Criticism of American foreign policy

Criticism of American foreign policy

Criticism of United States foreign policy encompasses a wide range of sentiments about its actions and policies over time.

Common criticisms

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia with George W. Bush at the Prairie Chapel Ranch.[1]
Critics charge that the U.S. supported brutal dictators such as Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
  • Opposition to independent nationalism.[clarification needed] The US has been criticized by Noam Chomsky for opposing nationalist movements in foreign countries, including social reform.[4]
  • Support of Israel. The US has been accused of condoning actions by Israel against Palestinians.[6]
  • Imperialism. According to Newsweek reporter Fareed Zakaria, the Washington establishment has "gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement" and added "This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy."[12] Allies were critical of a unilateral sensibility to US foreign policy, and showed displeasure by voting against the US in the United Nations in 2001.[6]
  • Hypocrisy.[13][14][15][16][17][18][19] The US has been criticized for making statements supporting peace and respecting national sovereignty, but military actions such as in Grenada, fomenting a civil war in Colombia to break off Panama, and Iraq run counter to its assertions. The US has advocated free trade but protects local industries with import tariffs on foreign goods such as lumber[20] and agricultural products. The US has advocated concern for human rights but refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The US has publicly stated that it is opposed to torture, but has been criticized for condoning it in the School of the Americas. The US has advocated a respect for national sovereignty but supports internal guerrilla movements and paramilitary organizations, such as the Contras in Nicaragua.[21][22] The US has been criticized for voicing concern about narcotics production in countries such as Bolivia and Venezuela but doesn't follow through on cutting certain bilateral aid programs.[23] The US has been criticized for not maintaining a consistent policy; it has been accused of denouncing human rights abuses in China while supporting rights violations by Israel.[6]

However, some defenders argue that a policy of rhetoric while doing things counter to the rhetoric was necessary in the sense of realpolitik and helped secure victory against the dangers of tyranny and totalitarianism.[24] Another agrees.[24]

The US is advocating that Iran and North Korea should not develop nuclear weapons, while the US, the only country to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, maintains a nuclear arsenal of 5,113 warheads. The US has also turned a blind eye to the Israel's nuclear weapons.

