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History of American Foreign Policy 101: Unipolarity and the War on Terror


To make sense of both the world of foreign policy and the world as it is, an understanding of United States foreign policy and its interaction with the policies of other nations is critical. It is the purpose of this series to give the reader an overview of the history of the United States' foreign policy, and show how it has helped shape the path of the United States and of international relations in general. Such illustration will include analyses of the United States' foreign policy in both theoretical assumptions and empirical application. The series will thus provide the reader with a foundation from which they will be able to accurately understand global historical events, and also critically examine and form opinions on the current and future United States' foreign policy.

This 101 series is divided into eight articles including:

The last article in this series discussed the final half of the Cold War (1947 - 1991), from the period of Détente to the final days of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. This article will begin with a very brief summary of the end of the Cold War. Then, it will analyse the foreign policy of the United States in the 1990s and early 2000s, from the end of the Cold War to the beginning of the War on Terror (2001 - present). Specific focus will be given to the topics of unipolarity, globalisation, entrenched militarism, and the rationale and context of the War on Terror.

Ream, S. (1989, November). Berlin Wall-Brandenburg Gate [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.


With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolutions of 1989 — which toppled the communist regimes of Eastern Europe — and political chaos within Russia and the Soviet Union, the latter was all but finished by the turn of the 1990s. The final dissolution would be extremely rapid. A coup by hardline Communists and military elites intent on saving the Union would fail in August of 1991, leading to ten of the remaining republics declaring independence between August and December 1991 in fear of another coup. Finally, the Belovezh Accords would be signed on December 8th, creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) instead of the Soviet Union. On December 26th the Supreme Soviet of the USSR would formally dissolve the union.

The role of the United States in these events is often disputed, with various commentators arguing that the fall of the Soviet Union was a historical inevitability, while others contend that the United States played a pivotal role in its downfall. Of those in the latter camp, many often credit the Reagan administration with hastening the fall of the Soviet Union as a result of its involvement in the defeat of the USSR in Afghanistan through funding of Mujahedeen, pushing the Soviets into an arms race, and manipulating Soviet resources through the manipulation of global markets (Schweizer, 2016). These actions, in combination with the Glasnost and Perestroika of Gorbachev, and the divisions within the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact states, led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Schweizer, 2016).

Unknown (n. d.). Glasnost [Illustration].

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States would find itself the sole superpower of the international system. In international relations, this state of affairs in the international system is referred to as “unipolar”, meaning that one state holds a preponderance of power, as opposed to a bipolar system (two superpowers), or a multipolar system (more than two powers) (Waltz, 2000). What is also remarkable is that, beyond simply dominating in one or two of the traditional metrics of power, the United States would hold a preponderance in “all the underlying components of power: economic, military, technological, and geopolitical” (Wohlworth, 1999 p. 6). Unipolarity has various consequences according to the literature dedicated to it. On the one hand, proponents of the Hegemonic Peace Theory posit that a unipolar system sustains peace since it precludes “hegemonic rivalry over leadership of power” as no other major power is in a position to challenge the hegemon (Wohlworth, 1999 p. 7). Furthermore, unipolarity allows for the ‘institutionalization of security’, whereby the hegemon has “the means and motives to maintain key security institutions” in order to limit competition among other powers and manage local conflicts (Wohlworth, 1999, p. 7).

In specific regards to the United States, unipolarity has allowed for both the creation and maintenance of a truly international ‘rules-based order’. Though the origins of the current international rules-based order lie at the end of World War II (1939 - 1945) with the creation of the U.N. and Bretton Woods, the bipolar system of international relations which ended with the fall of the Soviet Union never permitted a truly international order dominated by one superpower (Wohlworth, 1999). The unipolarity of the 1990s, on the other hand, led to complete dominance of the international order by the United States, allowing for the establishment of a global rules-based order based on Western standards of human rights and free trade, and on at least tacit acceptance of American power (Anderson, 2017).

