Which theory of international relations best reflects U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War?

The end of the Cold War marked the success of the US’s approach against its greatest enemy. But it was also the denouement of such a strategy. With the vacuum of polarity left by the USSR’s demise having been largely filled by the US, a new question over how to conduct its foreign policy now had to be answered. This seemed evident to liberals that the realism of the Cold War was now fully exhausted, their internationalism now taking the forefront in America’s foreign policy. But whilst there are traces of this occurring, it was hardly continuous and may now have expired itself, with realism itself slowly re-emerging to counteract the loss of the US’s relative share of world influence against the rising states.

It was greatly assumed that the triumph of the US against the threat of communism was a triumph for the liberal world order. As a result, the well-used policy of containment had “vanished in victory” (Haffa 2017, p. 27). At the time, a “peaceful world order would now unfold” that consisted of global political and economic institutions that promoted peace and equality, allowing “the ultimate Wilsonian vision” to “be fulfilled” (Kissinger 2015, p. 315). The statistics available are to a certain degree a reflection of such a vision becoming true. Since 1992, the number of interstate wars has decreased by more than 40%; the worst kind that consist of 1,000-plus battle deaths falling by 80% (Mingst and Karns 2009, p. 497). Such positive data is a portend for optimism that a free world order was indeed emerging, allowing the US to become the harbinger of such a system through liberal foreign policy. The Bush Sr. Administration displayed such aspirations, when his “coalition of the willing” through the UN against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was the first display of joint military action involving the great powers since the Korean War. International consensus and American enthusiasm had thus “seemed to vindicate the perennial American hope for a rules-based international order”, entrenching its liberal foreign policy (Kissinger 2015, p. 315).

But with hindsight and critical theory can this liberalism seem less fruitful, instead merely being a short-term representation of the 1990s ‘end of history’ zeitgeist. Wallerstein (2003, p. 45) notes that the decade was “deluged with a discourse about globalization” and is but a “gigantic misreading of current reality” that was manipulated by the American political establishment. Like Carr’s (2016, p. 63) belief that “morality is the product of power”, it can be alternatively viewed that America’s liberalism “conducted under the rubric of ‘human rights’ and the ‘right to intervene’” was but a raison d’etre to fulfil ulterior motives (Wallerstein 2003, p. 159). Even looking through the internationalism of the UN, WTO, and other international institutions can this be separated from US foreign policy for “liberal international trade regimes did not, and indeed will not, emerge from the policies of one state” (Stein 1984, p. 358). The emergence of the free world order, and the US’s hegemony in relation to it, was but a reflection of its metropolitan-peripheral exploitation within the world-system. The liberal rhetoric and policies pursued by the US thus may only appear to be ‘liberal’ in the sense that they were mutual with the international community’s interests, not that they were bounded to put their self-interests aside through the forces of international organisational behaviour.

The obligations the US was supposedly accepting under its liberalism was to be tested, especially as, according to Watson (1987, p. 152), “all the members of our present global and multicultural international society actively formulate new values and standards for it”. If the US was to prove its liberal foreign policy, it would willingly accept these changes. Under Bush Jr.’s administration however was this not to be. Whilst the US Congress authorised “armed force if necessary” in Iraq, the UNSC only ruled that in a “case of noncompliance” was intervention a legitimate course of action. When the US and its coalition allies defied this, it had “posed a serious challenge to the authority of the council” (Mingst and Karns 2009, p. 501). The US’s own defiance of the international order had shown that offensive realism was still present within its foreign policy.

However, to conclude that America’s foreign policy was either wholeheartedly liberal or realist is too reductionist even during and after Bush Jr.’s tenure. As Waltz (1996, p. 56) noted, “theories are sparse in formulation and beautifully simple” whereas “reality is complex and often ugly”. But America’s foreign policy does not suffer from this in the constructivist sense, but rather from a conflict of interest amongst its policymakers. The ‘Vulcans’ were an example of this for they “focused above all on American military power”, a traditional realist notion (Mann 2004, pp. xiii-xiv). Yet against the realist ignorance of morality, it was neoconservatives such as Wolfowitz amongst the Vulcans who provided “the explanations for the moral imperative of action” (Murray 2006, p. 132). Such incoherency is found within the individual beliefs of the Vulcans also. Rumsfeld is one example, as he went from becoming “a troublesome anti-war advocate” within the Nixon administration to “an ardent hawk” under Bush (Mann 2004, pp. 1 and 4). Neoconservatism suffers from this same lapse in theoretical identity. Whilst it posited liberal ideals, it was still willing to use realist methods to form its own amalgamation of the two theories into a “moral realism” (Selznick, 1995, p. 19).

But it is structural constraints which proliferated this concoction of contradictions between the theories within US foreign policy, primarily as a result of complex interdependency that increased through post-Cold War globalisation. The emergence of international institutions and its representation of the international community had established a “overlap of domestic and foreign policy” (Keohane and Nye 1997, p. 26). Bush’s foreign policy defying the UN proved unpopular amongst its domestic public opinion despite ousting Hussein, Ferguson (2005, p. 214) noting that America’s electoral sensitivity to conflict has “grown more acute since the cold war”, which can be largely due to the CNN effect and the digital revolution. Whether American foreign policy chooses to be outwardly realist or not, its ambitions can be constrained indirectly through the smaller world liberalism has established.