  • American exceptionalism. There is a sense in which America sometimes sees itself as qualitatively different from other countries and therefore cannot be judged by the same standard as other countries; this sense is sometimes termed American exceptionalism. A writer in Time Magazine in 1971 described American exceptionalism as "an almost mystical sense that America had a mission to spread freedom and democracy everywhere."[26] American exceptionalism is sometimes linked with hypocrisy; for example, the US keeps a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons while urging other nations not to get them, and justifies that it can make an exception to a policy of non-proliferation.[27] When the United States didn't support an environmental treaty made by many nations in Kyoto or treaties made concerning the Geneva Convention, then critics saw American exceptionalism as counterproductive.[28]
  • Arrogance. Some critics have thought the United States became arrogant, particularly after its victory in World War II.[26] Critics such as Andrew Bacevich call on America to have a foreign policy "rooted in humility and realism."[29] Foreign policy experts such as Zbigniew Brzezinski counsel a policy of self-restraint and not pressing every advantage, and listening to other nations.[30] A government official called the US policy in Iraq "arrogant and stupid," according to one report.[31]
  • Excessive militarism. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. criticized excessive U.S. spending on military projects,[32] and suggested a linkage between its foreign policy abroad and racism at home.[32] Even in 1971, a Time Magazine essayist wondered why there were 375 major foreign military bases around the world with 3,000 lesser military facilities and concluded "there is no question that the U.S. today has too many troops scattered about in too many places."[26] In a 2010 defense report, Cordesman criticized out-of-control military spending.[33] Expenditures to fight the War on Terror are vast and seem limitless.[34] The Iraq war was expensive and continues to be a severe drain on U.S. finances.[10][10] Bacevich thinks the U.S. has a tendency to resort to military means to try to solve diplomatic problems.[35] The Vietnam War was a costly, decade-long military engagement which ended in defeat, and the mainstream view today is that the entire war was a mistake.[citation needed] The dollar cost was $111 billion, or $698 billion in 2009 dollars.[36] Similarly, the second Iraq war is viewed by many[who?] as being a mistake, since there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and the war continues today.
  • International law violations. Some critics[who?] assert the US doesn't always follow international law. For example, some critics assert the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was not a proper response to an imminent threat, but an act of aggression which violated international law.[37][38] For example, Benjamin Ferencz, a chief prosecutor of Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg said George W. Bush should be tried for war crimes along with Saddam Hussein for starting aggressive wars—Saddam for his 1990 attack on Kuwait and Bush for his 2003 invasion of Iraq.[39] Critics point out that the United Nations Charter, ratified by the U.S., prohibits members from using force against fellow members except against imminent attack or pursuant to an explicit Security Council authorization.[40] A professor of international law asserted there was no authorization from the UN Security Council which made the invasion "a crime against the peace."[40] However, US defenders argue there was such an authorization according to UN Security Council Resolution 1441. See also, United States War Crimes. The US has also supported Kosovo's independence even though it is strictly written in UN Security Council Resolution 1244 that Kosovo cannot be independent and it is stated as a Serbian province. The US has actively supported and intimidated other countries to recognize Kosovo's independence.
  • Commitment to foreign aid. Some critics charge that U.S. government aid should be higher given the high levels of Gross domestic product. They claim other countries give more money on a per capita basis, including both government and charitable contributions. By one index which ranked charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, the U.S. ranked 21 of 22 OECD countries by giving 0.17% of GDP to overseas aid, and compared the U.S. to Sweden which gave 1.03% of its GDP, according to different estimates.[41][42] The U.S. pledged 0.7% of GDP at a global conference in Mexico.[43] According to one estimate, U.S. overseas aid fell 16% from 2005 to 2006.[44] However, since the US grants tax breaks to nonprofits, it subsidizes relief efforts abroad,[45] although other nations also subsidize charitable activity abroad.[46] Most foreign aid (79%) came not from government sources but from private foundations, corporations, voluntary organizations, universities, religious organizations and individuals. According to the Index of Global Philanthropy, the United States is the top donor in absolute amounts.[47]
Picture of a skyline of a modern city with mountains in the background.
Kyoto, Japan in 2008. The Kyoto Protocol treaty was an effort by many nations to tackle environmental problems, but the U.S. was criticized for failing to support this effort in 1997.
two men walking; they're wearing suits.
Critics charge that savvy dictators such as Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni have manipulated U.S. foreign policy by appealing to its need to fight terrorism. Others suggest U.S. should adopt a policy of realpolitik and work with any type of government who can be helpful.
  • Other criticisms. The U.S. has been criticized for its historical treatment of native Americans. For example, the treatment of Cherokee Indians in the Trail of Tears in which hundreds of Indians died in a forced evacuation from their homes in the southeastern area, along with massacres, displacement of lands, swindles, and breaking treaties. It has been criticized for the war with Mexico in the 1840s which some see as a theft of land. It was the first and only nation to use a nuclear bomb in wartime. It failed to admit Jews fleeing persecution from Europe at the beginning of World War II, as well as immoral policy for the Vietnam War.
