Ideological and Political Drivers Behind the U.S. Foreign Policy

There are only elites, but no parties. This is what got us where we are now, a well-entrenched Washington elite that depends on the military-industrial-intelligence complex for money and power.

It’s important for Chinese scholars and decision-makers to understand what drives decisions in Washington and also what drives the American people’s views of the world. Understanding this can help us make better predictions.

American foreign policy is partly driven by the belief that American leadership is “indispensable” to world stability—in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Immediately after World War II, there were a few years in which it was possible that the U.S. would strongly reduce its military presence all around the world, before the creation of NATO and the Cold War. The hope that the U.S. might be able to return to its traditional isolationism, however, was ended by the Berlin Airlift (On June 26, 1948, Western allies started a massive airlift to West Germany and counter the Berlin blockade imposed by then Soviet Union) and the start of the Korean War in June 1950. These events led directly to U.S. policy of “containment” of the Soviet Union.

American elite strategic thinkers primarily thought that American withdrawal back to North America would cause the kind of instability in Europe that led to the two world wars—This was the first time in American history that there was a substantial permanent military. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell address in 1961, warned the American people about the dangers of a permanent military-industrial complex. But his warning was unheeded.

Photo taken on Feb. 19, 2020 shows the Pentagon seen from an airplane over Washington D.C., the United States. (Photo/Xinhua)

Note that President Donald Trump also made similar statements: “I’m not saying the military is in love with me. The soldiers are. The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs, that make the planes and everything else, stay happy.”

To convince the American public to support this policy, politicians believe it was necessary to describe the adversary as “evil” through demonization and propaganda.

The other thing is that you can’t predict foreign policy by political party in the U.S. If you went back to the 1970s or 1980s, the parties were bifurcated into Democratic, the doves, and Republican, the hawks. Now there are hawks and doves in both parties.

Let’s go through some history. Ronald Reagan strongly built up the American military because he saw a threat, which he sometimes labeled the Soviet Union and sometimes communism.

The George H.W. Bush administration was dominated by “realists,” who did a great job of managing the end of the Cold War. They showed a lot of respect for Russia and sought not to gloat.

However, the end of the Cold War and, especially, the very quick victory in the first Gulf War on February 1991, led to a strong American governmental arrogance. The Bill Clinton administration essentially believed they could do whatever they wanted in Europe, ignoring the promises made by its former administration.

People attend a protest against the killing of high-profile Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in San Francisco, the United States, Jan. 4, 2020. (Photo/Xinhua)

This arrogance also led to disastrous interventions in the Middle East. There was some hope that the Barack Obama administration would be less aggressive, but it proved to be a continuation of its predecessor’s policies.

After the September 11 attack in 2001, the hands of the military-industrial-intelligence complex were strengthened. The so-called USA Patriot Act, which requires Internet companies to provide users’ information on a regular basis, strongly reduced constitutional protections for Americans.

There are only elites, but no parties. Domestic changes also strengthened the power of elite groups: The Clinton administration gave Wall Street everything it wanted; the George W. Bush administration gave the military-industrial-intelligence complex everything it wanted; the Obama administration gave the Silicon Valley monopolists everything they wanted. This is what got us where we are now, a well-entrenched Washington elite that depends on the military-industrial-intelligence complex for money and power.

The incompetence of the current administration does create dangers. The U.S. used to have national security advisors like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, and Secretaries of State like George Shultz. You might not have agreed with them, but there was no doubt about their deep thinking and competence. The same can’t be said about the current holders of senior national security positions. This poses a danger to the world.


These are an edited excerpts from Blair’s speech on Cooperation & Responsibilities: China-U.S. Relations and Global Governance webinar hosted by Beijing Review on November 22.

The author is vice president and senior economist at the Center for China and Globalization.