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by Russell C. Brown, M.Ed.

When looking at the foreign policy of the United States, or any country for that matter, understanding motives is crucial. There has been great debate throughout the 20th and the early 21st centuries over what drives US foreign policy. For example, when President George W. Bush launched Operation Iraqi Freedom, he maintained that the US was doing so to remove a dictator committed to producing weapons of mass destruction which could be used against the US and its allies. Later, he proclaimed his goal of liberating the Iraqi people from a dictator and promoting democracy across the Middle East. However, many others asserted throughout that the principle reason for the invasion was to secure Middle East oil.

The question then arises: which proclaimed motive was the actual driving force behind Operation Iraqi Freedom? The reality is quite complex, as each side makes a compelling case for their rationale being correct. To resolve this conundrum, I offer the foreign policy triangle. By understanding the root causes of foreign policy decisions, neophytes can use a basic framework to classify and understand foreign policy decisions. The three components of the triangle are economics, ideology, and national interests (see Figure 1).

Certainly, the content of this article is not new. However, the presentation is unique. By utilizing an organizational system, or schema, by which to categorize the factors playing into foreign policy decisions, experts can help students and the public at large understand the complexities of foreign policy decisions. This, in turn, can lead to a more educated electorate, a vital component in any republic. After all, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”1 In the paragraphs that follow, the vertices of the foreign policy triangle will be explained along with some examples of how it can be used.

The first vertex of the foreign policy triangle represents economics. Those who subscribe to this view argue that US foreign policy is guided by business or corporate interests. Those who advocate seeing trade as the basis for US foreign policy are often referred to as “Corporatists.”

When using economics in this context, it is generally held to mean what William Appleman Williams referred to as the pursuit of an “Open Door” policy.2 This means that the US should seek to expand its trade across the world and protect its business interests from attack in any other countries. Internal economic matters, such as engaging in foreign policy decisions that could result in budget reductions, can also be considered, but the principle focus is on defending corporate interests and expanding trade. When looking at Operation Iraqi Freedom, the invocation of Iraqi oil is used by those who believe that economics is the primary focus of US foreign policy.

The second vertex of the foreign policy triangle is ideology. When ideology guides a nation’s foreign policy, the decisions are shaped by a set of ideals. Practitioners of ideology are “Idealists” (since they believe that ideals or principles should the driving force in US foreign policy) or, in the words of John Stoessinger, as “Crusaders.”3

Idealists are committed to ideals, yet the specific ideals can vary from policy-maker to policy-maker. These ideals often include a commitment to upholding international law, democracy, human rights, self-determination, world peace, and justice. Often the Crusader sees foreign policy as a struggle of good versus evil, with the US on the side of good. In the context of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the principles of democracy and justice were in play, as the US sought to remove a brutal dictator from power.

National Interests
The final vertex of the foreign policy triangle represents national interests. At its core, the national interest focuses on power and the notion that nations are striving to meet their own interests. As such, it is an acknowledgement of the reality of the global situation when policy makers choose to focus on national interests to guide foreign policy decisions. Consequently, practitioners of national interests are referred to as “Realists” or, as Stoessinger termed them, “Pragmatists.”4

The national interests that factor into a nation’s foreign policy include the protection of their citizens from external harm, the maintenance or alteration of the balance of power (depending on whether or not the existing balance of power favors that nation), the preservation of the political and territorial integrity of the nation (in other words, having control over one’s borders and government), and its prestige (a nation’s reputation for using power can be just as, if not more, important than the actual use of power). When looking at Operation Iraqi Freedom, the national interest at play was preserving the balance of power and the protection of our citizenry. If Saddam Hussein truly possessed weapons of mass destruction, then he would be a threat to the regional balance of power. He could, after all, not only destroy Iran and Israel but also his fellow Arab nations. This, in turn, could jeopardize the lives of not only Americans living in the Middle East but those who live in the US as well. This would be especially true if Iraqi scientists could build a rocket to deliver a nuclear, chemical, and/or biological weapon to the US. Even though this intelligence was later proved to be in error, the perception of the Hussein threat showed the influence of national interests.

The Foreign Policy Triangle in Action: The Spanish-American War as Case Study
The foreign policy triangle can be used to study diplomatic decisions in two ways. The first is to take an event and to analyze its causes by examining all three vertices of the foreign policy triangle. For instance, if people explore the motives for US involvement in the Spanish-American War they will find the following aspects:

Economics: The main economic activity at stake for American business was agriculture, especially Cuba’s sugar cane. The US government had to protect US investment, $150 million worth, as the conflict between Spain and the Cuban rebels was damaging American business interests.

Ideology: The principle of self-determination for Cuba and the need to help a fellow nation gain its independence from a European colonial power helped drive the decision to declare war on Spain. Many Americans saw a parallel between Cuban and US history. This notion was reinforced by the Teller Amendment, which affirmed that the US would not annex Cuba but would only fight to help Cuba gain its independence. Another principle at stake was respect for human rights. Specifically, the US protested the re-concentration policy of Valeriano Weyler, who put Cubans into camps. Any Cuban who was outside of the camps was considered to be a rebel who could be shot, which straightforwardly violated their right of free movement and right to due process. These ideological reasons were championed by US newspapers, the so-called “yellow journalists,” who were bent on increasing readership by stirring up sympathy for the injustices faced by Cubans at the hands of their European colonizers.

