A History of U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to post-9/11

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  • 0:02 U.S. Cold War Policy
  • 2:30 U.S. Policy Post-Cold War
  • 3:58 U.S. Policy Post-9/11
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States have caused fundamental changes to U.S. foreign policy. In this lesson, you'll be provided a brief overview of U.S. foreign policy during and after the Cold War.

U.S. Cold War Policy

The Smith family has a long family tradition of working for the United States Foreign Service, which is the diplomatic arm of the U.S. Department of State. In fact, three generations of the family have served in the Foreign Service. Arnold began his service shortly after the Vietnam War; his son, Benjamin, started his service in 1990; and Benjamin's daughter, Caroline, just started with the Foreign Service right out of college. Each generation lived in a different world of international relations, which has required different foreign policy objectives and strategies. Let's take a look by starting with Arnold.

Arnold worked as a Foreign Service officer primarily during the Cold War, which was a conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, or U.S.S.R., from 1940 to 1990. A cold war does not involve direct warfare between the two countries, but instead relies upon threats, propaganda and indirect conflict through support of client states, which are weaker states that rely upon a major power for support and aid.

The foreign policy that Arnold helped to pursue was pretty simple and unambiguous as he lived in a bipolar world that was carved up politically between two superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., with all other powers, great and small, aligning with one of the superpowers. The goal of U.S. Foreign Policy was simple:

  • Containment of the spread of communism, and thereby the influence of the U.S.S.R., by supporting governments or rebel groups that opposed communism. This was accomplished by supplying aid, weapons and sometimes troops, such as in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
  • Deterring nuclear war through the policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, often called MAD, where any nuclear attack would be met with a counterattack of a magnitude ensuring the complete destruction of everyone and everything. The idea was to make nuclear war so devastating that no one would dare push the button.
  • Support of free trade and international economic institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Bank.

U.S. Policy Post-Cold War

Benjamin entered the Foreign Service in 1990, which marks the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States was now the only superpower - the only country that had the power to unilaterally project its influence over the entire globe on its own.

While you may think foreign policy for Benjamin must have been much easier than it was for his dad, the opposite was often the case. During the Cold War, the U.S. faced a single, clearly identifiable threat to its security and welfare - the U.S.S.R and its allies, which made life simple. The U.S. knew who its friends and enemies were.

Post-Cold War policies have included the following elements:

  • Maintenance of U.S. global dominance, often referred to as U.S. global hegemony
  • Pursuit of free trade and development of international economic institutions, such as the World Trade Organization
  • Encouraging the spread of democracy and peace
  • Use of military troops and equipment to support humanitarian missions, such as providing aid and support to victims of natural disasters
  • Punishing and isolating rogue states, like North Korea and Iran, who are perceived to be violating international law and threaten international peace and stability

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