American foreign policy and what drives it is of interest around the world. It is not surprising given that in world history, there has never been another country or empire that has been so powerful and has an overarching ability to touch different parts of the globe. In light of this, Prof. Mandelbaum’s recently published book ‘the Four Ages of American Foreign Policy; weak power, great power, super power, hyper power’ is pertinent to those following the country’s foreign policy evolution and the rise of the United States as a global power. Michael Mandelbaum is professor emeritus of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and has authored ten books on US foreign policy and global politics.
Four Ages of American foreign Policy
He defines four ages in the country’s history starting from a collection of British settlements in North America, which he terms as when the U.S. was a ‘Weak Power’ (1775-1865), ‘Great Power’ (1865-1945), ‘Superpower’(1945-1990) and ‘Hyperpower’ (19990-2015).
US was a weak power from 1765 to 1865, during this era, the US was in a defense and survival mode as its primary concern was to defend itself while expanding across North America.
From 1865 to 1945, when the world order was defined as being multi-polar, Michael Mandelbaum has characterized the United States as one of the great powers of the time. This era in its history is characterized by simultaneous cooperation and competition of the US with other great powers of the time. During this phase, US carved out a sphere of influence in Central America and Eastern Pacific Ocean.
1945 to 1990, US was one of the two competitive superpowers of the bipolar world along with the USSR and this era ultimately culminated in the United States becoming the sole power of the unipolar world. The following 25 years, from 1990-2015, were the years of ‘greatest American relative power’, and this was the fourth stage—the ‘Hyperpower’—in the evolutionary history of the United States. During, these 25 years, the United States had no real competitors or serious security challenges.
According to Professor Mandelbaum, post-2015 US is in an undefined fifth era, where the United States remains the most powerful country in the world but now it is not without serious challenges.
Michael Mandelbaums The Four Ages of American Foreign Policy covers the full sweep of U.S. engagement in the world from our humble origins as 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast to the global colossus we know today.
— Commentary Magazine (@Commentary) August 23, 2022
Common threads underlying foreign policy
The three factors that led to the growth of the United States from being a weak power to becoming a hyperpower are growth in territory, population and economic output, Professor Mandelbaum explained in his interview with Ms. Najma Minhas, editor Global Village Space. Industrial revolution, played a key role in the growth of US, as ‘mastery of the techniques of the industrial revolution has turned out to be the basis for power in the international order’.
Professor Mandelbaum identifies that throughout the four ages, the US foreign policy had key threads: the pursuit of American values (respect for democracy), economic tools, and the importance of public opinion. These have played out differently at different points; however, during the 25 years of being the ‘hyperpower,’ the US was able to pursue a distinctive foreign policy, even for itself, in which the defense of American interests was pursued along with a promotion of American values.
The US generally prioritized the former if there has ever been a conflict between these two goals. However, during the 25 years of being the ‘hyperpower,’ since the US didn’t face any substantial threat to its interest, its sole focus remained on promoting its values, particularly emphasizing the value of ‘democracy.’
However, he concedes that “Unfortunately, America was not all that successful in promoting democracy and peace, because it turns out that democratic governments require a certain number of pre-conditions; a certain set of values, a certain set of institutions and a certain kind of experience, and many countries don’t have these pre-conditions and these pre-conditions cannot be exported.”
He postulates that Post-2015, promoting democracy is no longer the central objective of American foreign policy. Now the US has gone back to its traditional foreign policy objectives, whereby defending its interests is once again its foremost objective as it is increasingly being challenged by Russia, China and Iran.
The US sees a challenge from Russia in Europe, where Russia is waging a war on its neighbor Ukraine, challenge from China in East Asia, where China is militarizing the South-China Sea and claiming virtually the entire Western Pacific as its territorial waters, and the challenge from Iran, which is moving towards acquiring nuclear weapons to dominate the middle east, are the pressing concerns at the center of US foreign policy. Due to these concerns and due to the realization that promoting democracy from outside is very difficult, US has given up the agenda of promoting democracy.
Public opinion is king
According to Professor Mandelbaum, public opinion is very important for the pursuit of American foreign policy and he gives the clear examples of this in light of Vietnam and Afghanistan. Public opinion shaped in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paved the way for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Likewise, when the American public opinion turned against these wars, because they felt they were too prolonged, or if it saw the US being unable to achieve its objectives, then the government was compelled to ultimately withdraw from these wars in deference to public opinion. Professor Mandelbaum mentioned these examples to prove that public opinion plays a significant role in US foreign policy. “Over the long term, it is public opinion that is sovereign in American foreign policy” he rebuffs the critique that US had to withdraw from any of the wars due to military defeat.
When asked about the future of American foreign policy, Professor Mandelbaum was of the view that coping with the challenges posed by Russia, China, and Iran will continue to dominate US foreign policy “unless the American public decides that it has had enough of the international role that the United States has played for 75 years” and decide to look internal, which was the case started under President Trump.
Economic policy as a foreign policy tool
Talking about the role of economic power in US foreign policy, Professor Mandelbaum said that the bulk of sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine intended to achieve foreign policy goals through economic means. This illustrates how the US has used economic power to pursue its foreign policy goals. However, these sanctions on Russia also unveiled two general truths about sanctions; the first is that American sanctions tend to be effective to the extent that other countries join in, and the second truth is that when the opponent is deeply committed to their policies, they probably cannot be stopped by economic sanctions, Professor Mandelbaum went on to explain.
Michael Mandelbaum -former advisor to President Bill Clinton mentions in interview how USA used IMF as tool to ensure political change occurred in Indonesia in 1990s. America: Weak Power to Super power to Hyper power? | Discussion with Pro… https://t.co/w5kDLJnP7i via @YouTube
— Najma Minhas (@MinhasNajma) August 27, 2022
Professor Mandelbaum also pointed out that US is not solely relying on sanctions to deter Russian designs in Ukraine, in fact, US is also supporting the military efforts of the Ukrainian people to resist the Russian invasion. However, professor also explained the rationale for continuing with sanctions; first it increases the cost of war for Russia, secondly, the effectiveness of sanctions might increase over time. Therefore, these sanctions might cause a change of direction in Moscow’s policy with the passage of time.