Foreign Affairs in the United States’ History


To become a global free-market nation and a leader of the Western world for which it is recognized today, the United States underwent several foreign affairs transitions that continue to define its policy. Starting from an isolationist position in the 19th century which the country largely maintained throughout its existence, America eventually emerged unto the global stage. Sometimes it was a voluntary step and other events forced America’s hand, but it led to a gradual positioning of the country as an influential and hegemonic superpower it established itself by the end of the 20th century. Foreign affairs in U.S. history underwent three major shifts that included the exit from isolationism, the WWII period, and the Cold War hegemony.

Progressive Era and Exit from Isolationism

Until the late 19th century, the U.S. maintained an isolationist position, focusing on its own affairs and only engaging with the outside world in trade. However, starting with the 1900s, the issue of foreign affairs suddenly became highly relevant. It began with the Open Door Policy pushed by President McKinley and the Secretary of State guiding the policy towards China to support U.S. economic interests (Foner 237).

With President Theodore Roosevelt coming to power, the U.S. sought to develop a modern navy that could protect American interests in the hemisphere. Despite internal turmoil, the U.S. adopted an expansionist position driven by the nationalistic wave of the Spanish-American war which annexed Hawaii and Puerto Rico and established permanent U.S. influence in Cuba and Latin America (Foner 236). The Roosevelt and Taft administrations continued to expand U.S. interests via foreign policy efforts such as building the Panama Canal and practicing the well-known Dollar diplomacy attempting to use U.S. economic strength rather than military pressure to influence its interests and international events, particularly in China (Foner 340).

The true exit from isolationism occurred in the period of World War I (1914-1918) and its aftermath. Initially, the U.S. maintained a position of neutrality in the complex European conflict, and while maintaining more trade with its long-time allies such as Great Britain, the country inherently sold supplies to both sides. However, Germany launched a U-boat campaign sinking American supply convoys and famously sunk the peaceful British liner Lusitania with Americans on board (Foner 346).

With Germans declaring unrestricted submarine warfare and the emergence of information in the infamous Zimmerman telegram that Germany was communicating with Mexico regarding the invasion of the U.S., Pres. Wilson was forced to declare war on the Axis powers (Foner 347). The United States was critical to the allied victory in World War 1, providing fresh reinforcements for the stagnating trench warfare in France and eventually leading to the downfall of Germany.

It is at this point that the U.S. became vital in influencing the turn of global events and affairs. Wilson was critical in formulating the peace treaty which ended the war at the Paris Peace Conference. This is important as the Treaty of Versailles is iconic in that it had its strengths but also multiple flaws which later contributed to the emergence of Nazi Germany. However, Wilson also sought to establish the League of Nations, the first attempt of an international governing and diplomatic organization with his Fourteen Points of maintaining peace (Foner 347-348). Unfortunately, the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations were not ratified by the U.S. Senate, but with the events of the Great War and peace in Europe after, the U.S. emerged in the world as a highly influential and strong military power.

Interwar and WWII Period

In the brief interwar period, the U.S. once again adopted an isolationist position, focusing on domestic and economic affairs which were booming in the post-war economy. The country sought to distance itself from the complicated European affairs which drew it into World War I causing significant losses as well. However, America was a strong economic power and maintained trade with much of the world, using private economic policy more than government for foreign affairs (Foner 430). As a result the Great Depression which hit American markets quickly spread through the global economy.

When President Franklin Roosevelt entered office in 1933, he gradually began to shape a new American foreign policy. First, it was through policy in Latin America via the Good Neighbor Policy, ending the Monroe Doctrine which granted the U.S. the right to intervene in Western Hemisphere affairs. As part of economic recovery, Roosevelt sought to boost trade by mutual lowering tariffs with partners, including that Hitler’s Nazi regime and the Soviet Union (Foner 556).

The isolationist position was still practiced by Congress as they maintained neutrality in the midst of another growing European conflict. However, Roosevelt was an interventionist as he oftentimes defied and circumvented Congress. When World War II broke out, Roosevelt sought to avoid his mistakes of Wilson and immediately organized large-scale financial and military support to the Allies, also expanding domestic war production (Foner 557-558). Eventually, with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 – the U.S. declared war on the Axis powers and entered the war (Foner 561). Due to Roosevelt’s expedience, much of the framework was in place, allowing America to quickly deploy troops. While maintaining heavy losses, the U.S. was critical in the defeat of Nazi Germany and singlehandedly defeated Japan by 1945 (Foner 563-64).

In a world shaken by two global wars, the United States took a position of leadership. First, during WWII, the country’s military support, leadership, and diplomacy with other Allied powers allowed for the victory and prevailing of American democratic ideals. Furthermore, towards the end of the war and after the surrender, the U.S. sought to establish a framework of global peace and accountability to prevent such conflicts from occurring. While Pres. Roosevelt had passed prior to the end of the war, and his long-term foreign policy goal of the United Nations, a much more comprehensive and competent alternative to the League of Nations, was formed and ratified by all major countries (Foner 616). This began a new age in U.S. foreign affairs and a policy of active involvement and interventionist to promote peace, democratic ideals and American interests.

Post-War Hegemony and Cold War

In the post-war era, it quickly became evident that the U.S. had a direct ideological and political confrontation with its once ally, the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R which in itself was a rising superpower despite the heavy toll of WWII had a Communist government and was heavily entrenched in its ideology (Foner 634). As the Allied powers divided up control and influence over post-war Europe, these differences became tense as was seen in the Berlin Crisis of 1958-1961. For the next several decades, the U.S. foreign affairs had three primary objectives: 1) the containment of Communism at all costs, 2) the spread of democratic ideals and values along with addressing human rights issues, 3) attaining U.S. political and economic influence to support the previous points (Foner 635-36).

Truman’s containment policy was the first foreign policy strategy of the Cold War in order to prevent the spread of Communism, particularly in Eastern Europe and Asia through the “Domino Theory.” Containment was the primary element of the foreign policy all the way through the 1980s (Foner 636). Once the Soviet Union obtained nuclear capabilities, an international arms race began at which point the U.S. also sought to implement the use of deterrence. Deterrence is actions, either diplomatic, military, economic, etc which are taken against other nations or alliances to prevent hostile action. In the period of the Cold War, the principle of mutually assured destruction held back one nation from firing nuclear weapons or directly attacking the other country. Therefore, the U.S. foreign affairs engaged in these proxy wars and conflicts such as the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the more direct Cuban Missile Crisis of 1862 (Foner 646, 782, 808).

In proxy conflicts, the militaries of the U.S. and the Soviet Union never engaged with each other, but often aided and fought on the side of other parties which represented their ideologies (usually internal conflicts such as insurgencies or civil wars in less developed nations). Therefore, the U.S. foreign policy of the Cold War era was directly tied to the diplomacy and containment of Communism and the influence of the Soviet Union, while promoting democracy and American influence through economic aid and international relations.


It is evident that U.S. foreign affairs and policy took a gradual path in the country’s emergence on the global stage. However, each transition had a specific purpose, oftentimes supporting America’s political and ideological agenda and promoting key national interests or security. This led to the U.S. establishing and building its influence in the world until it emerged as the hegemonic superpower towards the end of the 20th century.

Works Cited

Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty! An American History, Vol. 2. Seagull, 2019.

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