US Capitol. (1990, January). President George H.W. Bush delivers the State of the Union Address [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Unipolarity is also noted to have numerous drawbacks: indeed, much of the traditional literature on polarity characterises unipolarity as the most unstable system (Wohlworth, 1999; Waltz, 2000). Structural Realists, such as Kenneth Waltz, claim that this is a fact demanded by the theory of the international system, given that in an anarchic system of international relations “unbalanced power leaves weaker states feeling uneasy and gives them reason to strengthen their positions” (Waltz, 2000, p. 25). Additionally, Waltz and Chalmers Johnson claim that unipolarity gives the superpower the ability to pursue its objectives without restraint, acting unilaterally in various situations when in its own interest without regard for future repercussions (Waltz, 2000; Johnson, 2004).

In regards to the United States, and to the point of Waltz, American adventurism and unilateralism on the world stage, permitted by unipolarity, have given states reason to mistrust the United States and seek avenues to balance power and maximise its own security. The United States’ overzealous eastward expansion of NATO in the 1990s — e.g., has been widely recognised as the historical cause of Russia’s current behaviour in Ukraine (Anderson, 2017, Mearsheimer, 2014). In the words of George Kennan, “NATO expansion is the beginning of a new cold war [...] the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies […] it is a tragic mistake” (Rojansky, 2016, p. 3). Furthermore, NATO bombings of Serbia and Libya, though nominally multilateral, have been viewed as oversteps and breaches of international law by the United States, and have also been considered poorly given the utilisation of NATO, a defensive alliance, for offensive purposes.

USAF. (1945). TB-32 production line at Consolidated Aircraft, circa 1944-45 [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.


During the Cold War, America and the Soviet Union could both justify their high levels of military spending and aggressive foreign policies on the perceived threat of the other. With the end of the Cold War, it would appear that the rationale for massive military expenditures seemingly disappeared. This being the case, there was a widespread expectation of demilitarisation, with President Bush discussing a potential ‘peace dividend’, or an economic surplus which would arise from a decrease in military spending (Johnson, 2004). Yet this point of view disregarded various institutional and structural aspects of the military-industrial complex and changes in the administration of foreign policy.

Regarding the institutional and structural aspects of the military-industrial complex, in the words of the Pentagon itself, “were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy” (Johnson, 2004, p. 23). Such a position stems in part from the embrace of military Keynesianism, positing that the government should retain high levels of military spending to boost overall economic growth (Feffer, 2009). Yet it also stems from the fact that the U.S. economy is partially dependent on the military-industrial complex — e.g., the United States defence and aerospace industries employ a minimum of 3.5 million people (DMDC Web, 2021). In this sense, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the United States, instead of pulling back from its forward bases, would seek to identify or invent new threats in order to justify a pivot towards a new grand strategy, leading inevitably to the continuance of high levels of military spending.

Unknown (1945). Airacobra fighters [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

In the words of Perry Anderson (2017): “The institutions and ideologies bequeathed by the battle against communism now constituted a massive historical complex with its own dynamics […]. More armed expeditions followed than ever before; more advanced weapons were rolled out; more bases were added to the chain; more far-reaching doctrines of intervention developed. There could be no looking back” (p. 108). Chalmers Johnson (2004) adds, regarding America’s 750 overseas military bases, that “once the military has acquired a base, it is extremely reluctant to give it up, instead new uses are found for it” (p. 25). According to an NSC Statement from 1990, these new uses would be the projection of power into areas without a United States presence, particularly the Middle East, given its geopolitical interest to the United States as the major producer of oil (Johnson, 2004). The further rationale would be to focus on Low-intensity conflicts, or ”political-military confrontation between contending states or groups below conventional war” (United States Department of the Army, 2004, p. 1).

Regarding the change in the administration of foreign policy, Johnson (2004) asserts that in the years after the end of the Cold War a revolution in American diplomacy took place. In the beginning, foreign policy was largely a civilian operation under the auspices of the Department of State, while by the early 2000s it was the Department of Defense that primarily administered it (Johnson, 2004). The elevation of the Department of Defense and military agencies in the administration of foreign policy amounted to “a message to countries that we prefer to engage through the use or threat of force rather than negotiations, commerce” (Johns, 2004, p. 28). According to Johnson (2004), the militarisation of foreign policy and the inability to pull back risks imperial overreach and is even evidence of an American empire, given that this sort of foreign policy approach is expensive and often carries with it a level of influence that derives from the credible threat of force.

