U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Relations under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations

Term Paper, 2011

24 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. What is American Foreign Policy about?

3. The George W. Bush Administration
September 11 and the War on Terror
The Bush Doctrine
International and Transatlantic Relations
The Second Bush Term

4. The Barack Obama Administration
Post-Bush Foreign Policy
The ‘Global War on Terror’ Continues
Continuity and Change 2009-2011
Transatlantic Relations

5. Conclusion
The Future of American Foreign Policy

List of Literature

1. Introduction

10 years ago, almost to the day, terrorists hijacked 4 four planes, flying two of them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and one into the Pentagon. The fourth airliner came down in rural Pennsylvania, when travelers tried to regain control of the cockpit. Almost 3000 people lost their lives in the attacks on September 11, 2001, when the Islamist group al-Qaeda put an early end to what seemed like the beginning of an era of unprecedented peace and security for the United States of America (cf. Hook 2011: 60).

After the breakup of the Soviet Empire and the end of the Cold War, the USA has emerged as the world’s lone superpower, with no rival state possessing sufficient military, economic or technological strength to impose a serious threat on them. American foreign policy, whose focal point had been the containment of Soviet power for over 40 years, became less important and the public interest focused on domestic issues. In 1998, a prominent survey inquired about what the American population held to be as “the two or three biggest problems facing their country today”. Back then, “terrorism” was not even mentioned on the list, while “Crime” and “Drug abuse” composed almost half of all responses. When the same survey was conducted four years later, the two items made up only 15 percentage points of all the given answers, whereas “terrorism” alone made up 36% (cf. The Chicago Council on Foreign Relations 2002: 8; also: Hook 2011: 225 f.).

Ten years later, it is safe to say that this was not a short term trend in the aftermath of 9/11, as foreign policy remains at the top of the public agenda and continues to be one of the most crucial parts of American politics. However, it is important to note that the U.S. foreign policy does not only affect Americans, making it not only an interesting, but also an important and complex object of study. The USA remain the world’s only superpower with an unchallenged global influence and the way they choose to resolve international problems and crises “has an impact on the societies and lives of people throughout the world – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse” (Rosati / Scott 2011: p.4).

In general, George W. Bush’s approach to foreign affairs is regarded as very negative. He led America into two unsuccessful wars that caused great casualties and expenditures and his foreign policy has allegedly been generally poor. Moreover, the transatlantic relations reached an all-time low during his presidency. Obama, on the other hand, is believed to have initiated a positive change, with improving relations to allies in Europe and a less radical approach to foreign affairs. Three years after the election of Barack Obama, this paper aims at contrasting the administrations of both presidents in regard to their foreign policy making on the one hand, and the consequent transatlantic relations during both presidencies on the other hand. Is the simple view of Bush as the bad guy and Obama as the white knight actually true? What are the specific characteristics of Bush’s and Obama’s approach to foreign policy problems? What are the differences and similarities? In what way have both presidents shaped the relations to international organisations as well as their allies in Europe?

In addition to that, this paper will look beyond the 2012 presidential election, pre-estimating future developments in U.S. foreign policy making with either another term of office for Barack Obama or a new Republican president. First of all though, an overview on the general principles and contentions of foreign policy in the United States is necessary in order to fully grasp the topic and understand why political actors might or might not take certain measures.

2. What is American Foreign Policy about?

The term foreign policy refers to a country’s involvement abroad and its interactions with other states and inter- or supranational organisations. It is determined by the objectives and strategies governmental policymakers select and its chief instrument is diplomacy. As it now stands, foreign policy also extends to a nation’s interactions with non-state actors abroad, such as enterprises, foundations or non-governmental organizations (cf. Rosati / Scott 2004: 4; also: Schmidt 2004: 60 f.).

American foreign policy today has been shaped by many factors, such as economic wealth, military might or political culture. Throughout its history, the USA may have experienced different approaches to foreign affairs, but they can all be brought down to a common denominator: the maintenance of American power and supremacy. Down to the present day, debates on the best policy preference continue. At large, these focus on two intertwined questions:

“(1) […] Should U.S. foreign policy focus narrowly on the promotion of U.S. interests as defined by economic and security needs? Or should the U.S. also seek to spread American values, such as democracy and individual liberty, to other societies? (2) […] Should the U.S. preserve the freedom to act alone in the promotion of its interests and values? Or should it work principally through multilateral institutions […]?” (Skidmore 2007: 3)

They do not necessarily amount to either/or answers, but should rather be viewed as two dimensions in a co-ordinate system, where each opinion can be located in entirely different places along the continuums. For instance, some people might concur that the USA should only act in its own interests, but still disagree about whether this can best be done unilaterally or multilaterally.

