U.S. Political Parties and Foreign Policy

U.S. Political Parties and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy is dominating U.S. political discourse for the first time in years. This backgrounder looks at the leading schools of foreign-policy thought on both sides of the political aisle.

Last updated October 31, 2006 7:00 am (EST)

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The war in Iraq, following close on the heels of the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have thrust U.S. foreign policy into the thick of the national political dialog. Within America’s two major political parties, there is no longer the kind of bipartisan foreign policy consensus that characterized much of the Cold War period. But experts suggest there are distinct tendencies within each party, and some which straddle party lines. In an effort to help define the debate in this mid-term election year, here is a guide to the major foreign policy tendencies in the United States today:


The most complete expression of the doctrine favored by the party in power might be the National Security Strategy of the United States of America, a document made public in September 2002 and frequently referred to in short hand as the doctrine of "preemptive attack." Bush administration actions following the 9/11 attacks clearly draw heavily from this document, drafted while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was running the National Security Council. The most controversial aspect of the policy is contained in Section V, which expresses the idea that "we must be prepared to stop rogue states and their terrorist clients before they are able to threaten or use weapons of mass destruction against the United States and our allies and friends." That said, within the president’s party, there are important schools of thought that embrace or dissent from this concept in varying degrees. Here are the GOP’s main factions:

  • Neoconservatives. Neoconservatives, or "neocons," believe in the use of U.S. military might to foster the spread of democracy around the globe. The notion of employing superior military power to forge sympathetic regimes is hardly new; according to Irving Kristol’s account of neoconservatism in the Weekly Standard, the favorite neocon text is Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, in which the Greek historian explains "the strong will do what they will, the weak will do what they must." The notion of spreading democracy is also rooted in history; after World War I, Woodrow Wilson saw the spread of democracy as a means to promote global stability. What distinguishes neocons from other Wilsonians is their commitment to the use of force; in the words of historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., they are "Wilsonians with machine guns." Experts say neoconservatism was spawned by disaffected, hawkish Democrats who grew out of their party. Today, neocons are among the chief advocates of the U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have called for military intervention in other trouble spots, such as Syria, Iran, and parts of Africa. Prominent neocons include Paul Wolfowitz, Bush’s first term deputy defense secretary and current World Bank president; Los Angeles Times columnist Charles Krauthammer; CFR Fellow Max Boot; Weekly Standard publisher (and Irving Kristol’s son) William Kristol; former Pentagon adviser Richard Perle; and many other thinkers at places like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and smaller think tanks of the Right.
  • Republican Isolationists. The isolationist vein of U.S. foreign policy traces its roots back to George Washington’s 1796 farewell address in which he urged future generations to avoid entangling alliances. While subsequent generations of policymakers at times strayed from this advice, isolationism has persisted throughout the history of the United States, and was the dominant school of thought in U.S. foreign policy prior to World War II. A substantial part of the Republican electorate regularly tells pollsters they still subscribe to its tenets. Modern day isolationism covers a broad spectrum of viewpoints. On one end are the classical isolationists, typified by former Nixon speech writer Pat Buchanan, who argues the United States should rarely turn its attention to affairs outside its borders. These are distinct from the more moderate isolationists, compelled by what Walter Russell Mead, the CFR Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy, calls the Jacksonian trend in U.S. foreign policy that simply aims to "keep bad things from happening at home." These policymakers include many border state politicians who put security on the U.S.-Mexican frontier high on their agenda; libertarians like Ted Galen Carpenter of the CATO Institute who weigh the value of American interventions abroad against taxpayer burdens and civil liberties; and economic populists from states like South Carolina and the upper Midwest, where industries are under intense pressure from cheap overseas markets. In the past, such GOP populists have made common cause with protectionist Democrats to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other free trade initiatives.
  • ’Hard-Line’ Conservatives. "Hard-line" conservatives derive much of their worldview from a strong sense of nationalism. They recognize the United States is the world’s preeminent power and wish to preserve this dominance. In their view, international clout is derived from superior power, not multinational organizations, which they believe detract from U.S. authority. Among them are many happy to call themselves "unilateralists." Hard-liners are committed to preventing other nations from reaching a position from which they could challenge U.S. supremacy. Leading hard-line conservatives would include President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. These leaders often adopt the rhetoric of the neocons, and like the neocons, they wish to unleash American power. Yet experts say these policymakers differ from the Wilsonians in their party in that using American power to safeguard U.S. interests takes precedence over fostering the spread of democracy.
  • Traditional Internationalists. This group of foreign policy thinkers advocates an active foreign policy that serves American interests. Sometimes called Classical Realists, these are the adherents to the doctrine of "realpolitik" as expressed by the nineteenth century Austrian statesman Metternich, and see global stability as arising from a balance of power. They see the international order as a dangerous realm, but one that can be managed with the proper mixture of force, diplomacy, and multilateralism. In contrast to the neocons, traditional internationalists seek to find common interests with other nations, regardless of whether or not they are democracies. In U.S. politics, the elder statesman of this school is former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and one of his most outspoken acolytes is Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser during the administration of George H.W. Bush. Scowcroft has criticized the current administration for harming U.S. alliances with its unilateralist approach and for invading Iraq, which many internationalists say was not in the national interest. Other prominent adherents to this school include Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and CFR President Richard Haass.