  • Lack of vision. Brzezinski criticized the Clinton presidency as having a foreign policy which lacked "discipline and passion" and subjected the U.S. to "eight years of drift."[30] The short-term election cycle coupled with the inability to stick with long term decisions motivates presidents to focus on acts which will appease the citizenry and avoid difficult long-term choices.
  • Presidency is over-burdened. Presidents have not only foreign policy responsibilities, but sizeable domestic duties too. In addition, the presidency is the head of a political party. As a result, it is tough for one person to manage disparate tasks, in one view. Critics suggest Reagan was overburdened, which prevented him from doing a good job of oversight regarding the Iran–Contra affair. Brzezinski suggested in Foreign Affairs that President Obama is similarly overburdened.[49] Some suggest a need for permanent non-partisan advisers.[26]
  • Dollars drive foreign policy. There are indications that decisions to go to war in Iraq were motivated by oil interests; for example, a British newspaper The Independent reported that the "Bush administration is heavily involved in writing Iraq's oil law" which would "allow Western oil companies contracts of up to 30 years to pump oil out of Iraq, and the profits would be tax-free."[5][29] Whether motivated by oil or not, U.S. policy appears to much of the Arab world to have been motivated by oil.[10] Some critics assert the U.S. decision to build the Panama Canal was motivated largely by business interests despite claims that it's motivated to "spread democracy" and "end oppression."[5] Andrew Bacevich suggests policy is directed by "wealthy individuals and institutions."[50][50] Some critics say U.S. foreign policy does reflect the will of the people, but blames the people for having a "consumerist mentality" which causes problems.[35] In 1893, a decision to back a plot to overthrow the rulership of Hawaii by president Harrison was motivated by business interests in an effort to prevent a proposed tariff increase on sugar; Hawaii became a state afterwards.[5] There was speculation that the Spanish-American War in 1898 between the U.S. and Spain was motivated by business interests in Cuba.[5]
  • Presidents may lack experience. Since the constitution requires no prior experience in diplomacy, government, or military service, it is possible to elect presidents with scant foreign policy experience. Clearly the record of past presidents confirms this, and that presidents who have had extensive diplomatic, military, and foreign policy experience have been the exception, not the rule. In recent years, presidents had relatively more experience in such tasks as peanut farming, acting and governing governorships than in international affairs. It has been debated whether voters are sufficiently skillful to assess the foreign policy potential of presidential candidates, since foreign policy experience is only one of a long list of attributes in which voters tend to select candidates. The second Bush was criticized for inexperience in the Washington Post for being "not versed in international relations and not too much interested."[28]
  • Presidency has too much authority. In contrast to criticisms that presidential attention is divided into competing tasks, some critics charge that presidents have too much power, and that there is the potential for tyranny or fascism. Some presidents circumvented the national security decision-making process.[28] Critics such as Dana D. Nelson of Vanderbilt in her book Bad for Democracy[51][52] and columnist David Sirota[53][54] and Texas law professor Sanford Levinson[55][56] see a danger in too much executive authority.
  • Difficulty removing an incompetent president. Since the only way to remove an incompetent president is with the rather difficult policy of impeachment, it is possible for a marginally competent or incompetent president to stay in office for four to eight years and cause great mischief.[57][58] In recent years, there has been great attention to this issue given the presidency of George W. Bush, but there have been questions raised about the competency of Jimmy Carter in his handling of the Iran hostage crisis.
  • President may be incompetent. The presidency of George W. Bush has been attacked by numerous critics from both parties as being particularly incompetent, short-sighted, unthinking, and partisan.[12] Bush's decision to launch the second Iraq War was criticized extensively;[29][30] writer John Le Carre criticized it as a "hare-brained adventure."[59] He was also criticized for advocating a policy of exporting democracy.[7][9][9] Brzezinski described Bush's foreign policy as "a historical failure."[30][30] Bush was criticized for being too secret regarding foreign policy and having a cabal subvert the proper foreign policy bureaucracy.[28] Other presidents, too, were criticized. The foreign policy of George H. W. Bush was lackluster, and while he was a "superb crisis manager," he "missed the opportunity to leave a lasting imprint on U.S. foreign policy because he was not a strategic visionary," according to Brzezinski.[30] He stopped the first Iraq War too soon without finishing the task of capturing Saddam Hussein.[60] Foreign policy expert Henry Kissinger criticized Jimmy Carter for numerous foreign policy mistakes including a decision to admit the ailing Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment, as well as a bungled military mission to try to rescue the hostages in Teheran.[61] Carter waffled from being "both too tough and too soft at the same time."[61]
  • Congress excluded from foreign policy. Critic Robert McMahon thinks Congress has been excluded from foreign policy decision making, and that this is detrimental.[62] Other writers suggest a need for greater Congressional participation.[10]
