Examining U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century


SEATTLE, Washington — The United States has had three presidents in the 21st century, all of whom have had different approaches to U.S. foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy during this period can most easily be examined through themes under each of the three presidents: President Bush, President Obama and President Trump.

George W. Bush – The War on Terror

The legacy of President Bush’s foreign policy is perhaps most notable for what has been dubbed the “war on terror.” Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Bush focused U.S. foreign policy on national security. He went “from being a President with questionable legitimacy who had been selected in a controversial election, to taking on immense presidential emergency powers, defining the threat and attacking the enemy.” In this period of intense uncertainty and fear, Bush provided clear guidance for action that the U.S. would take in response to the attacks.

President Bush’s foreign policy placed emphasis on protecting the United States from attacks and threats of terror from abroad. This protection became the involvement of U.S. troops abroad in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. U.S. foreign policy at this time could be classified as reactive since President Bush attempted to secure the position of the United States abroad.

During this time, U.S. Congress felt that it had not been adequately consulted regarding President Bush’s decisions to involve U.S. troops abroad. The power to declare war lies only with Congress. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came to dominate the legacy of Bush’s foreign policy and would continue to issues that needed to be reconciled under the leadership of President Obama.

Barack Obama – A Return to U.S. Soil

President Obama inherited a precarious system of foreign policy when he began his presidency in 2008. U.S. troops were still in Afghanistan and Iraq. Safely removing U.S. troops while also maintaining stability in the two countries presented a daunting task. Still dedicated to the efforts of President Bush to eradicate terrorist groups threatening the well-being of the U.S., President Obama sent additional troops into Afghanistan in 2009. Obama intended to fully remove troops from Afghanistan in 2012 after fully removing al Qaeda’s presence from the country. President Obama was successful in completely removing troops from Iraq in 2011.

The full removal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan proved to be difficult. Matters did not improve with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Instead, the world saw the birth of ISIS in 2014, a terrorist group that swiftly took advantage of the civil war-weakened state of Syria to establish itself within the country. Though Obama was able to fully remove troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the situation in Syria continued to mount in severity. Determined to avoid a new war in Syria, President Obama instead sanctioned airstrikes on Syria in an effort to destroy ISIS in 2014. This effort was in response to a video of two American journalists being beheaded by the terrorist organization.

Like President Bush, President Obama also found the situation in the Middle East to be difficult to manage and control. While President Bush’s approach to U.S. involvement abroad could be classified as reactive, President Obama’s approach is doggedly pragmatic. Obama appeared to be reluctant to further involve the U.S. in wars abroad following the lengthy wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The presidencies and respective foreign policies of George Bush and Barack Obama have clear ties to one another. They are on a continuum. President Trump, however, has taken an entirely different approach to foreign policy during his own presidency.

Donald Trump – Carrying a Big Stick

Theodore Roosevelt once described his own U.S. foreign policy as “tread[ing]lightly, and carry[ing]a big stick.” President Donald Trump’s own approach to foreign policy is similar in some respects though with less of an emphasis on treading lightly. President Trump’s approach to foreign policy has proven to be unpredictable for Republicans and Democrats alike. Despite the careful planning of his predecessors to create stability and strength for the U.S. on the global sphere, Trump appears to want to prove to the world that the U.S. is a force to be reckoned with.

Interestingly, Trump has shown himself to be” distrustful of U.S. allies” and preexisting international organizations. He instead has preferred to conduct U.S. foreign relations on his own terms. In the spring of 2019 in a historic moment, President Trump met with Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea, to discuss to future of the two countries. Though it is unknown what exact words were exchanged between the two leaders, President Trump appeared to be satisfied with the conversation that he and Kim Jong-un had. It is unclear at this point what President Trump’s foreign policy legacy will be. It appears that time will have to tell.

Looking onwards to the 2020 election cycle, U.S foreign policy and the role the U.S. will play abroad is a hot topic. So far, many candidates are advocating for improved relations with allies and international institutions.

Anne Pietrow
Photo: Flickr


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