Foreign policy is the interplay between states and their leaders within the bounds of an international system. Over time both the actors and stage have changed. States have taken different forms and have risen and fallen from power, mechanisms for global trade and conflict have evolved, and systems of international relations have oscillated between uni- and multipolarity. Foreign policy is not conducted in a vacuum. Domestic issues and politics, the agency of other nations, and the context of global systems inform and affect the practice of foreign policy. Throughout its evolution, foreign policy has been critical to managing areas of mutual interest and mitigating conflict between states.
Presently, new pressures are being exerted on the international system and the world seems poised for another systemic change. As new international and global problems arise, states are challenged to address them. For centuries states have sought to cooperate on areas of mutual interest and issues that are beyond their individual capacity to tackle. Such cooperation has taken many forms in history, shaped by both international dynamics and the political environments of individual states.
Evolutions — Cooperation in War and Congress
Each state's foreign policy goals necessarily differs from others, reflecting the distinct interests of states as they define them, and the preferences of each state as shaped by its historical experience, political culture, and the expectations and values of its populace. At the same time, each state's foreign policies are forged within the context of the prevailing international order. States seek to achieve their objectives within these bounds. In this, there may be a duality or tension with a state’s foreign policy. On one hand, heads of state pursue foreign policies that promote their countries’ interests. On the other, they may seek to ensure their national values are preserved or even promoted on the world stage.
In the sixteenth century, multipolar tributary systems dominated international affairs, characterized in Europe by the Holy Roman Empire and in Asia, by China's Ming Dynasty. Within these systems trade functioned as a key instrument of foreign policy — allowing states to directly pursue and promote their interests and preferences, including their values, vis-à-vis one another.
Another important currency of foreign policy at that time was blood. Marriage ties could enable leaders to achieve their objectives, but warfare was another means to do so. Religious clashes sparked the Thirty Years War that engulfed central Europe but it soon became a political struggle among the leading powers. The Peace of Westphalia, concluded in 1648, ended dreams of a religious empire and left the principle of national sovereignty as the foundation for international relations. Raison d’état or national interests drove foreign policy, transforming it into a competition among states, often compared to chess. In the absence of frameworks for cooperation, states pursued their own interests in a constant state of insecurity, which frequently erupted into conflict.
The Napoleonic Wars were the culmination of this era of endemic warfare. Protracted conflict set the stage for the Concert of Europe, an agreement among the major powers of Europe to work towards common goals. Indeed the primary purposes of the Concert were to settle disputes, curb nationalism, and maintain a balance of power by capitalizing on areas of mutual interest. The “congress system” of collaborative foreign policy established by the Concert of Europe endured throughout the nineteenth century. The Congress of Paris, which ended the Crimean War, and the Congress of Berlin, both sought to curb disruptive forces of nationalism in the interest of international stability. Together, these congresses oversaw a period of relative peace and stability that persevered until World War I.
Practice in the 20th Century
Following the horrors of the First World War, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, promoted the view that meaningful international peace could only be reached through institutionalizing principles of self-determination and collective security. To install this idealistic vision he proposed a League of Nations — though he provided few guidelines for how it should act — intending for his idealistic principles to be enough. Raison d’état and realpolitik would have no place in this new era; nations would act out of principle — not their self interest — and areas of potential conflict would be resolved in an institutional setting.
No matter the tenacity with which Wilson sought to realize his vision, the rapid changes of the post-war period proved overwhelming. Many nations hoped to be free of the realpolitik that had led to embroilment in WWI and cost many lives; however, the practical aspect of enforcing collective security for purely idealistic reasons remained elusive. Though willing to collaborate, diplomats debated not the details of taking action, but whether a situation was grave enough to warrant any action at all. Member nations became increasingly reluctant to act, as the League itself had no real teeth to bare. By the 1930's, members, including future Axis partners Germany and Japan, had begun abandoning the League. The onset of World War II saw the failure of the League to prevent war, one of its primary functions, and it faded into history.
In the wake of World War II the United States, with support of the Soviet Union, moved to create the United Nations. The U.N., like the League of Nations, sought to prevent future wars by providing a forum where nations could resolve their conflicts. Yet, only on a few occasions has the U.N. attempted major actions to prevent or resolve conflict, most notably in the Korean War. As a forum for collaboration between states the U.N. remains without peer — still, detractors cite broad inefficiencies and lack of enforcement power.
Despite their initial cooperation after World War II, ideological and strategic differences between United States and Soviet Union would help perpetuate the Cold War for decades. The advent of the nuclear age hindered the ability to wage war outright, ushering in a new kind of foreign policy. Each nation utilized its largess, economic and otherwise, to create spheres of influence across the globe — camps of states sharing ideological values and economic ground against a common foe. Policies of containment and expansion became practice in this time. Foreign policy sought to further the aims and interests of each nation, as it always had, blending values-based goals and realpolitik. Now, the practice had evolved from direct confrontation between major powers, either on the battlefield or a Parisian palace, to contests in and for proxy nations. These conflicts were not only ideological in nature but manifested themselves in bloody conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Angola and Afghanistan.
Throughout the Cold War tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union rose and fell. Subterfuge and thinly veiled shadow games became commonplace. By the 1980's it was evident that Soviet policies, domestic and foreign, were failing. The Cold War ended not in a bloodbath as previous power struggles had, but in the absence of a major conflagration.
Challenges to Cooperation
With the conclusion of the Cold War, the U.S. became the dominant power. In the so-called “unipolar moment,” American leadership seemed poised to lead the world’s nations into a new era. Unipolarity enabled universality of liberal ideas; it was to be the end of history — and the end of conflict. However, conflicts between the pursuit of Wilsonian-style ideals and the exigencies of realpolitik reemerged. As nations in the former Soviet Union, Asia, South America, and Africa rapidly developed and joined the global community, their voices gained weight as well. These nations, now free of being relegated to either the Western or Soviet camps, developed the agency to act in their own immediate and values-based interests, together as well as independently. In manifesting distinct foreign policies they have been able to identify and evaluate their own common interests with other states. Diplomats and leaders of these rising states were able to advocate for the interests and values of their own populace who have unique needs and demands.
In the contemporary era foreign policy practitioners face a plethora of challenges. The value and effectiveness of institutions designed for the conduct of foreign policy in the last century — like the United Nations and the European Union — are being seriously questioned as capable of functioning in this one. Longstanding debates over sovereignty and collective responsibilities have become heated amid rising challenges from climate change to proliferating weapons to migration. How practitioners and the system respond to these challenges is a vital question for the future. Will pressures on our foreign policy practices and mechanisms overwhelm a system already in flux? Or will the international system bear the burden of these stresses and allow for continued cooperation?
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Matt Sindelar is a Research Associate at the Foreign Policy Institute. This piece was written in substantial collaboration with Research Associate Carlos Salazar, Research Assistant Ashley Patton, and Executive Director Carla P. Freeman.