The Federalist Era (1788–1800) witnessed the birth of the new American Constitution and ushered in a period of a strong Federal government headed by a president and a bicameral Congress. The new American government sought to protect American interests in a turbulent time. From threats from Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea to the turmoil in Revolutionary France and to the slave revolt in Haiti, the young republic had to navigate difficult political waters in order to protect itself. Furthermore, it also had to deal with the British and Spanish, who remained in American territory, without starting another war. Additionally, the United States had to engage with various Native American tribes in the interior of the continent to end the threat of war on the American frontier. Later in the time period, tensions between the United States and the new French Republic became strained, which led to the diplomatic embarrassment of the XYZ Affair and an undeclared naval war between the United States and France. American foreign policy during the Federalist Era was a matter of trial and error because there had been no standard protocol for dealing with international incidents under the old government. George Washington, the first president under the new Constitution, shouldered the burden of creating the new American foreign policy. Washington, along with cabinet members such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, helped shape US foreign policy in the Federalist Era. Washington was succeeded by his vice president, John Adams, who guided America through tense times, which included conflict with France. With the creation of the American Constitution, Washington and other Federalist leaders had the difficult task of creating a new nation, which included forging a foreign policy. The goal of the fledgling American republic’s foreign policy was to protect American sovereignty in an era of perpetual threats.
The Federalist Era and US Foreign Relations
Timothy C. Hemmis
Neutrality/Nonalignment and the United States
For almost a century and a half, successive American governments adopted a general policy of neutrality on the world stage, eschewing involvement in European conflicts and, after the Quasi War with France, alliances with European powers. Neutrality, enshrined as a core principle of American foreign relations by the outgoing President George Washington in 1796, remained such for more than a century. Finally, in the 20th century, the United States emerged as a world power and a belligerent in the two world wars and the Cold War. This article explores the modern conflict between traditional American attitudes toward neutrality and the global agenda embraced by successive U.S. governments, beginning with entry in the First World War. With the United States immersed in these titanic struggles, the traditional U.S. support for neutrality eroded considerably. During the First World War, the United States showed some sympathy for the predicaments of the remaining neutral powers. In the Second World War it applied considerable pressure to those states still trading with Germany. During the Cold War, the United States was sometimes impatient with the choices of states to remain uncommitted in the global struggle, while at times it showed understanding for neutrality and pursued constructive relations with neutral states. The wide varieties of neutrality in each of these conflicts complicated the choices of U.S. policy makers. Americans remained torn between memory of their own long history of neutrality and a capacity to understand its potential value, on one hand, and a predilection to approach conflicts as moral struggles, on the other.
Franklin D. Roosevelt and US Foreign Relations
Franklin D. Roosevelt was US president in extraordinarily challenging times. The impact of both the Great Depression and World War II make discussion of his approach to foreign relations by historians highly contested and controversial. He was one of the most experienced people to hold office, having served in the Wilson administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, completed two terms as Governor of New York, and held a raft of political offices. At heart, he was an internationalist who believed in an engaged and active role for the United States in world. During his first two terms as president, Roosevelt had to temper his international engagement in response to public opinion and politicians wanting to focus on domestic problems and wary of the risks of involvement in conflict. As the world crisis deepened in the 1930s, his engagement revived. He adopted a gradualist approach to educating the American people in the dangers facing their country and led them to eventual participation in war and a greater role in world affairs. There were clearly mistakes in his diplomacy along the way and his leadership often appeared flawed, with an ambiguous legacy founded on political expediency, expanded executive power, vague idealism, and a chronic lack of clarity to prepare Americans for postwar challenges. Nevertheless, his policies to prepare the United States for the coming war saw his country emerge from years of depression to become an economic superpower. Likewise, his mobilization of his country’s enormous resources, support of key allies, and the holding together of a “Grand Alliance” in World War II not only brought victory but saw the United States become a dominant force in the world. Ultimately, Roosevelt’s idealistic vision, tempered with a sound appreciation of national power, would transform the global position of the United States and inaugurate what Henry Luce described as “the American Century.”
The 1930s and the Road to World War II
The United States was extremely reluctant to get drawn into the wars that erupted in Asia in 1937 and Europe in 1939. Deeply disillusioned with the experience of World War I, when the large number of trench warfare casualties had resulted in a peace that many American believed betrayed the aims they had fought for, the United States sought to avoid all forms of entangling alliances. Deeply embittered by the Depression, which was widely blamed on international bankers and businessmen, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent these actors from drawing the country into another war. The American aim was neutrality, but the underlying strength of the United States made it too big to be impartial—a problem that Roosevelt had to grapple with as Germany, Italy, and Japan began to challenge international order in the second half of the 1930s.
