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LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush: The Influences Upon Their Foreign Policy

Updated on December 19, 2017

Presidents may come and go, but American foreign policy is forever. It may however, shift over time, as presidents react to different circumstances, different challenges, carry different objectives, and circumstances play out differently in response. For three decades, six presidents - Lyndon Banes Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, struggled with the challenges of first the cold war, and then the end of the cold war, both operating in the binary framework of the cold war and then attempting to move beyond it.

The influences upon Lyndon Banes Johnson were many, but the principal ones were related to hegemony and gender - perhaps, if one wished to sound more formally academic, to prestige and reputation. By far the most important foreign policy decision made throughout the policy of Lyndon Banes Johnson was the American decision to involve itself in the war raging in the distant land of South Vietnam, something that would give rise to a futile 10 years of American involvement in this poor country, ultimately ending with an ignominious defeat. What led President LBJ here?

Here, the above mentioned hegemony concerns - the position of the United States as the center of the international community (the United States being the current hegemony, although others have existed in various global and regional systems throughout history), and issues of masculinity/credibility present themselves. LBJ, concerned about the loss of South Vietnam to North Vietnam, about losing a state which was under the American security umbrella, which the US had worked hard to prop up and to stabilize, was something which was perceived as dangerously undermining the United State’s credibility and centrality in its alliance system. To let South Vietnam fall to the North Vietnamese would be weakness, and against the cult of manliness inoculated into the American foreign policy establishment.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon was sworn into office. The United States had a global role and a global mission, but it was one which was critically affected by internal considerations, as the United States was faced with the problem of dis-engagement from the war from Vietnam, shoring up internal support, and dealing with the declining stability of the world monetary system of which the United States was the leader. It was these internal considerations which drove Nixon, and throughout his presidency his foreign policy, and that of his National Security Council head Henry Kissinger, were directed to resolving these triple problems.

Nixon’s two great innovative foreign policy initiatives were his rapprochement with China, and détente with the USSR. By forming a de-facto alliance with China, his hopes were that he would be able to apply negotiating power over the North Vietnamese, and to form a three-player international system, where he would be able to cooperate with the Chinese against the Russians, enhancing his bargaining power against the Soviet Union. It furthermore offered important possibilities for the United States economically : the China market, a fantasy more than a century old embedded into American dreams, proffered China as a vast market for the United States, capable of absorbing tremendous US exports. Finally, it would enable the president to outflank his Democratic rivals, as a gesture of peace.

This movement towards a rapprochement with China, was part of a broader process of détente with the USSR, based off of co-existence. Despite this terminology, détente was a solidly conservative strategy : it aimed to achieve stability for both the United States and the USSR, so that they would be able to concentrate on pressing domestic issues at home. The USSR had faced rebellions in its satellite states in Eastern Europe, and the United States virtual rebellions in its cities by protesters. The monetary cost of the struggle against the Soviet Union would be reduced, trade to the USSR would flourish with huge grain exports, and vitally, Nixon assumed that Moscow would be able to restrain the North Vietnamese against South Vietnam. The first two would prove correct, the last a miscalculation.

Vietnam had troubled the United States for more than a decade, and for Richard Nixon, this had dangerous domestic consequences. Nixon had been elected partially upon a platform stating his intention to end the war, but by 1972, four years later, the conflict in Vietnam still raged. Nixon, eager to finally get rid of the war, signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam in 1973, in full knowledge that its terms rendered South Vietnam indefensible. Kissinger gave it two years at most. South Vietnam collapsed soon, but Nixon had achieved his promise to end the war, years later than it had to have been.

The final great drama of the Nixon administration was its great reform of world financial system, coming after oil shocks and a long period of deteriorating economic conditions. Once again, this shift away from the Bretton-Woods system was driven principally by domestic concerns, in this case an intent to rid the United States of its troublesome balance of payment problems. Thus, on all fronts, the major foreign policy initiatives of the Nixon administration were driven by domestic policy concerns, intended to increase the popularity of the President, improve the stability of the United States, and rid the United States of the heavy burden of its aggressive cold war role.

Gerald Ford was an irrelevant president who doesn’t need to have his own section.