Because the Democratic Party has not been in power since 2000, Democrats have had little opportunity to craft foreign policy in recent years. Although many Democrats seem uneasy with the doctrine of preemption outlined by George W. Bush’s administration, the party has done a poor job of clearly outlining an alternative. Following the 2004 presidential election, many experts accused the Democratic party of being directionless. The 2006 mid-term elections and the 2008 presidential race will provide a pair of opportunities for leading Democrats to share their foreign policy vision with the American people. Here are the schools of thought they will draw upon:

  • Liberal Internationalists. Like the neocons, this group of policymakers is compelled by the Wilsonian notion that the spread of democracy is imperative to global stability. They differ from neocons in that they envision the democratic peace coming about through the work of multinational institutions rather than the use of force, says Mead. Aside from their penchant for democracy promotion, liberal internationalists have a great deal in common with their traditional counterparts on the other side of the aisle. Senator John Kerry’s (D-MA) statement in the 2004 presidential debate that "our country is strongest when we lead the world, when we lead strong alliances," is a clear articulation of the internationalist world view. Liberal internationalists are compelled by realpolitik, though they believe "multilateralism is the basis of the national interest," says Schlesinger. Many prominent Democrats, such as Kerry, Bill Clinton, and Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) subscribe to the tenets of liberal internationalism. They trace their roots through John F. Kennedy and back to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brezezinski, also falls into this category.
  • Protectionists. Compelled by the same Jacksonian notions as the moderate isolationists, most protectionists believe the nation’s resources ought to be focused on the homeland. While they often advocate projecting U.S. power, protectionists maintain actions abroad should serve the purpose of increasing safety at home. Likewise, they believe in alliances that lessen the United States’ load in the in world, and are in favor of development programs that pertain to U.S. security, such as confronting the AIDS pandemic. While most protectionists subscribe to this line of reasoning, there are some—like controversial filmmaker Michael Moore—who advocate a cautious foreign policy because they feel international meddling does more harm than good. Former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) is a more mainstream protectionist, writing in Foreign Policy in 2003 on the "illusory security of isolation" as evidence "the United States must be engaged in world." The 2004 Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean (D-VT) would also be in this grouping, as would other would-be third-party residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue like Ralph Nader and Ross Perot. Protectionists often have created coalitions with like-minded lawmakers in the GOP to block or threaten passage of free trade legislation.
  • Single-Issue Groups. Also called "social welfare" internationalists, this group of foreign policy thinkers—like other internationalists—calls for the United States to take an active role in shaping world events. However, they see the United States’ proper role as a champion of new transnational issues, such as poverty eradication and preventing the spread of disease. Experts say this breed of internationalist is made uncomfortable by traditional foreign policy, which they feel lacks a sufficient moral component. Likewise, they are reluctant to use force, though they nonetheless advocate humanitarian intervention. Advocates for a moral foreign policy often believe this approach is warranted both by the United States’ status as a great power, as well as its unique history and ideals—a notion Alexis de Tocqueville dubbed "American Exceptionalism" in 1831. Yet the idea that America should embody lofty ideals can be traced all the way back to a 1630 sermon by Puritan settler John Winthrop likening the new colonies to "a city upon a hill." More contemporary advocates of such policies include Harvard University’s Samantha Power and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee. Single-issue groups have had a significant impact on American policy toward individual countries, including Haiti, South Africa, Myanmar, and Israel.
  • Anti-War. While critics of the Iraq war and the war on terror can be found in many of the schools of foreign policy thought, there exists an element of the debate that is focused almost exclusively on the war. Though this is certainly a single-issue group, it bears distinct characteristics from the "social welfare" strain of internationalism. Part of the anti-war camp takes a pacifist stance, objecting to the war on moral grounds. Yet another group of protesters and critics have found the more effective policy arguments to be strategic. Mead says suggestions that the war "is making us less safe" and "limits civil liberties" are similar to anti-war critiques throughout U.S. history and represent a classic Jeffersonian argument. Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI), the only senator to vote against the war in Iraq, is the most prominent policymaker in this camp, though as the Iraq war’s casualty count rises, many others have belatedly returned to this fold, including Senator Carl Levin, (D-MI), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

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