If realists wish to fulfil the US’s self-preservation must they abide to these constraints. As Keohane (1984, p. 49) states, the US hegemon “depends on a certain kind of asymmetrical cooperation, which successful hegemons support and maintain”, both domestically and internationally. This reinforces the dependency theory within the world-system, which is ever greater through international institutions, especially in the economic sense due to free-trade’s inter-organisational synthesis. Between 1995 and 2017, the relative share of merchandise trade by WTO members increased by 10% (World Trade Organisation 2018, p. 23). Even when US foreign policy makers are not consciously aware of it do they conform to the liberal world order, as liberal internationalism has “so fully absorbed domestic politics that their influence on foreign affairs tends to be either overlooked” (Doyle 1983, p. 205). Whilst realists have traditionally overlooked innenpolitik, they are indirectly impacted by it through its connection to international society, exacerbated by Pennsylvania Avenue Diplomacy thanks to the US electoral system.

Thus, the ability for US foreign policy to be defined by one school or the other is inherently incoherent, especially since Obama’s election in 2008 which was marked by its “compounded complexity with ambivalence” (Kissinger 2015, p. 320). Obama’s foreign policy is a continuation of an uneasy blending between liberalism and realism through his adherence of Niebuhr’s theories, which consisted of a Christian realism which believed “that the statesman must attend to both the call of faith, and to the prudential political concerns of the moment” (Holder and Josephson 2013, p. 679). This was subsequently followed by his Cairo Speech, which implied a new liberal approach towards the Middle East, only to later be contradicted by the continuation of US involvement in Afghanistan, possibly showing “the limits of American tolerance” towards Obama’s paradox between liberal international obligations and his realist practical concerns (McCrisken 2012, p. 1007). Holder and Josephson (2013, p. 679) believes this was the case with Obama’s own attempt at practicing Christian realism, as “its recognition of the necessity and ultimate error of partisanship” maybe “a good guide for statesmen, but a hard sell for the public”. Again, the constraints of complex interdependency restrict even US foreign policy that wishes to balance the interests of its government and the international community.

Such ambivalence is sure to continue under President Trump through his own contradictions, though his disregard for the UN takes a more realist rhetoric of mercantilism compared to Obama’s liberal institutionalism. But even if Trump’s approach is indeed a realist one, it lacks a formal theoretical narrative compared to his predecessors, especially when a “variety of views have been expressed about President Trump’s approach to foreign and security policies” that only adds further theoretical ambiguity (Dombrowski and Reich 2018, p. 57).

It therefore must be said that the theoretical school that best reflects US foreign policy since the passing of the Cold War is a form of neorealism; one that is hardly consistent but inherently visible on certain occasions in either of its offensive or defensive guises. Whilst liberal internationalism had emerged after the Cold War with the US as its harbinger, America’s own liberalism whenever it has appeared has been but a tool to fulfil its realist self-interests when they are largely constrained by both internal and external forces. But it is only realist unconsciously, as the US has been constantly conflicted consciously over how to meet both its obligations and its interests. Complex interdependency may have institutionalised these interests, but they nevertheless remained realist ones. But constructivism alone cannot be used to explain American foreign policy either. If anything was consistent about US foreign policy, it would be its attempts to self-preserve its role as a hegemon in terms of relative gains. Because its positional privilege is now waning through the rise of other great powers, it is now ever more explicitly defensive realist in its attempts to sustain it.

Featured image credit: “President George W. Bush visits Pentagon” by The U.S. Army is licensed under CC BY 2.0


  • Carr, E.H. ed. (2016) The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Dombrowski, P. and Reich, S. (2018) Beyond the Tweets: President Trump’s Continuity in Military Operations. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 12 (2), pp. 56-81.
  • Doyle, M.W. (1983) Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 12 (3), pp. 205-235.
  • Ferguson, N. (2005) Colossus: The Rise and Fall of The American Empire. London: Penguin Books.
  • Haffa, R.P. (2017) Defense Decisions for the Trump Administration. Strategic Studies Quarterly, 11 (1), pp. 25-48.
  • Holder, R.W. and Josephson, P.B. (2013) Obama’s Niebuhr Problem. Church History, 82 (3), pp. 678-687.
  • Keohane, R.O. and Nye. J.S. (1977) Power and Interdependence: World Politics in Transition. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Keohane, R. O. (1984) After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Kissinger, H. (2015) World Order. London: Penguin Books.
  • Mann, J. (2004) Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet. London: Penguin Books.
  • McCrisken, T. (2012) Justifying sacrifice: Barack Obama and the selling and ending of the war in Afghanistan. International Affairs,88 (5), pp. 993-1007.
  • Mingst, K.A. and Karns, M.P. (2009) The United Nations and Conflict Management: Relevant or Irrelevant? In: Crocker, C.A. et al., eds. Leashing the Dogs of War: Conflict Management in a Divided World. Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, pp. 497-520.
  • Murray, D. (2006) Neoconservatism: Why We Need It. New York: Encounter Books.
  • Stein, A.A. (1984) The Hegemon’s Dilemma: Great Britain, the United States, and the International Economic Order. International Organisation, 38 (2), pp. 355-386.
  • Selznick, P. (1995) Irving Kristol’s Moral Realism. In: DeMuth, C. and Kristol W., eds. The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of Irving Kristol. Washington: The AEI Press, pp. 19-25.
  • Wallerstein, I. (2003) The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World. New York: The New Press.
  • Waltz, K.N. (1996) International Politics is Not Foreign Policy. Security Studies, 6 (1), pp. 54-57.
  • Watson, A. (1987) Hedley Bull, States Systems and International Societies. Review of International Studies, 13 (2), pp. 147-153.
  • World Trade Organisation (2018) World Trade Statistical Review 2018. Geneva: World Trade Organisation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s