A Two-Faced US Foreign Policy?


This post is based on a research project, the activities for which I initiated during my role as a Visiting Scholar in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, in Washington, DC.

Analysts and scholars of US foreign policy have long argued that Washington, DC’s engagement with foreign states have reflected the same characteristics as conventional International Relations (IR) theories. On the one hand this has reared its head in the form of the US increasing engagement with foreign states, with the intent of influencing the respective state(s) through dialogue, cooperation, and coordination, akin to the positive-sum Liberal IR school of thought. Conversely, the US has also implemented the ‘sharper’ end of its foreign policy tool artillery, in the form of pressure, punishment, and isolation, more in line with the zero-sum Realist IR theory. This two-faced, almost contradictory foreign policy, in the sense that it adopts two opposing approaches, simultaneously, provided the spark for my current research activities.

In order to evaluate whether US foreign policy is indeed two-faced in this manner, I embarked upon a research project which captures these two sides of Washington, DC’s engagement with foreign states. The first, which follows the Liberal narrative, is concerned with US policy towards Egypt, with a particular focus on Washington, DC’s use of economic tools to influence political and economic goals in the Middle Eastern state. Following an initial assessment of the literature, economic data, and interviews with US public administration representatives and experts on the matter, it is evident that Washington, DC has pursued a positive-sum economic interdependence-based policy towards Cairo, with the intent of achieving political and economic goals in Egypt. Concurrently, the second stream of the project, which is concerned with the Realist mantra, is focused on the economic sanctions placed on Iran, in the context of the Middle Eastern state’s nuclear programme. Predictably, the respective literature, data, and interviewees concerned with US ties with Iran, have conferred the point that Washington, DC simultaneously adopted a more zero-sum sanctions-based approach in order to achieve political and economic goals in Tehran.

This two-sided US foreign policy approach reveals a capacity for Washington to act pragmatically. However, and perhaps more importantly, this dual-sided approach points to a tendency of failing to take into account the environment in which the polices are being implemented. With respect to Egypt, this was evidenced by the continuation and increase in the provision of economic aid to the country, in spite of deteriorating economic and political conditions in the Middle Eastern state, specifically when it came to Egypt’s experience of the Arab Spring. The same can be said for the US foreign policy towards Iran in the run-up to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which, as I argue in my paper, The Political Economy of U.S.–Iranian Relations (2005–2014), only achieved its goals following the international community’s alignment to the US policy towards Iran, and not as a result of the discrete US sanctions-based policy towards Iran.

It is clear that Washington, DC has demonstrated a willingness to be flexible and pragmatic when practicing foreign policy. That being said, the question arises as to whether this flexibility and pragmatism is being exercised in a manner which is maximises the chances of achieving the explicitly stated US foreign policy goals.

Image: White House via Wikimedia commons.

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