Ford, G. (2014). WTO Protest Sign [Photogtaph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Free Trade

The coincidence of unipolar American power and the technological boom of the 1990s resulted in another advantage for American power, represented by globalisation and free trade. Free trade is generally the application of the free market ideology to international trade: in other words, a laissez-faire approach that discourages protectionism or government interference in trade (Mansfield & Milner, 2012). Though there is still debate on whether free trade is beneficial or not, many opponents contend that it can be detrimental to developing countries, since it causes infant domestic industries to compete with developed industries in more advanced states (Hostetter, 2018). The neoliberal turn beginning in the 1970s and 1980s had begun to instil the ideology of free trade into international economics, resulting in the deregulation of international financial markets, and the opening up of previously closed national economies (Anderson, 2017). This turn, along with unipolarity, allowed the United States to “apply systematic pressure on surrounding states to bring their practices into line with American standards” in the 1990s, phasing out any form of economic protectionism (Anderson, 2017, p. 93). In this context, “Clinton would build out the liberal order of free trade into an encompassing global system under US command” pushing through NAFTA and transforming GATT into the WTO as a formal framework of a universal market (Anderson, 2017, p. 94).

The greatest geopolitical objective of free trade, according to Mandelbaum and conventional foreign policy thought at the time, would be the pacific incorporation of Russia and China into the liberal world order, with the hope that integration into global markets would eventually lead to their democratisation (Mandelbaum, 2002). Additionally, it was thought that Chinese and Russian entrance into the system of global free trade would give them a stake in maintaining the current liberal economic system, with the United States remaining at its head (Anderson, 2017). However, the infiltration of Western ideals of capitalism, consumerism, and democracy into non-western cultures would meet deep and oftentimes violent resistance, as local identities and ways of life were confronted with an existential threat.

NOAA. (1973). Container ships President Truman [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.


The conflict between the local and international was nothing new in history, though with the rapid technological growth and interconnectedness of the 1990s it became even more prominent. Indeed, today’s world is changing at an unprecedented rate, and these changes have social and political consequences. In short, globalisation is the growing interconnectedness of the world’s economies, cultures, and peoples, brought about primarily by innovations in technology, communications, and transportation (Held et al., 1999). One of the central aspects of globalisation is that it has the potential to create a uniform world in which the differences between peoples and societies will be replaced by a global identity which is more or less homogenous (Brown, 2019). In other words, the world is moving in a direction in which more and more people are “coming to do the same kinds of jobs, wear the same kinds of clothes, eat the same kinds of food [and] watch the same kinds of television programmes” (Brown, 2019, p. 298).

During the 1990s and to this day to a lesser extent, it was the culture of the United States, characterised by capitalism, consumerism, and liberal democracy which was the dominant force shaping global identities, leading some to comment that globalization equals Americanization (Nye, 2003). This influence has been referred to as ‘soft power’ by Joseph Nye (2003), i. e., a means by which a country can influence others primarily through cultural and political appeal, as opposed to the tools of hard power such as war and other forms of coercion. In this sense, the globalisation of the 1990s was nominally a foreign policy tool by which the United States could leverage soft power to its advantage. Experts claim that American leaders during the time sought to portray American values as universal, and extend them globally as a soft power mechanism (Brown, 2019; Anderson, 2017).

Osaka City national route Sekime store. (2006, April). Wikimedia Commons.

