feel its impacts. 

I spoke with Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at a public policy think tank called the American Enterprise Institute, who agreed: U.S. foreign policy is not nearly as effective as it once was. “The United States has not implemented a coherent strategy for more than a quarter century,” he said. “Either the State Department has been entirely reactive rather than proactive, or there has been a strategy such as George W. Bush’s democracy agenda that went entirely unimplemented.” It’s true. Many agree that the U.S.’s involvement with the Dayton Accords in the 1990’s, which brought an end to a four year war in Bosnia, was the last great triumph of American foreign policy.

“During the Cold War, America was very, very involved in other countries in Europe and Asia. [America was] deeply involved in those countries and propping up their governments, putting a lot of money and investments into [them, especially] putting military resources to those countries for the sake of countering Russia,” explained a research associate for The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) who wished to remain unnamed. “When 9/11 happened, I think it was a big shock because America realized that we were not invincible and we were vulnerable, even in our homeland.”

Most Americans view the year 2000 as the pinnacle of American strength, and they also agree that everything went downhill after it. A survey conducted by the Morning Consult said Americans felt “a greater sense of security” in that year, which makes sense given that America had just emerged as the sole superpower of the world after the end of the Cold War nearly ten years before. The year after, the attacks of 9/11 wrenched America out of its brief period of uncontested strength, and into a new era of war and a heightened sense of American-centrism. Just as the attack on Pearl Harbor in the ’40s and the “Nuke Terror” of the ‘50s had launched America into a new phase, September 11th changed America, and it hasn’t been the same since.

“[The attacks] made us a little more defensive and a little bit less focused on going around the world involved with others,” CFR elaborated. “We are still very focused on international relations, but it made us more vulnerable and made the U.S. more concerned about possible threats.” 

A non-governmental entity from across the globe had managed to do more damage to the mainland U.S than two world wars and a nuclear standoff with Russia had. Naturally, people gravitated to more defensive and self-centered policies after 2001. From this re-emerged the “America First” ideology. The term was coined by Woodrow Wilson in his 1916 presidential campaign. Despite its emergence being roughly a century before, “America First” appealed to post-9/11 policy makers because, as Wilson intended, the policy emphasized non-interventionism, and many believed U.S. interference in the Middle East, like America’s association with Israel, a state frequently characterized as “anti Islamic”, caused the attacks

We still feel the impacts of nationalism and non-interventionism in our foreign policy today. Only a couple years ago, former President Donald J. Trump instated a foreign policy that focused heavily on “America First.” Throughout his term, he prioritized benefiting America, which meant reneging many alliances and partnerships, often leading to weakened international relations. 

I interviewed Anthony Arend, Professor of Government and Foreign Service and Chair of the Department of Government at Georgetown University, who elaborated on the impacts of a self-centered America. “This idea [of “America First”] – which is not new to U.S. history – produced disastrous effects. It empowered Putin to engage in the invasion of Ukraine and likely emboldened authoritarians in a variety of countries. Moreover, it raised doubts among our allies that we were reliable alliance partners.”

It has been a recent presidential trend to drastically change foreign policy every time a new president takes office. Mr. Trump’s presidential term is known for rolling back many of former President Barack Obama’s deals, like the Paris Climate Agreement and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which he said forced the U.S. to make concessions. Now, President Biden has tried to reverse some of Mr. Trump’s changes by re-entering the Paris Agreement and reopening diplomatic ties that were severed. Despite this, significant damage has already been done as this “hot and cold” dynamic within U.S. foreign policy has caused international weariness. More than anything, these past two presidencies signify a larger theme of how America’s weakened and internal structure has in turn negatively impacted our international relations.

While it’s uncertain when political polarization started in the U.S., we know that former President Trump’s run for office in 2016 ignited an unprecedented amount of political division. This estrangement spanned beyond voters. The Supreme Court now has a 6-3 republican majority after former President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil M. Gorsuch. We also see other governmental bodies, like congress, find it increasingly more difficult to agree on and pass legislation due to polarization, which has stalled overall advancement. 

