The Importance of US Foreign Policy

Why You Should Care

At its best, the United States can bring hope and light to the neediest people in the world. Over the years, Americans have performed this work all over the world. At its worst, this country can bring pain and unleash the fury of those who conclude that it is part of the same tyranny that has suppressed them. Too often, people in other countries hear about American values and then see American actions that seemingly contradict those values. People who should be America's natural allies turn away with disillusionment and disappointment. Yet American leadership, when marked by pulling together those who share a common interest in the common good, can be a vital force in the world.

There are, however, those who believe building an unchallenged American global supremacy represents the only acceptable form of security. History demonstrates that this path leads to bankruptcy and inevitable retribution. It is why it is every citizen's duty to take an interest in the U.S. government’s foreign policy and determine whether it is serving their needs. 

Studying Policy to Uncover the Middle Path

There is a middle path. It is not mysterious, and it does not require deep research by think tanks and gurus. In fact, most Americans already grasp it. In fact, many mistakenly believe this middle path is already the foreign policy of the United States. This explains why they are shaken (or in denial) when they see overt evidence of an America abroad they do not recognize.

Most Americans believe in American values: democracy, justice, fair play, hard work, a helping hand when needed, privacy, creating opportunities for personal success, respect for others unless they prove they don't deserve it, and cooperation with others who are working toward the same goals.

These values work in our homes and neighborhoods. They work in our communities and in our national lives. They also work in the wider world.

The middle path for foreign policy involves working with our allies, rewarding those who share our values, and joining arms against tyranny and hatred.

It is slow, hard work. It has much more in common with the tortoise than the hare. Teddy Roosevelt said we need to walk softly and carry a big stick. He understood that walking softly was a sign of both caring and confidence. Having the big stick meant we had a great deal of time to work out a problem. Resorting to the stick meant that other means had failed. Resorting to the stick does not require shame, but it does call for sober and serious reflection. Resorting to the stick was (and is) nothing to be proud of.

Taking the middle path means holding ourselves to high standards. Americans never quite grasped what happened with those pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The rest of the world never saw how sickened average Americans were by those images. The rest of the world expected to hear America say out loud what most Americans were thinking: What happened in that prison, whether it was two Americans or 20 or 200 who were responsible, was awful; it is not what this country stands for, and we are all ashamed to know that this was done in the name of America. Instead, all the world saw were American leaders trying to downplay the significance of the pictures and pass the buck. An opportunity to show the world what America really stands for slipped away.

Not About Control

Demanding American control over the world is out of step with our values. It creates more enemies, and it encourages those enemies to band together against us. It makes the United States the target for every grievance in the world. Likewise, withdrawing from the world leaves too many open options for those opposed to our values. We seek to be neither an 800-pound gorilla in the world nor to withdraw into our cocoon.

Neither of those paths will make us more secure. But the middle path for foreign policy—working with our allies, rewarding those who share our values, and joining arms against tyranny and hatred—holds the potential to spread prosperity around the world, a prosperity that will bounce back on us as well.

What Average Americans Can Do

As American citizens or voters, it is our job to hold American leaders to this middle path in the world. This will not be easy. Sometimes quick action to protect business interests will need to take a backseat to other values. Sometimes we will have to sever relationships with old allies that don't share our interests. When we don't live up to our own values, we will need to point it out fast before others even have the chance.

It will require that we stay informed. Americans have mostly built lives where we don't have to be bothered by events outside our own little worlds. But being good citizens, holding leaders accountable, and voting for the right people require a little bit of attention.

Not everyone has to subscribe to Foreign Affairs and start reading newspapers from around the world. But a small awareness of events overseas, beyond the disaster reports on television news, would help. Most importantly, when American leaders start talking about some foreign "enemy," our ears should perk up. We should listen to the charges, seek out other views, and weigh the proposed actions against what we know are the true American values.

Providing that information and weighing U.S. actions against U.S. interests in the world are the goals of this site.

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Your Citation
Porter, Keith. "The Importance of US Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2020, Porter, Keith. (2020, January 29). The Importance of US Foreign Policy. Retrieved from Porter, Keith. "The Importance of US Foreign Policy." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).