Though difficult to quantify the pros or cons of soft power or globalisation during this period, one of the major qualitative impacts was the backlash globalisation inspired throughout the world. In the words of Chris Brown (2019), this backlash is the result of globalisation “creating its own antibodies” (p. 208). In other words, since human beings “interpret our social world precisely through the kinds of differences that are now being removed or undermined […] many people feel that something important has been lost […]. This feeling potentially creates the social basis for a reaction in favour of an exaggerated version of difference […] assuring us that we are not simply products of global branding“ (Brown, 2019, p. 208). Therefore, the ability of globalisation to erase cultural differences actually creates a backlash as people seek to reassert their own identity against the encroachment of a foreign culture, value set, and morality. One of the primary examples of this backlash was the rise in Islamic extremism in the 1990s, which Brown suggests was the result of the opposition between the global and the local, and the propensity of individuals and groups to respond to globalisation by “returning to their roots — national or religious — or at least to a sanitized version of their roots they imagine themselves to possess” (Brown, 2019, p. 209).

Less abstractly, the rise of Islamic extremism and the targeting of the United States can be interpreted as the result of American support for Israel and American policy in the Middle East. According to Perry Anderson (2017), 9/11 and the terrorist attacks that preceded it in the 1990s were the results of US policies that “had long been calculated to maximize popular hostility […] In the Middle East, American support for dynastic Arab tyrannies of one stripe or another, so long as they accommodated US interests, was habitual” (p. 100). American foreign policy had done this throughout the third world: yet what set the Middle East apart was the unquestionable support of Israel which angered Muslim communities. As Anderson continues, this support, though sometimes aligned with American grand strategy, was primarily the result of the outsized influence of the Israel lobby in the United States, and was actually at odds with the national interest at large (Anderson, 2017). The rationale, therefore, behind 9/11 was “a typical anti-imperialist backlash against the power that had long been an alien overlord in the region”, and which had unfairly supported Islam’s primary enemy (Anderson, 2017, p. 100).

Graham, I. (2007). US Army at Khost Province of Afghanistan [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Global War on Terror

The Global War on Terror, in the words of then-president George W. Bush (2004), was “a war against all those who seek to export terror, and a war against those governments that support or shelter them” in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (p. 2). Originally targeted at Al-Qaeda and the AfPak (Afghanistan-Pakistan) region, the War on Terror would eventually become an operation with global implications, with battle zones in the Middle East, South East Asia, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa. In Afghanistan, the reaction of the Bush administration and the United States government to the terrorist attacks was swift: the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was brought down in a matter of weeks through High altitude bombing, a small number of special forces, and the purchase of Tajik warlords (Anderson, 2017, p. 101). Furthermore, supported by all major powers and neighbouring states, and later transferred to NATO, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan was an initial success. However, occupation and state-building would prove far more difficult, as evidenced by the rapid fall of the Afghan government in 2021 and the re-emergence of the Taliban as the leading force in the country.

While Afghanistan was conceived as the ‘right war’, internationally sanctioned and justified by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Iraq War which followed has often been viewed as the ‘wrong war’, one which should never have been waged and, after initial euphoria at home, remained deeply unpopular domestically and internationally (Anderson, 2017). The rationale for the American War in Iraq has a deep history, one which goes beyond Operation Desert Storm. Originally an ally of the United States, Saddam Hussein was backed by American intelligence and support in the brutal Iraq-Iran War of the 1980s, in the hopes that Iraq would defeat the newly created Islamic Republic of Iran. In two communications, notable for their short-sightedness and irony, the Reagan administration justified support for Iraq on the grounds that “Human rights and chemical weapons use aside, in many respects [American] political and economic interests run parallel with those of Iraq” and that “normal relations between the United States and Iraq would serve our longer-term interests and promote stability in both the Gulf and the Middle East” (Dailey, 2018, p. 361).

Mcleod, D. (1991). Operation Desert Storm [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons.

