History of Foreign and Security Policy Essay

Defining Foreign and Security Policy from the Cold War to Present

Today’s increasingly globalised community has seen more diplomatic and social evolution in the past half-century than the civilized world has seen in recent memory. The advent of multinational trade and military alliances such as the North Atlantic Trade Organization has increasingly intertwined security policies with foreign policies, which in turn entail more than just military alliances. Foreign subsidies by way of fiscal aid grants and weapons contracts warrant the need for nations to adopt solid, transparent foreign and security policies as the traditional global threat of warfare changes.

The most notable examples for security and foreign policies as well as the need for a national and supranational governmental monitor are the United States and the European Union. The aforementioned two bodies share between them diplomatic ties to most every member of the international community. The onus of foreign and security policies becomes more apparent through examination of diplomatically fragile and militarily-temperamental regions such as the Middle East, whose international agreements and regional alliances are the basis for subsequent American and EU policy, without which allies and trade partners would find little benefit from trade and security agreements.

Foreign policy amounts to little more than a series of political guidelines and rules of engagement by which any country implementing it best gains at a certain point in time. Foreign policies are known to change radically from one year to the next; the Cold War is perhaps the greatest testament to the temporal nature of international relations and foreign policy. Robert John Myers notes in his US Foreign Policy in the Twenty-first Century how quickly Western countries changed their approach to the Soviet Union. Prior to 1945 “during the savage struggle of World War II, the primacy of the wisdom of political realism seemed to have been learned” by the Allies, who interlocked “interest, power, and morality in the councils of the principal Allied power”[1]; the USSR at the time was an indispensable ally against Germany and Japan. Much to the chagrin of their current political detractors, the Soviets were perhaps the most powerful ally America had in the war against the Axis powers, with borders spanning the heart of the Nazi regime and maritime waters bordering the Imperial Japanese. Foreign policy then had nothing to do with the civil liberties, democracy, and freedom of the press so touted today in the same countries that huddled together in opposition to Moscow during the Cold War. Prior to the partition of Germany at the close of the war, it was easily recognizable that “wartime cooperation to defeat the Axis was clearly important” and Allied foreign policy toward its Soviet contingent was one of camaraderie and mutual interdependence[2]. Once the war ended, however, the close ties between the powers dissipated and politically malignant antipathy filled the void. With a barely nascent United Nations absent as policy moderator, the US and the USSR led a series of proxy wars starting with “the attack by North Korea on South Korea on 25 June 1950,” marking “the limited cooperation [and mediation] that came to be expected from the UN in the security field”[3]. International mediation, which should have taken place given the alliance that transpired between the US, USSR, and Europe during WWII was all but gone in the years of reconstruction and the escalation of the Cold War. There are two points of speculation given the rise of the Cold War: the first is that the United Nations failed as an international mediator, and the second is that the United Nations was obsolete, serving only to keep other countries out of the periphery of the Soviet-American struggle for dominance. The difference between foreign and security policy during the Cold War was elementary. The American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union was one of mutual trade and sales, the development of which was speculated by many to be a financial insurance policy; if the two superpowers intertwined economically, the idea of armed struggle would be so financially devastating that neither side would be willing to continue along the path to war. American security policy was markedly different given the proxy wars fought in Korea, Vietnam, and the Middle East. Foreign policy essentially existed in the case of the Cold War to ensure that security policy would never be employed.

The Cold War was a fascinating case of how foreign policy and security policy could run completely contrarian to each other. Any two given nations can foster amicable foreign policies in their approach to each other independent of a covertly hostile security policy as evidenced by the oft-shifting approach of successive American administrations to the Soviet behemoth. Jimmy Carter, for example, “forbade grain sales to the Soviet Union following the nation’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979,” while “Ronald Reagan made the unpopular embargo an issue in the 1980 elections, reversing the policy after his election”[4]. The Reagan policy shift did not predicate a change in security policy, as the administration continued its support of Afghan mujahideen forces through arms sales and finance while continuing its agricultural trade with Moscow.