  • Lack of control over foreign policy. During the early 19th century, general Andrew Jackson exceeded his authority on numerous times and attacked American Indian tribes as well as invaded the Spanish territory of Florida without official government permission. Jackson was not reprimanded or punished for exceeding his authority. Some accounts blame newspaper journalism called yellow journalism for whipping up virulent pro-war sentiment to help instigate the Spanish-American War. Some critics suggest foreign policy is manipulated by lobbies, such as the pro-Israel lobby,[63] although there is disagreement about the influence of such lobbies.[63] Nevertheless, Brzezinski wants stricter anti-lobbying laws.[30]
  • Alienating allies. There is evidence that many U.S. allies have been alienated by a unilateral approach. Allies signaled dissatisfaction with U.S. policy in a vote at the U.N.[6][6] Brzezinski counsels listening to allies and exercising self-restraint.[30]. During the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990's, the US opposed Serbia, a country that was not against the US and capitalist ideals during the Cold War and an ally during both World Wars in which the Serbs saved the lives of many American pilots who flew missions over the Balkans. Instead, the US supported Kosovo Albanians and Croatians, both who were never true allies of the US and had even fought against the US during World War 2.
  • U.S. foreign policy manipulated by external forces. A Washington Post reporter wrote that "several less-than-democratic African leaders have skillfully played the anti-terrorism card to earn a relationship with the United States that has helped keep them in power" and suggested, in effect, that foreign dictators could manipulate U.S. policy for their own benefit.[3][3][64] It is possible for foreign governments to channel money through PACs to buy influence in Congress.
  • Ineffective public relations. One report suggests that news source Al-jazeera routinely paints the U.S. as evil throughout the Mideast.[31] Other critics have faulted the U.S. public relations effort.[3][28] As a result of faulty policy and lackluster public relations, the U.S. has a severe image problem in the Mideast, according to Anthony Cordesman.[65] Analyst Mathews said that it appears to much of the Arab world that we went to war in Iraq for oil, whether we did or not.[10] In a 2007 poll by BBC News asking which countries are seen as having a "negative influence in the world," the survey found that Israel, Iran, United States and North Korea had the most negative influence, while nations such as Canada, Japan and the European Union had the most positive influence.[66]
  • Ineffective prosecution of war.One estimate is that the second Iraq War along with the so-called War on Terror cost $551 billion, or $597 billion in 2009 dollars.[67] Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich has criticized American profligacy[29] and squandering its wealth.[35] There have been historical criticisms of U.S. warmaking capability; in the War of 1812, the U.S. was unable to conquer Canada despite several attempts and having superior resources;[26] the U.S. Capitol was burned and the settlement ending the war did not bring any major concessions from the British.[68]
Soldiers waiting nervously with rifles by a wall.
The Vietnam War is largely viewed as an expensive and tragic decades-long mistake.
  • Ineffective strategy to fight terrorism. Critic Cordesman criticized U.S. strategy to combat terrorism as not having enough emphasis on getting Islamic republics to fight terrorism themselves.[79] Sometimes visitors have been misidentified as "terrorists."[80] Mathews suggests the risk of nuclear terrorism remains unprevented.[10]. In 1999 during the Kosovo War, the US supported the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a terrorist organization that was recognized as such by the US some years before. Right before the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia took place, the US took down the KLA from the list of internationally recognized terrorist organizations in order to justify their aid and help to the KLA.
  • Historical instances of ineffective policies. Generally during the 19th century, and in early parts of the 20th century, the U.S. pursued a policy of isolationism and generally avoided entanglements with European powers. After World War I, Time Magazine writer John L. Steele thought the U.S. tried to return to an isolationist stance, but that this was unproductive. He wrote: "The anti-internationalist movement reached a peak of influence in the years just before World War II."[26] But Steele questioned whether this policy was effective; regardless, isolationism ended quickly after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.[26] Analysts have wondered whether the U.S. pursued the correct strategy with Japan before World War II; by denying Japan access to precious raw materials, it is possible that U.S. policy triggered the surprise attack and, as a result, the U.S. had to fight a two-front war in both the Far East as well as Europe during World War II. While it may be the case that the Mideast is a difficult region with no easy solutions to avoiding conflict, since this volatile region is at the junction of three continents; still, many analysts think U.S. policy could have been improved substantially. The U.S. waffled; there was no vision; presidents kept changing policy. Public opinion in different regions of the world thinks that, to some extent, the 9/11 attacks were an outgrowth of substandard U.S. policy towards the region.[81] The Vietnam War was a decade-long mistake.[82]. The US supported the secession of Kosovo form FR Yugoslavia in 1999 and continued to support its independence since. Such unilateral policies have broken European and international treaties but have been dismissed as unique by the US. Such unilateral secession support has triggered many notable secessionist uprisings in Spain, Belgium, Georgia, Russia, China, among others that have secessionist movements. However, the US has dismissed any similarities between those secessionist movements and Kosovo, a clear contradiction.

See also


  1. ^ Who Is the World’s Worst Dictator?
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