Both of these suppositions would be quickly proven false by the Gulf War in 1990, in which Saddam’s miscalculation about the global response to an invasion of Kuwait would lead to the mobilisation of half a million U.S. troops and contingencies from 30 other countries (Dailey, 2018). The initial invasion was primarily by air and justified by the Revolution in Military Affairs, which espoused new high-tech forms of equipment and tactics such as precision bombing which would purportedly lessen collateral damage. Shortly after the air bombardment, the Iraqi Army would fall into retreat, with a ceasefire being declared only 100 hours after the ground war had begun (Dailey, 2018). However, regime change was not an explicit war objective. Though the Bush administration had hoped that the Kurds in the North and the Shi’ites in the South would rise up against the Saddam regime, brief uprisings were instead brutally suppressed. After the defeat of Iraq, President Bush would declare his famous proclamation of new world order; one of ”peaceful settlement of disputes, solidarity against aggression, reduced and controlled arsenals and just treatment of all peoples” (Turnander, 1991, p. 4). Also of importance was that the continued stationing of American troops in Saudi Arabia after the war would lead Osama Bin Laden and various Muslim extremists to begin targetting the United States (Dailey, 2018).

Of note here is the action taken following the Iraq war by the United States. When the Baathist regime was not toppled, contrary to the expectations in Washington, Iraq was subjected to the farthest-reaching sanctions in history. Pushed through the Security Council by the United States, the sanctions were, in the words of one of President Clinton’s security advisers, “unprecedented for its severity in the whole of world history” (Anderson, 2017, p. 108). Little thought was given to the suffering of normal Iraqi people, nor was there much credibility to the notion held by some that, by subjecting the population and elites to poverty and want, they would rise up and overthrow the Baathist regime. Though the effects of the sanctions have been contested, it has been asserted that the comprehensive sanctions on Iraq resulted in increased levels of child mortality among other ills, in addition to contributing to a significant reduction in Iraq’s per capita national income (Litwak, 2007). When economic warfare did not have the desired effect, Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act 1998, taking the unprecedented step of making the removal of Saddam’s Baathist regime explicit in U.S. policy. When covert means of toppling the regime continued to fail, the United States would drop “wave after wave of high explosives on the country […] with six thousand Anglo-American sorties dropping some four hundred tons of ordnance […] on Iraq“ (Anderson, 2017, p. 98; Ali, 2000).

Court, C. (2016). Boy and Burning Oil Field [Photograph]. Getty Images.

Viewed within this context, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, manufacturing of consent, and fabrication of rationale for the invasion based on the elusive weapons of mass destruction, all seem part of a state-sponsored attempt at bringing about regime change in Iraq, carried over from the 1990s. When regime change finally did occur with the invasion of Iraq by coalition forces in 2003, it would mark the beginning of a war which would permanently alter Iraq, and damage the American reputation worldwide (Dailey, 2018). Most importantly, the war would result in approximately two hundred thousand violent civilian deaths (Iraq War Body Count, 2020) with some estimates of total ‘excess deaths’ ranging into the upper hundreds of thousands (Brown, 2006). Added to this are an estimated two million refugees, with over 60 per cent of the population jobless and a quarter of families below the poverty line as of 2013 (The Economist, 2013). The subsequent failure of the Iraqi state, the fracture of Iraqi society along sectarian lines, and the rise of ISIS further contributed to the death toll and fallout from the American invasion.


The 1990s and early 2000s would be times of deep shifts to the international system and environment whose implications are felt very clearly today. The emergence of the United States as the sole superpower after the end of the Cold War would lead to the solidification of a United States-led international rules-based order, carried forward by the weight of the United States in global institutions and military might, and also through the rapid development of globalisation and free trade. In international relations, the 1990s would lead to the continued march of American militarism and the military-industrial complex, while also leading to newer theoretical developments such as the turn to a focus on human rights. With 9/11 and the Iraq War, the optimism of the 1990s characterised by the end of history would recede. In the following decade, America’s reputation on the world stage would deteriorate, with American power also beginning to erode according to many analysts. With the growth of China and the weariness of ‘forever wars’ in the United States akin to the Vietnam Syndrome, the next decade would test American resolve to remain deeply entrenched in the international system and committed to the rules-based order it championed.

Bibliographical References

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2 comentários

20 de out. de 2022

It is an excellent article, clear and very informative. As always, I appreciated the writing style and the way the information presented is organised (with related explanations of cause and effect). I recommend reading this article (and the whole series!).


This article is well-written and clearly structured. I especially appreciated how you focused on key thematic areas and provided an insightful analysis of their developments and implications.

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Taylor Pace

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