It is now well-known that the UN was inconsequential in international mediation throughout the Cold War. This is not to say that an international or supranational regulatory body is not needed; in the case of the US and USSR, the absent (and perhaps powerless) UN was perceived as such because their collective power was dwarfed by the two superpowers. With no military or financial incentive, the question of the relevance of a supranational regulatory body in foreign and security policy is moot. Even today, American foreign policies often contravene UN resolutions with little or no repercussion due to the immense economic, political, and military might of Washington. While the Cold War ended relatively peacefully without UN intervention, the concept of an international body was not scorned by the US, which partnered with various countries to create the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO). It should be noted, however, that the US was an open advocate of NATO for the very reason that the UN was not potent enough a body to act on American will or on behalf of American aspirations. International mediation in this sense is needed for the monitoring of foreign and security policy; whether or not mediation will be effective in both sectors is quite another issue.

Foreign policy can be monitored, policed, and even dictated by a supranational body as evidenced in the partition of Germany and the formation of the Eastern Bloc post-WWII. Security policy, however, is a point of major contention with any nation faced with the prospect of supranational control. Any nation with major investment (diplomatic or financial) abroad would be reluctant to cede jurisdiction of its own soldiers and sovereignty to an outside body, especially one such as the UN whose member list consists of nations antagonistic to one another. The irony here is that a multi-national group could have foreign and security policy power over a nation whose security policy is antagonistic to one or more members of the same international group. Israel, for example, would embark on an unprecedented leap of faith if it allowed the UN and its Arab members to mediate its security policy, all despite the fact that from the first years of its inception (1948-1967) the Jewish state relied on the UN to justify its existence to the international community. The multi-faceted Arab-Israeli conflict is just one example of how unchecked world superpowers exerted their influence unchecked by the vigil of an international body.

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, foreign policy was a much simpler venture as the world found itself functioning under the umbrella of just two superpowers, led by and acting under the auspices of either Washington or Moscow. The fall of Communism left a vacuum in the Middle East, as the now-extinct USSR had no allegiances to the Middle East in which it fought a series of proxy wars and conflicts with the United States. What transpired following the end of Moscow’s reign as a world superpower was the creation of several diplomatically independent states in the Middle East. Where Moscow once supported Syria, Egypt, and Iraq while arming said nations’ leaders, they found themselves increasingly dependent on other sources for trade and international subsidy such as the EU and the United States. The foreign policy then drove the security policy, baited by American and EU sponsorship acting independently of the UN. Today, Egypt, once the sworn enemy of Israel (whose closest international ally is Washington), receives America’s second-largest international aid package. This of course is contingent upon the maintenance of a lasting peace as well as other conditions detailed in the Camp David Accords of 1978. The UN and the EU’s parts in the conflict were minimal, as security policies of the two comprised of a minimal militaristic component and a far larger foreign policy component. Pinar Bilgin observes in Regional Security in the Middle East how the fragile Mediterranean “as an alternative spatial representation began to take shape from the 1970s onward largely in line with the development and changing security conception and practices of the European Union,” a group whose policies toward the region “have been shaped around three major concerns: energy security (understood as the sustained flow of oil and natural gas at reasonable prices); regional stability (understood as domestic stability especially in countries in geographically North Africa); and the cessation of the Israel/Palestine conflict”[5]. Unlike the US and USSR, whose motives will be examined later, the EU was interested solely in the protection of their economic preservation and the prevention of any armed conflict from spilling into their geographic vicinity. In addition to the Arab-Israeli crisis, EU Member States such as Italy, France, and Spain faced growing resentment in the Maghreb (Arab North Africa) as a corollary of imperial European rule. The EU’s policies were hence different from “non-EU actors [who] encouraged and supported the search for security within a Euro-Mediterranean framework”; the EU has almost “single-handedly sought to construct a Euro-Mediterranean Region to meet its own domestic economic, societal, and, to a much lesser extent, military security interests”[6]. The American and Soviet interest in the region was also one of economic, political, and security nature, but on a much larger scale. Buzan and Waever note in their Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security how:

“The United States and the Soviet Union were latecomers as major players in Middle Eastern regional security, though the former had long-standing oil interests there. The two superpowers were drawn into a pattern of regional turbulence that was already strongly active. Their interest in the region was heightened by the fact that, like Europe, the Middle East sat on the boundary between the spheres of communism and ‘free’ worlds. Stalin’s aggressive policy after 1945 had pushed Turkey and Iran into the arms of the West. Turkey became a member of NATO, and was thus fixed into the main European front of the Cold War. Until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran fell increasingly under American sway, not only through corporate oil interests, but also as part of the loose alliance arrangements that connected American containment clients in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. To counter this US success right on its borders, the Soviet Union tried to play in the Arab world behind this front line, by establishing political and military links to the radical regimes and movements that sprang up in the Middle East during the 1950s and 1960s (Syria, PLO, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen)”[7]