International Law and US Foreign Relations
International law is the set of rules, formally agreed by treaty or understood as customary, by which nation-states interact with each other in a form of international society. Across the history of U.S. foreign relations, international law has provided both an animating vision, or ideology, for various American projects of world order, and a practical tool for the advancement of U.S. power and interests. As the American role in the world changed since the late 18th century, so too did the role of international law in U.S. foreign policy. Initially, international law was a source of authority to which the weak American government could appeal on questions of independence, sovereignty, and neutrality. As U.S. power grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries, international law became variously a liberal project for the advancement of peace, a civilizational discourse for justifying violence and dispossession, and a bureaucratic and commercial tool for the expansion of empire. With the advent of formal inter-governmental organizations in the 20th century, the traditional American focus on neutrality faded, to be replaced by an emphasis on collective security. But as the process of decolonization diluted the strength of the United States and its allies in the parliamentary chambers of the world’s international organizations, Washington increasingly advanced its own interpretations of international law, and opted out of a number of international legal regimes. At the same time, Americans increasingly came to perceive of international law as a vehicle to advance the human rights of individuals over the sovereign rights of states.
The Role of Congress in the History of US Foreign Relations
Clay Silver Katsky
While presidents have historically been the driving force behind foreign policy decision-making, Congress has used its constitutional authority to influence the process. The nation’s founders designed a system of checks and balances aimed at establishing a degree of equilibrium in foreign affairs powers. Though the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the country’s chief diplomat, Congress holds responsibility for declaring war and can also exert influence over foreign relations through its powers over taxation and appropriation, while the Senate possesses authority to approve or reject international agreements. This separation of powers compels the executive branch to work with Congress to achieve foreign policy goals, but it also sets up conflict over what policies best serve national interests and the appropriate balance between executive and legislative authority. Since the founding of the Republic, presidential power over foreign relations has accreted in fits and starts at the legislature’s expense. When core American interests have come under threat, legislators have undermined or surrendered their power by accepting presidents’ claims that defense of national interests required strong executive action. This trend peaked during the Cold War, when invocations of national security enabled the executive to amass unprecedented control over America’s foreign affairs.
Early American Foreign Relations, 1775–1815
Lindsay M. Chervinsky
From 1775 to 1815, empire served as the most pressing foreign relationship problem for the United States. Would the new nation successfully break free from the British Empire? What would an American empire look like? How would it be treated by other empires? And could Americans hold their own against European superpowers? These questions dominated the United States’ first few decades of existence and shaped its interactions with American Indian, Haitian, Spanish, British, and French peoples. The US government—first the Continental Congress, then the Confederation Congress, and finally the federal administration under the new Constitution—grappled with five key issues. First, they sought international recognition of their independence and negotiated trade deals during the Revolutionary War to support the war effort. Second, they obtained access to the Mississippi River and Port of New Orleans from Spain and France to facilitate trade and western settlement. Third, they grappled with ongoing conflict with Indian nations over white settlement on Indian lands and demands from white communities for border security. Fourth, they defined and protected American neutrality, negotiated a trade policy that required European recognition of American independence, and denied recognition to Haiti. Lastly, they fought a quasi-war with France and real war with Great Britain in 1812.
The United States and World War II in Europe
Steve R. Waddell
With the outbreak of war in Europe, a growing fear of and ultimately a concerted effort to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany defined American involvement. Competing Allied national and strategic interests resulted in serious debates, but the common desire to defeat the enemy proved stronger than any disagreements. President Franklin Roosevelt, understanding the isolationist sentiments of the American public and the dangers of Nazism and Imperial Japan perhaps better than most, carefully led the nation through the difficult period of 1939–1941, overseeing a gradual increase in American military preparedness and support for those standing up to Nazi Germany, as the German military forces achieved victory after victory. Following American entry into the war, strategic discussions in 1942–1943 often involved ambitious American military plans countered by British voices of moderation. The forces and supplies available made a direct invasion of northern France unfeasible. The American desire to launch an immediate invasion across the English Channel gave way to the Allied invasion of North Africa and subsequent assault on Sicily and the Italian peninsula. The Tehran Conference in November 1943 marked a transition, as the buildup of American forces in Europe and the overwhelming contribution of war materials enabled the United States to determine American-British strategy from late 1943 to the end of the war. The final year and a half of the war in Europe saw a major shift in strategic leadership, as the United States along with the Soviet Union assumed greater control over the final steps toward victory over Nazi Germany. By the end of World War II (May 1945 in Europe and September 1945 in Asia), the United States had not only assumed the leadership of the Western Allies, it had achieved superpower status with the greatest air force and navy in the world. It was also the sole possessor of the atomic bomb. Even with the tensions with the Soviet Union and beginnings of a Cold War, most Americans felt the United States was the leader as the world entered the post-war era.