The paths chosen by President Nixon would be ones which the United States would continue to trod under President Ford. But under President Carter, the winds of change began to make themselves felt. Carter was not the realpoltik-minded Nixon, and his presidency was one which was based upon finding a new role for the United States in a changing world. The challenge faced by Carter was at first a deceptively simple one : how to reconfigure the United States and its relationships with the world after the disaster of Vietnam, which had weakened America morally, politically, and financially. Carter’s initial aim was to re-invigorate the United States in her relationship with the world through a foreign policy stressing human rights, multilateral re-adjustment of claims, peace in the Middle East, and arms reductions with the USSR. In effect, his policies were based on a global restructuring of the United States which would move past the Cold War binary.

Unfortunately for Carter, these proposals were not as easy to achieve as he might have hoped. A defining early initiative of his presidency were negotiations over the Panama Canal, culminating in the Torrijos-Carter treaties. This transferred the Panama Canal and the Panama Canal Zone to Panama, but it met with intense internal critique within the United States. For Carter, it represented a more moral foreign policy, respecting of the rights of small nations and attempting to right wrongs that had been done in the past : in this regards, reversing the dreadful toll that Vietnam had laid upon the consciousness of the United States. For its opponents however, the perception was that it was a surrender to an illegitimate foreign government, showing the weakness of an American government unwilling to stay strong in the response of claims by foreign, principally non-white, nations. A long running divide in American foreign policy would be defined by this.

Carter’s other policies went with equal problems. His attempts at promoting human rights diplomacy foundered upon various difficulties, such as the need for stability and allies - thus continued support for repressive regimes like that in Iran, or South Africa (the latter helped by his own views which emphasized moderation in regards to changes in civil rights) - and was also undermined by the influence of Kissinger, who had driven a policy at the State Department fervently opposed to the inclusion of human rights in US diplomacy, a line which would continue to be influential long after he had himself lost power. In arms accords with the USSR, clumsy missteps alienated USSR leadership, and his crowning achievement - the Camp David Accords, creating a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel - would be undermined by continued Israeli intrastrangience upon the Palestinian issue.

But Carter did not live in a static world, and he would soon have the capability to be an actor formulating policy taken away from him, and would become instead a reactor to events. Iran towards the end of his presidency spiralled into revolution, destroying a critical US ally and replacing it with a hostile regime, which proceeded to take nearly a hundred Americans hostage in the US embassy in Tehran. For well in excess of a year, Carter attempted to get the hostages returned, but despite his best efforts at diplomacy, and a failed military intervention, they were released humiliatingly just ast President Reagan was sworn into office. To the north, the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan, fearful of the danger that Iran represented as a radicalizing agent to its own band of Muslim republics. Carter’s efforts to attempt a reconciliation with the USSR, and abroad to move beyond the binary of Cold War politics, had failed. An arms build up began, an embargo placed upon the USSR for vital grain, and an American boycott emplaced upon participation in the 1980 Moscow olympics. It is an irony that the man who first sought to move the United States beyond the Cold War would ultimately see the end of his presidency marked by its final re-invigoration.

The 1980 elections brought a very different man from Carter, President Ronald Reagan. Reagan appeared as a near opposite of Carter, elected upon a policy which pledged to restore American strength and might around the world, to challenge the Soviet Union - which he dubbed the “evil empire” - and its international forces of communism wherever they stood, through a massive build up in American arms and firmness in the face of the USSR. The return to a binary relationship between the USSR and the United States reduced Carter’s already flagging emphasis on civil rights, a requirement of the need for American allies around the world.

Reagan however, did combine this with certain elements that were more in line with Carter’s principles. Despite his calls for American strength and military power, he was a convinced opponent of nuclear weapons. In his quest to rid the world of the need for its atomic sword which served as the arbiter of peace, the United States conceived of the program “Star Wars”, intended for ballistic missile defense, shielding the United States from the vast Soviet nuclear missile arsenal through a highly advanced array of space-based weapons. This however, showed Reagan’s own limitations. Reagan’s attitudes towards it were mostly pacific, seeing it as a defensive tool against the USSR. For the military officials who developed it, their interest was that it would provide for an offensive weapon capable of precision strikes upon the USSR, in effect providing yet another arrow in the American quiver. In the end, both factions were disappointed by the technological infeasibility of the project, but it had important ramifications in arms discussions with the USSR.