The entire Middle East, ranging from Egypt to Iran, became what Buzan and Waever describe as a “third front in the Cold War, after Europe and Asia, and its oil resources tied it powerfully into the global economy”[8]. The Camp David Accords were especially important; while Israeli security policies remained virtually unchanged (the Israeli-Egyptian peace is frequently described as “cool” in comparison to Israeli-Turkish relations), their foreign policies shifted. The two acted under the auspices of the United States, signalling a significant achievement in the Cold War. Though the “crosscutting complexities of internal alignments in the Middle East” make it “difficult to trace a clear Cold War pattern of great power intervention,” the small gains and losses in war and political action were of huge consequence. With the 1978 signing of the Camp David Accords, the United States shifted its foreign policy in the Arab world successfully, splitting allegiances in the Middle East to one drawn along Arab lines to one drawn along foreign policy lines. With Turkey and Iran (at least until Tehran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution) securely in the American camp, the Middle East was thus left only with Syria and Iraq in alliance with the USSR. Conflict in the Middle East was hence capitalized upon by the United States by way of foreign policy, which existed independently of the nations’ security policies.

Foreign policies always shift more easily than security policies, as the former serve the interest of a nation’s economy and the latter are charged with the military protection of a nation’s sovereignty, diplomatic or otherwise. As evidenced by the Cold War, American policies in Iraq alone have shifted dramatically. Prior to 1979, for example, American foreign and security policies were in place to secure its interests (Saudi Arabia and Israel) from Baghdad. From 1979 to 1991, American foreign policies toward Iraq remained the same, but its security policies shifted to accommodate Iraqi military suppression of post-revolutionary Iran. From 1991 to 2003, both foreign and security policies shifted to those of aggression and financial seclusion. It should be noted that until 1991, these foreign policy shifts were executed at the whim of three American presidents. Iran followed the same path, with pre-1979 Tehran under Reza Shah Pahlavi serving as a vital blockage to Soviet expansionism. Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, security policy was hostile toward and sought to exclude Tehran by funding Saddam Hussein. Foreign policy changed during the Contra Scandal, wherein American military leaders sold Tehran various munitions and weapons in direct subterfuge of Washington’s official military support of Baghdad; weapons were sold to a lesser evil (Iran) in order to fund covert operations in support of Nicaraguan right-wing guerrillas. Managua’s leftist-government was thought to be the latest expansion of Soviet influence and was hence a closer threat in physical proximity than the rise of the radical Islamic government of Tehran which was equally opposed to the Soviets at the time. All this transpired, again, without minimal monitoring by an international body. The greatest irony of the aforementioned events, however, is the perception of their respective successes and failures. America succeeded without international intervention in the pacification and dismantlement of the Soviet Union; however, today’s chaotic Middle East was a corollary, including the 9/11 attacks that changed forever the security and foreign policies of the United States. The current wars waged by America and what allies remain are again largely conducted without the support or monitoring by the UN or any other international body, and it remains to be seen how the future will unfold.


  1. Bilgin, Pinar. (2005) Regional Security in the Middle East: A Critical Perspective.London: Taylor & Francis Routledge.
  1. Buzan, Barry and Ole Waever. (2003) Regions and Powers: The Structure ofInternational Security. Cambridge: Cambridge U P.
  1. Myers, Robert John. (1999) US Foreign Policy in the Twenty-first Century: TheRelevance of Realism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State U P.
  1. Wilson, Ernest J. (2004) Diversity and US Foreign Policy: A Reader. New York:Taylor & Francis Routledge.



[1] Myers 1999, p. 98

[2] Ibid

[3] Myers 1999, p. 98

[4] Wilson 2004, p. 127

[5] Bilgin 2005, p. 140

[6] Bilgin 2005, p. 140

[7] Buzan and Waever 2003, p. 198

[8] Buzan and Waever 2003, p. 197

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