Throughout the Cold War, America’s foreign policy efforts were aimed definitively at the USSR. Washington filtered almost all military strategies through the main lens of containing Communism and the nuclear threat. Today, over 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the situation is more varied. Countries like Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and Venezuela each present unique and complex foreign policy challenges. As a general pattern, America’s most serious adversaries are home to diminished levels of democracy, leaders with disputed legitimacy, obstructed free trade, the toleration or sponsorship of terrorism, and some association with nuclear weapons.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and overthrow of the American-supportive Shah, Iran has conducted itself as a Shi’a theocracy, hostile to America and other secular Western countries. Iran particularly arouses international alarm over its ongoing pursuit of nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities since September of 2002. Although Iran continually insists that its nuclear program exists for peaceful purposes, the country’s refusal to comply with IAEA investigations is increasingly perceived as a major threat to the United States and its allies. In an attempt to thwart this perceived nuclear threat, the United States has implemented a variety of harsh economic sanctions against Iran, the most recent occurring when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for 2012. Iran’s close proximity and potential influence on American initiatives in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided another reason for the U.S. to view Iran with a wary eye.
Like Iran, North Korea prompts concern from the U.S. and the IAEA regarding its nuclear tests. U.S. relations with North Korea have been strained since the Korean War. The U.S. views North Korea as a highly-centralized, isolated communist state with a history of heinous human rights violations. In 2003, the U.S., South Korea, China, Japan, and Russia attempted "Six-Party" talks with North Korea, with the goal of reaching a diplomatic solution to the nuclear dispute. In 2008, North Korea made headway in its disarmament promises, yet regressed in 2009 when it once again engaged in nuclear tests. After the death of longtime North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in late 2011, his son Kim Jong Eun inherited the leadership of Pyongyang. As much is unknown about Kim Jong Eun’s ideology and leadership style, it remains to be seen whether or not he will increase or diminish the adversarial state between the U.S. and North Korea.
U.S. relations with China are fraught with contradictions. Although the United States economic status is closely intertwined with China, the latter’s communist ideology has long been an underlying bone of contention between the two nations. Indeed, China’s documented human rights violations, censorship, repression of dissent, currency manipulation, disputes over sovereign territories in the South China Sea, and other factors have long been troublesome to the U.S. Additionally, there is a long history of friction between the U.S. and China over the standing of Taiwan, which established an independent government from the Chinese mainland in 1949 after the Chinese Civil War. Since the Taiwan Relations Act was signed in 1979, the United States has a public commitment to provide Taiwan with defensive weapons and to guard it against hostile acts.
The fall of Communism in the early 1990s gave the U.S.-Russia relationship a fresh start, but tensions have once again begun to escalate between the two nations, especially under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, who has often been accused of reinstating autocracy. Putin, defying the 2011 election results and clinging to power, has emboldened Russian nationalist sentiments, which has led to numerous foreign policy controversies: weapons sales to other American adversaries such as Iran; opposition to a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe; and verbal disagreement over UN and U.S. sanctions of Iran. Although the new version of the nuclear arms reduction treaty known as START (negotiated in 2009) has given the Obama administration hope that the U.S.-Russia relationship would be "reset," many others fear that Russian interests might be favored to the detriment of the U.S. Those concerns heightened when reports surfaced in February 2012 that the Obama administration was considering an 80% cut in the U.S. arsenal of deployed nuclear weapons. Speculations that the U.S. would compromise too much with Russia continued when a month later, in March 2012, President Obama was caught off-mic remarking to President Medvedev: "On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it's important for [Putin] to give me space. ...This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."
Finally, although Venezuela is geographically distant from both Iran and North Korea, Venezuela’s leader, Hugo Chavez, has made friendly overtures to both countries. Chavez’s close relationship with Iran’s president Ahmadinejad, coupled with reports that select locations in Venezuela might be sheltering nuclear weapons development, have raised U.S. suspicion in recent years. Chavez, an outspoken socialist and American antagonist, promotes his "Bolivarian Revolution" as an exemplary model for other nations. The Venezuelan leader has also called upon Latin America and developing countries to form greater unity, in opposition to what he considers U.S. hegemony and imperialism. In 2008, Chavez demanded the expulsion of the U.S. Ambassador from Venezuela, and the U.S. responded by ordering the exit of the Venezuelan Ambassador in Washington. With rumors of Chavez’s malignant cancer increasing in late 2011, the direction of the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship status appears to be hanging in the balance as the potential for an upcoming power-vacuum looms.
America's adversaries are diverse, which raises the more fundamental question of what the proper basis of an effective foreign policy should be. Very broadly speaking, those arguing for an active or even interventionist foreign policy emphasize focusing on ensuring strong national defense and effective homeland security, active promotion of democracy around the globe, and even attempts at "nation building." On the other side, those seeking a less interventionist approach are strongly concerned about the potential threat that war and foreign alliances could pose to the liberty of the American people. Their position essentially reflects the counsel given by the nation's first President, George Washington, upon his leaving office in 1796:
"The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible... It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world; so far, I mean, as we are now at liberty to do it... Taking care always to keep ourselves by suitable establishments on a respectable defensive posture, we may safely trust to temporary alliances for extraordinary emergencies."
This topic provides information on what are currently considered to be America's main adversaries, and the history and other factors behind the contentions America has with these nations.
EMP Study Guide
Iran Study Guide
North Korea Study Guide
China Study Guide
Russia Study Guide