Along those two dimensions, there are three distinguishable schools of thought on foreign policy: Realists, democratic nationalists and liberal institutionalists. The first two of them both prefer unilateralism, whilst disagreeing about whether to emphasize American interests or values. Realists, on the one hand, are of the opinion that the United States’ should mainly focus on securing own interests, whereas democratic nationalists stress the importance of the spread of American democratic-libertarian values in order to sustain global stability. Liberal institutionalists also believe in the benefits of U.S. ‘soft power’, while strongly objecting unilateralism (cf. Skidmore 2007: 3 ff.; also: Hacke 2001: 57 ff.).

As noted earlier, U.S. foreign policy has been of growing importance in the aftermath of 9/11. Adapting to new threats and challenges as well as the increasing influence of non-state actors, foreign policy making in the 21st century has been subject to many changes, especially with regard to the United States’ degree of engagement or detachment of the rest of the world and of inter- und supranational organizations. The actions American governmental foreign policymakers have taken since 9/11 were sometimes even described as revolutionary and greatly influenced the transatlantic relations. Moreover, we must not forget that the post-9/11 period has also brought with it further terrorist attacks in London and Madrid. Both the U.S. foreign policy and its relations to Europe are therefore interesting and insightful objects of study. (cf. Parmar / Miller / Ledwidge 2009: 11 f.)

3. The George W. Bush Administration

The 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George W. Bush was dominated by domestic policy problems, such as education, the economy and health care. Foreign affairs and national defense, in contrast, were of little concern to the voters and had therefore seldom been addressed in the campaigns. Referring to the two dimensions of the debate on foreign policy in America, however, it was clear that Bush, unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton and vice president Al Gore generally favored a unilateral approach with a focus on American needs. In addition to that, George W. Bush entered the White House with sparse knowledge about foreign policy issues, relying heavily upon his advisers, many of whom had already served his father and held relatively radical views on the means by which the U.S. should secure its own interests:

“The administration held a ‘hegemonist’ view of American foreign policy […]. Numerous members […] tended to view power, especially military power, as the essential ingredient for American security, while also rejecting traditional emphases on deterrence, containment, multilateralism, and international rules and agreements.” (Rosati / Scott 2011: 35)

September 11 and the War on Terror

The U.S. citizens’ belief that their nation was sufficiently secure and their lack of interest in foreign affairs came to an abrupt ending on September 11, 2001. Understandably enough, the fear of terrorism rose to the top of the public agenda, calling for a new foreign policy orientation. From that point on, the administration hence emphasized foreign policy and - unsurprisingly, considering its mindset - chose an aggressive strategy with a focus on national interests and security. The ensuing and ongoing ‘global war on terror’ certainly is the key feature not only of Bush’s foreign policy, but of his whole presidency.

As a result of crises like the attacks on September 11, the American people usually develop a strong sense of patriotism in order to sustain national order and security. It is during such difficult times with looming military conflicts abroad that the presidential approval reaches peaks. Immediately upon 9/11, George W. Bush obtained an approval of 90 %, amounting to an enormous rise of over 35 % compared to August 2011. Due to this indisputable public opinion and the sense of unity, the members of the American Congress normally steer clear of challenging governmental responses, as radical as they may be, to the relevant threats. This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘rally round the flag effect’ (cf. Rosati / Scott 2011: 35 f.; also: Hook 2011: 227)


Excerpt out of 24 pages


U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century
Foreign Policy and Transatlantic Relations under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations
University of Potsdam  (Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftliche Fakultät)
Introduction to American Poltics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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555 KB
Obama, Barack Obama, Bush, George Bush, George W. Bush, American Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, Drone Strikes, Außenpolitik, USA
Quote paper
Tobi Remsch (Author), 2011, U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/209058


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