Back upon our poor little green and blue marble, things were yet less pacific still. Carter had started American programs for aiding resistance against Soviet operations in Afghanistan, but under Reagan these would be expanded still more. The goal here was to blunt Soviet power and to cooperate in the “rollback” of communism, part of the “Reagan doctrine”, which superseded containment - the policy of attempting to contain the Soviet system - with a new policy of attempting to roll it back across the world. American intelligence, money, and arms, helped the Afghan rebels against the Soviet army, turning Afghanistan into a bloody quagmire equivalent to the American experience in Vietnam less than a decade earlier.

In the Middle East, the US perspective was dominated by two rivalries and a quagmire. Saudi Arabia and Israel were both formally allies of the US, but Israel feared that excess arms sales to Saudi Arabia would endanger its own position. As a result, the US had to sell tremendous arms and cooperate with the Israelis to appease them, something which sat poorly with other Arab states. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon brought things to a head, especially when israeli-allied forces engaged in a wanton massacre of Palestinians, leading to US forces to be sent in to attempt a peace-keeping mission, with no understanding of what they were actually supposed to do to achieve this peace. A powerful truck bomb which killed hundreds of US marines ultimately led to a US withdrawal from Lebanon, partially aided by a US claim that their usage was needed in invading Grenada instead, as part of a US policy of rollback of leftist governments in Latin America. This too had a connection to the other major conflict in the Middle East, this one an actual war, as iraq and Iran fought a bloody war. Iraq had been tacitly backed by the US in its invasion of Iran, after the Iranian hostage crisis, but the US also sold arms to the Iranians, which it then funneled the money from to fund US-backed rebels against the Nicaraguan government. This asides, the US’s main interest in the Iran-Iraq war was ensuring that neither side achieved hegemony over the other, and protecting the free flow of oil. The latter was achieved through US convoy escorts of oil tankers, which was mostly successful, although marred by the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet liner with the deaths of hundreds of Iranian civilians.

The tone of the Reagan administration and its objectives did not stay the same forever though. In time, Reagan’s position moved steadily away from his previous stance, emphasizing detente and understanding with the Soviet Union. In this regard, the Soviet Union, under new reformist leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who would win the cold war for the United States, was an eager partner. From a previous emphasis upon a binary US-USSR relationship locked in hostility, Soviet disarmament and a willing American response helped to transform Reagan’s objectives, while still concentrated upon foreign policy, into a new emphasis on mutual co-existence and humanitarian objectives.

Reagan’s successor was George H.W. Bush, the US president at the end of the Cold War. This meant that he picked up where previous presidents had failed or started : the task of moving the United States beyond a cold war perspective. If LBJ had been influenced by gender and hgemony, if Nixon had been mostly driven by domestic concerns, Carter by a foreign policy perspective which aimed to simultaneously retrench the United States and to utilize this to shape a more multilateral position in the world, and Reagan by national security concerns, then George H.W. Bush marked important economic-driven considerations in the United State’s foreign policy. The most memorable event of the Bush presidency was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which the United States met with overwhelming force and routed the Iraqi soldiers with minimal casualties, sending them back into Iraq over the aptly named “Highway of Death”. The most important reason for this operation, much discussed and debated, was to ensure the continued independence of Kuwait and its alignment with the United States, as the loss of one of the nations with the highest amount of oil production in the world to a nation hostile to the United States would gravely undermine the United State’s position. Economic considerations were not lacking elsewhere either, as the United States tempered its response to the Chinese Tiananmen square incident, preferring to keep valuable trade contacts open with China - this despite the end of China’s position as an important strategic rival against the USSR.

US Presidencies have been much affected by various foreign policy perspectives throughout the last half century, and these are only a dusting of the numberless amount of various considerations which weighed upon them in their eternal quest to find America’s place in the world.

© 2017 Ryan Thomas


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