After the Cold War, what motives began to drive American foreign policy? What principles and goals came to guide it and what were some of its consequences? 

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To a great extent, the absence of the Cold War was challenging to American foreign policy architects.  There was not a dominant vision present in the American foreign policy that governed the nation from the end of the Cold War to the September 11 Attacks of 2001.  One could argue that one of the most dominant motives was isolation and difficulty interpreting America's role in a post- Cold War World.

For so long, American foreign policy had been crafted with "the other" in mind. In a manner of thought, this made foreign policy quite easy. Challenging the Soviets in any and all fronts became the motive that drove American foreign policy.  As the Soviet Union dissolved and the Iron Curtain fell, there was a glaring absence of "the other."  American foreign policy became defined by conflicts in which American intervention was far from clear. In situations like Gulf War I, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia, the best case scenario was that American intervention was nuanced and delicate.  At its worst, it was misguided and unclear, missing specific opportunities to create a foreign policy footprint on a multipolar world.  The Bush Administration's to remove Saddam Hussein from power is one such element in which either excessive nuance or miscalibrated policy came to define American post- Cold War American foreign policy.

The isolation motive in American foreign policy can be seen in the budgetary approach towards the military during the Clinton Administration. Foreign policy vision was evident in the budgeting of its defense:  "During the 1990s, the United States mostly scaled back its foreign policy budget as well as its cold war defense budget which amounted to 6.5% of GDP while focusing on domestic economic prosperity."  Budgets reflect choices. The choice that was made during the post- Cold War element was to scale back the military in favor of "domestic economic prosperity."  There was little given to vision or a long term scope of a post- Cold War world and America's role in it. Instead, the desire to cut back, avoid intervention for fear of public disapproval, and place greater primacy on domestic economic matters eroded the idea of a vision of foreign policy after the Cold War.  

One distinct consequence of this approach was a budget surplus.  Being able to scale back the military expenditures resulted in economic stability.  However, in doing so, American foreign policy lacked a driving force or vision to it.  America was able to play peacemaking roles in turbulent areas such as Ireland and sought to bring peace to the Middle East, but a vision was not as evident in its actions.  This lack of vision culminated in a failure to understand the threat that terrorism posed to American interests.  While airstrikes on Osama Bin Laden were issued in the wake of attacks on U.S. Embassy outposts in Tanzania and Kenya and on the USS Cole, the reality is that American foreign policy after the Cold War did not account for the changing face of that which threatened America.  As a result, the attacks of September 11 had a jarring impact and almost created a reactionary focus to the next phase of American foreign policy.