What Is Foreign Policy? Definition and Examples

United Nations House in New Dehli, India
United Nations House in New Dehli, India via Getty Images.

A state’s foreign policy consists of the strategies it uses to protect its international and domestic interests and determines the way it interacts with other state and non-state actors. The primary purpose of foreign policy is to defend a nation’s national interests, which can be in nonviolent or violent ways.

Key Takeaways: Foreign Policy

  • Foreign policy encompasses the tactics and process by which a nation interacts with other nations in order to further its own interests
  • Foreign policy may make use of diplomacy or other more direct means such as aggression rooted in military power
  • International bodies such as the United Nations and its predecessor, the League of Nations, help smooth relations between countries via diplomatic means
  • Major foreign policy theories are Realism, Liberalism, Economic Structuralism, Psychological Theory, and Constructivism

Examples of Foreign Policy

In 2013 China developed a foreign policy known as the Belt and Road Initiative, the nation’s strategy to develop stronger economic ties in Africa, Europe, and North America. In the United States, many presidents are known for their landmark foreign policy decisions such as the Monroe Doctrine which opposed the imperialist takeover of an independent state. A foreign policy can also be the decision to not participate in international organizations and conversations, such as the more isolationist policies of North Korea.

Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

When foreign policy relies on diplomacy, heads of state negotiate and collaborate with other world leaders to prevent conflict. Usually, diplomats are sent to represent a nation’s foreign policy interests at international events. While an emphasis on diplomacy is a cornerstone of many states' foreign policy, there are others that rely on military pressure or other less diplomatic means.

Diplomacy has played a crucial role in the de-escalation of international crises, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 is a prime example of this. During the Cold War, intelligence informed President John F. Kennedy that the Soviet Union was sending weapons to Cuba, possibly preparing for a strike against the United States. President Kennedy was forced to choose between a foreign policy solution that was purely diplomatic, speaking to the Soviet Union President Nikita Khrushchev or one that was more militaristic. The former president decided to enact a blockade around Cuba and threaten further military action if Soviet ships carrying missiles attempted to break through.

In order to prevent further escalation, Khrushchev agreed to remove all missiles from Cuba, and in return, Kennedy agreed not to invade Cuba and to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey (which was within striking distance of the Soviet Union). This moment in time is significant because the two governments negotiated a solution that ended the current conflict, the blockade, as well as de-escalated the larger tension, the missiles near each other’s borders.

The History of Foreign Policy and Diplomatic Organizations

Foreign policy has existed as long as people have organized themselves into varying factions. However, the study of foreign policy and the creation of international organizations to promote diplomacy is fairly recent.

One of the first established international bodies for discussing foreign policy was the Concert of Europe in 1814 after the Napoleonic wars. This gave the major European powers (Austria, France, Great Britain, Prussia, and Russia) a forum to solve issues diplomatically instead of resorting to military threats or wars.

In the 20th Century, World War I and II once again exposed the need for an international forum to de-escalate conflict and keep the peace. The League of Nations (which was formed by former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson but ultimately did not include the U.S.) was created in 1920 with the primary purpose of maintaining world peace. After the League of Nations dissolved, it was replaced by the United Nations in 1954 after World War II, an organization to promote international cooperation and now includes 193 countries as members.

It is important to note that many of these organizations are concentrated around Europe and the Western Hemisphere as a whole. Because of European countries’ history of imperialism and colonization, they often wielded the greatest international political and economic powers and subsequently created these global systems. However, there are continental diplomatic bodies such as the African Union, Asia Cooperation Dialogue, and Union of South American Countries which facilitate multilateral cooperation in their respective regions as well.

Foreign Policy Theories: Why States Act as They Do

The study of foreign policy reveals several theories as to why states act the way they do. The prevailing theories are Realism, Liberalism, Economic Structuralism, Psychological Theory, and Constructivism.

Realism

Realism states that interests are always determined in terms of power and states will always act according to their best interest. Classical Realism follows 16th-century political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli’s famous quote from his foreign policy book "The Prince":

“It is much safer to be feared than loved.”

It follows that the world is full of chaos because humans are egoistic and will do anything to have power. The structural reading of realism, however, focuses more on the state than the individual: All governments will react to pressures in the same way because they are more concerned about national security than power.

Liberalism

The theory of liberalism emphasizes liberty and equality in all aspects and believes that the rights of the individual are superior to the needs of the state. It also follows that the chaos of the world can be pacified with international cooperation and global citizenship. Economically, liberalism values free trade above all and believes the state should rarely intervene in economic issues, as this is where problems arise. The market has a long-term trajectory towards stability, and nothing should interfere with that.

Economic Structuralism

Economic structuralism, or Marxism, was pioneered by Karl Marx, who believed that capitalism was immoral because it is the immoral exploitation of the many by the few. However, theorist Vladimir Lenin brought the analysis to an international level by explaining that imperialist capitalist nations succeed by dumping their excess products in economically weaker nations, which drives down the prices and further weakens the economy in those areas. Essentially, issues arise in international relations because of this concentration of capital, and change can only occur through the action of the proletariat.

Psychological Theories

Psychological theories explain international politics on a more individual level and seek to understand how an individual’s psychology can affect their foreign policy decisions. This follows that diplomacy is deeply affected by the individual ability to judge, which is often colored by how solutions are presented, the time available for the decision, and level of risk. This explains why political decision making is often inconsistent or may not follow a specific ideology.

Constructivism

Constructivism believes that ideas influence identities and drive interests. The current structures only exist because years of social practice have made it so. If a situation needs to be resolved or a system must be changed, social and ideological movements have the power to bring about reforms. A core example of constructivism is human rights, which are observed by some nations, but not others. Over the past few centuries, as social ideas and norms around human rights, gender, age, and racial equality have evolved, laws have changed to reflect these new societal norms.

Sources

  • Elrod, Richard B. “The Concert of Europe: A Fresh Look at an International System.” World Politics, vol. 28, no. 2, 1976, pp. 159–174. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2009888.
  • “The Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, history.state.gov/milestones/1961-1968/cuban-missile-crisis.
  • Viotti, Paul R., and Mark V. Kauppi. International Relations Theory. 5th ed., Pearson, 2011.