National Interests: From this perspective the thought was to keep European powers out of Western Hemisphere. There was a fear that some other nation (such as Germany) might try to replace the Spanish as the colonial power in Cuba. The US also had to protect its prestige. In particular, the demolition of the USS Maine was blamed on the Spanish by the yellow press. This meant that the US needed to defend itself or risk appearing weak, at least in the eyes of the public. Furthermore, the intelligence of US President McKinley was insulted in the De Lôme letter; US honor thus had to be avenged.

Another Application of the Foreign Policy Triangle: US Foreign Policy, 1901-1921
Aside from analyzing events with the foreign policy triangle, another way to utilize it is involves looking at the collective policies of presidential administrations to determine where their policies fell under the schema. For instance, one can examine foreign policies of the presidential from 1901-1921 as reflecting one part of the foreign policy triangle (see Figure 2).

While one can argue that all three presidents in this period offered examples of all three vertices of the foreign policy triangle, each president emphasized a particular piece. With his desire to keep European powers out of the Americas by exerting US influence in those nations at risk for a European takeover, Theodore Roosevelt saw the national interest as the guiding principle of his foreign policy. In specific, Roosevelt sought to maintain a balance of power favorable to the US while also upholding the nation’s prestige. When William Howard Taft became president, he made an effort to “substitut[e] dollars for bullets.”5 This desire to use US business interests to prop up Latin American countries shows that Taft emphasized economics in his foreign policy. Last, Woodrow Wilson was a strong believer in the US as a moral force in the world. This expressed itself through intervention in countries where the governments were not acting to protect the rights of their citizens and in accordance with international law. The desire to ensure that “the world must be made safe for democracy” is evidence that Wilson viewed ideology as the guiding principle for his foreign policy.6 However, it should be noted that regardless of which principle drove the presidents’ foreign policies the results ended up being the same; namely, US intervention in Latin American countries.

The Foreign Policy Triangle and Historiography
The foreign policy triangle dovetails well with an examination of the historiography of US diplomatic efforts. Historians classified as “orthodox historians” focus on the tension between ideology and national interests when looking at US diplomacy. As presidents grapple with pursuing a foreign policy based on national interests and/or ideology, an orthodox historian would argue that the most successful policies were those where national interests played the leading role.

In contrast to the orthodox historians, “Revisionist” historians focus on the economics of foreign policy. They maintain that the US has followed corporate interests and pursued an open door policy around the globe. Consequently, these historians tend to be more critical of US foreign policy for serving the interests of a business class while ignoring the rights and needs of not only the general US population but those of peoples of other nations as well.

The newest school, “Post-Revisionist” historiography, is one where historians take a broader view of US diplomacy. They see the interplay of all three parts of the foreign policy triangle when analyzing US foreign policy. This results in a more balanced critique of US diplomatic history, especially when compared to the orthodox and revisionist schools.

The foreign policy expert will, without doubt, note the overall simplicity of the foreign policy triangle by pointing out aspects that it misses. Clearly while examples are given of how decisions reflect one or more of the three vertices, every real-life foreign policy decision of necessity reflects all three, and other, vertices as well.  The expert also knows that, for instance, that the quiet backstage impact of the personal experiences of key policy makers is not addressed by the foreign policy triangle. One prime example being the successful effort by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman (1987-1995) Claiborne Pell to reopen US Consulate General Bratislava in 1991.  This post had been first established in 1948 by then Foreign Service Officer, Vice Consul Claiborne Pell but forced to close by the Communist government in 1950.  In sum, observations of simplification certainly hold merit.

However, when educating neophytes, be they students or even members of the general public, one must simplify the complexities of the factors driving foreign policy decisions while simultaneously showing the complexity of the process. The foreign policy triangle provides this by offering a clear and coherent schema that enables the foreign policy expert to provide a system to help others judge foreign policy decisions in a more nuanced way.End.

1. Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Charles Yancey, March 27, 1824, in eds. Andrew Adgate Lipscomb and Albert Ellery Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington DC, 1903-04) vol. 14: 384. Retrieved from:

2. William Appleman Williams (2nd rev ed), The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (New York, NY: Dell Publishing Company, 1972).

3. John G. Stoessinger (2nd ed), Crusaders and Pragmatists: Movers of Modern American Foreign Policy (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 1985).

4. Ibid.

5. William Howard Taft, William Howard Taft: Dollar Diplomacy (1912). Retrieved from:

6. Woodrow Wilson, Making the World “Safe for Democracy”: Woodrow Wilson Asks for War (April 2, 1917). Retrieved from:


Russell C. Brown
Russell C. Brown

Russell C. Brown teaches history in the International Baccalaureate program at Poudre High School (Fort Collins, CO). The author wishes to thank John Robertson, Ginny Carroll, and the Poudre High IB class of 2017 for their feedback on this article.


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