“Because the country is so divided and because the Republican and Democratic Parties are so polarized…, it’s getting harder to pass international relations bills or agreements that need support from both political parties,” continued CFR. Interestingly, when it comes to foreign policy, the right tends toward nationalism (and increasingly “America first”) while the left tends toward interventionism, despite both parties ultimately working towards the same goal. “I think the concept [of “America First”] betrays itself,” CFR added. “What I mean by that is that the idea of “America First” is, instead of putting so much money and military resources all around the world…let’s focus on our own citizens. I think the problem is, because we are the greatest power in the world. If the U.S. truly enacted an “America First” policy, that would allow countries like Russia and China to take a more aggressive approach on the global stage because we wouldn’t be there to stop them.” 

While both sides of the political spectrum believe that their foreign policies are more effective than the other’s, in fact, neither is singularly better. This is because the U.S. government, especially when dealing with international relations, relies heavily on internal collaboration, not only on  parties, but on  strategies, ideas, and other aspects. We have seen how a divided government crumbles when faced with true, global adversity — COVID-19. Our COVID-19 pandemic response was a catastrophic failure simply because the government couldn’t agree how to address the threat

Mr. Rubin emphasized the importance of cooperation as well, stating, “Diplomacy never works alone. Strategists talk about the DIME model: every strategy should have diplomatic, informational, military, and economic components. Often, Americans sequence the strategies but in reality the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. Consider Iran, for example. Trying diplomacy is all well and good, but does sanctions relief prior to agreements reduce leverage in a way that makes a good agreement more difficult?”

Though the most imminent threat to U.S. foreign policy is internal division, the impending threat, and one that the U.S. will have to struggle to overcome, is China. In recent years, China has become the world’s largest economy, overtaking the U.S. by about 20 percent. With its population already more than four times that of the U.S.’s, and only technological sophistication and militaristic assets being the differentiating factor between it and the U.S., many say it is only a matter of time before China overtakes the U.S. as the world’s new superpower. Certainly, on our current trajectory, the U.S. is falling behind. 

It’s hard to predict what a world where China is the sole superpower will look like, but it’s clear that if it happens, the U.S. will lose much of its global influence that lingered from its “golden days” of diplomacy. We are already starting to see China expand its presence beyond Asia and into distant countries, particularly in African countries. We can expect to see more instances like the negotiation of the Iran Nuclear Deal, where the U.S. was forced to make concessions to reach agreement, and even still, the deal only made both sides uneasy. Recently, the U.S. and Iran have discussed reopening negotiations, but this time, with China’s increased involvement

What this signifies, if anything, is that now more than ever, America must return to its roots of collaborating with foreign nations. Regardless of which country is more powerful, America’s international involvement has, and will continue to be, a crucial aspect in maintaining global peace. Our foreign policy for the next few decades must emphasize collaboration, both foreign and domestic. 

The U.S. must work with itself. Now, America lacks a united front when it comes to foreign policy, which has only come back to hurt us. “Not everything should be the subject for slash-and-burn political warfare,” agreed Mr. Rubin. “Politicians should work behind-the-scenes across the aisle for the good of the United States. It’s crucial to form a consensus on strategy outside the media spotlight… [Additionally,] the Senate should take its oversight role more seriously, as it did in the Carter and Reagan-eras when top leaders worked across the aisle and refused to allow the State Department autonomy to pursue its worst instincts without consequence.”

In this time of change and uncertainty, the U.S. has looked to the past for answers, re-purposing ideas like “America First” and nationalism. This solution has brought nothing but deteriorating international relations and a declining presence on the global stage. If America wants to remain relevant for the coming decades, we must adapt, not only to the idea that we may no longer be the preeminent superpower, but to change internally as well. Only then will our foreign policy succeed in protecting America’s integrity, just as it has for centuries.

“Not everything should be the subject for slash-and-burn political warfare … Politicians should work behind-the-scenes across the aisle for the good of the United States. It’s crucial to form a consensus on strategy outside the media spotlight… [Additionally,] The Senate should take its oversight role more seriously, as it did in the Carter and Reagan-eras when top leaders worked across the aisle and refused to allow the State Department autonomy to pursue its worst instincts without consequence,” said Michael Rubin, a senior fellow at a public policy think tank called the American Enterprise Institute.