Foreign economic policy involves the mediation and management of economic flows across borders. Over two and a half centuries, the context for U.S. foreign economic policy has transformed. Once a fledgling republic on the periphery of the world economy, the United States has become the world’s largest economy, the arbiter of international economic order, and a predominant influence on the global economy. Throughout this transformation, the making of foreign economic policy has entailed delicate tradeoffs between diverse interests—political and material, foreign and domestic, sectional and sectoral, and so on. Ideas and beliefs have also shaped U.S. foreign economic policy—from Enlightenment-era convictions about the pacifying effects of international commerce to late 20th-century convictions about the efficacy of free markets.
Jennifer M. Miller
Over the past 150 years, the United States and Japan have developed one of the United States’ most significant international relationships, marked by a potent mix of cooperation and rivalry. After a devastating war, these two states built a lasting alliance that stands at the center of US diplomacy, security, and economic policy in the Pacific and beyond. Yet this relationship is not simply the product of economic or strategic calculations. Japan has repeatedly shaped American understandings of empire, hegemony, race, democracy, and globalization, because these two states have often developed in remarkable parallel with one another. From the edges of the international order in the 1850s and 1860s, both entered a period of intense state-building at home and imperial expansion abroad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These imperial ambitions violently collided in the 1940s in an epic contest to determine the Pacific geopolitical order. After its victory in World War II, the United States embarked on an unprecedented occupation designed to transform Japan into a stable and internationally cooperative democracy. The two countries also forged a diplomatic and security alliance that offered crucial logistical, political, and economic support to the United States’ Cold War quest to prevent the spread of communism. In the 1970s and 1980s, Japan’s rise as the globe’s second-largest economy caused significant tension in this relationship and forced Americans to confront the changing nature of national power and economic growth in a globalizing world. However, in recent decades, rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific have served to focus this alliance on the construction of a stable trans-Pacific economic and geopolitical order.
Despite almost three decades of strong and stable growth after World War II, the US economy, like the economies of many developed nations, faced new headwinds and challenges after 1970. Although the United States eventually overcame many of them, and continues to be one of the most dynamic in the world, it could not recover its mid-century economic miracle of rapid and broad-based economic growth. There are three major ways the US economy changed in this period. First, the US economy endured and eventually conquered the problem of high inflation, even as it instituted new policies that prioritized price stability over the so-called “Keynesian” goal of full employment. Although these new policies led to over two decades of moderate inflation and stable growth, the 2008 financial crisis challenged the post-Keynesian consensus and led to new demands for government intervention in downturns. Second, the government’s overall influence on the economy increased dramatically. Although the government deregulated several sectors in the 1970s and 1980s, such as transportation and banking, it also created new types of social and environmental regulation that were more pervasive. And although it occasionally cut spending, on the whole government spending increased substantially in this period, until it reached about 35 percent of the economy. Third, the US economy became more open to the world, and it imported more manufactured goods, even as it became more based on “intangible” products and on services rather than on manufacturing. These shifts created new economic winners and losers. Some institutions that thrived in the older economy, such as unions, which once compromised over a third of the workforce, became shadows of their former selves. The new service economy also created more gains for highly educated workers and for investors in quickly growing businesses, while blue-collar workers’ wages stagnated, at least in relative terms. Most of the trends that affected the US economy in this period were long-standing and continued over decades. Major national and international crises in this period, from the end of the Cold War, to the first Gulf War in 1991, to the September 11 attacks of 2001, seemed to have only a mild or transient impact on the economy. Two events that were of lasting importance were, first, the United States leaving the gold standard in 1971, which led to high inflation in the short term and more stable monetary policy over the long term; and second, the 2008 financial crisis, which seemed to permanently decrease American economic output even while it increased political battles about the involvement of government in the economy. The US economy at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century was richer than it had ever been, and remained in many respects the envy of the world. But widening income gaps meant many Americans felt left behind in this new economy, and led some to worry that the stability and predictability of the old economy had been lost.
B. Alex Beasley
American cities have been transnational in nature since the first urban spaces emerged during the colonial period. Yet the specific shape of the relationship between American cities and the rest of the world has changed dramatically in the intervening years. In the mid-20th century, the increasing integration of the global economy within the American economy began to reshape US cities. In the Northeast and Midwest, the once robust manufacturing centers and factories that had sustained their residents—and their tax bases—left, first for the South and West, and then for cities and towns outside the United States, as capital grew more mobile and businesses sought lower wages and tax incentives elsewhere. That same global capital, combined with federal subsidies, created boomtowns in the once-rural South and West. Nationwide, city boosters began to pursue alternatives to heavy industry, once understood to be the undisputed guarantor of a healthy urban economy. Increasingly, US cities organized themselves around the service economy, both in high-end, white-collar sectors like finance, consulting, and education, and in low-end pink-collar and no-collar sectors like food service, hospitality, and health care. A new legal infrastructure related to immigration made US cities more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse than ever before. At the same time, some US cities were agents of economic globalization themselves. Dubbed “global cities” by celebrants and critics of the new economy alike, these cities achieved power and prestige in the late 20th century not only because they had survived the ruptures of globalization but because they helped to determine its shape. By the end of the 20th century, cities that are not routinely listed among the “global city” elite jockeyed to claim “world-class” status, investing in high-end art, entertainment, technology, education, and health care amenities to attract and retain the high-income white-collar workers understood to be the last hope for cities hollowed out by deindustrialization and global competition. Today, the extreme differences between “global cities” and the rest of US cities, and the extreme socioeconomic stratification seen in cities of all stripes, is a key concern of urbanists.
Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images. Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.
Mary S. Barton and David M. Wight
The US government’s perception of and response to international terrorism has undergone momentous shifts since first focusing on the issue in the early 20th century. The global rise of anarchist and communist violence provided the impetus for the first major US government programs aimed at combating international terrorism: restrictive immigration policies targeting perceived radicals. By the 1920s, the State Department emerged as the primary government agency crafting US responses to international terrorism, generally combating communist terrorism through diplomacy and information-sharing partnerships with foreign governments. The 1979 Iranian hostage crisis marked the beginning of two key shifts in US antiterrorism policy: a heightened focus on combating Islamist terrorism and a willingness to deploy military force to this end. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led US officials to conceptualize international terrorism as a high-level national security problem, leading to US military invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, a broader use of special forces, and unprecedented intelligence-gathering operations.
An ungainly word, it has proven tenacious. Since the early Cold War, “Wilsonianism” has been employed by historians and analysts of US foreign policy to denote two historically related but ideologically and operationally distinct approaches to world politics. One is the foreign policy of the term’s eponym, President Woodrow Wilson, during and after World War I—in particular his efforts to engage the United States and other powerful nations in the cooperative maintenance of order and peace through a League of Nations. The other is the tendency of later administrations and political elites to deem an assertive, interventionist, and frequently unilateralist foreign policy necessary to advance national interests and preserve domestic institutions. Both versions of Wilsonianism have exerted massive impacts on US and international politics and culture. Yet both remain difficult to assess or even define. As historical phenomena they are frequently conflated; as philosophical labels they are ideologically freighted. Perhaps the only consensus is that the term implies the US government’s active rather than passive role in the international order. It is nevertheless important to distinguish Wilson’s “Wilsonianism” from certain doctrines and practices later attributed to him or traced to his influence. The major reasons are two. First, misconceptions surrounding the aims and outcomes of Wilson’s international policies continue to distort historical interpretation in multiple fields, including American political, cultural, and diplomatic history and the history of international relations. Second, these distortions encourage the conflation of Wilsonian internationalism with subsequent yet distinct developments in American foreign policy. The confused result promotes ideological over historical readings of the nation’s past, which in turn constrain critical and creative thinking about its present and future as a world power.
Nuclear power in the United States has had an uneven history and faces an uncertain future. Promising in the 1950s electricity “too cheap to meter,” nuclear power has failed to come close to that goal, although it has carved out approximately a 20 percent share of American electrical output. Two decades after World War II, General Electric and Westinghouse offered electric utilities completed “turnkey” plants at a fixed cost, hoping these “loss leaders” would create a demand for further projects. During the 1970s the industry boomed, but it also brought forth a large-scale protest movement. Since then, partly because of that movement and because of the drama of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident, nuclear power has plateaued, with only one reactor completed since 1995. Several factors account for the failed promise of nuclear energy. Civilian power has never fully shaken its military ancestry or its connotations of weaponry and warfare. American reactor designs borrowed from nuclear submarines. Concerns about weapons proliferation stymied industry hopes for breeder reactors that would produce plutonium as a byproduct. Federal regulatory agencies dealing with civilian nuclear energy also have military roles. Those connections have provided some advantages to the industry, but they have also generated fears. Not surprisingly, the “anti-nukes” movement of the 1970s and 1980s was closely bound to movements for peace and disarmament. The industry’s disappointments must also be understood in a wider energy context. Nuclear grew rapidly in the late 1960s and 1970s as domestic petroleum output shrank and environmental objections to coal came to the fore. At the same time, however, slowing economic growth and an emphasis on energy efficiency reduced demand for new power output. In the 21st century, new reactor designs and the perils of fossil-fuel-caused global warming have once again raised hopes for nuclear, but natural gas and renewables now compete favorably against new nuclear projects. Economic factors have been the main reason that nuclear has stalled in the last forty years. Highly capital intensive, nuclear projects have all too often taken too long to build and cost far more than initially forecast. The lack of standard plant designs, the need for expensive safety and security measures, and the inherent complexity of nuclear technology have all contributed to nuclear power’s inability to make its case on cost persuasively. Nevertheless, nuclear power may survive and even thrive if the nation commits to curtailing fossil fuel use or if, as the Trump administration proposes, it opts for subsidies to keep reactors operating.
Jeffrey F. Taffet
In the first half of the 20th century, and more actively in the post–World War II period, the United States government used economic aid programs to advance its foreign policy interests. US policymakers generally believed that support for economic development in poorer countries would help create global stability, which would limit military threats and strengthen the global capitalist system. Aid was offered on a country-by-country basis to guide political development; its implementation reflected views about how humanity had advanced in richer countries and how it could and should similarly advance in poorer regions. Humanitarianism did play a role in driving US aid spending, but it was consistently secondary to political considerations. Overall, while funding varied over time, amounts spent were always substantial. Between 1946 and 2015, the United States offered almost $757 billion in economic assistance to countries around the world—$1.6 trillion in inflation-adjusted 2015 dollars. Assessing the impact of this spending is difficult; there has long been disagreement among scholars and politicians about how much economic growth, if any, resulted from aid spending and similar disputes about its utility in advancing US interests. Nevertheless, for most political leaders, even without solid evidence of successes, aid often seemed to be the best option for constructively engaging poorer countries and trying to create the kind of world in which the United States could be secure and prosperous.