Chapter 10: Contemporary Political Ideologies | Chapter 11: International Relations in a Changing World | Chapter 12: Basic Terms and Concepts


Chapter 11: International Relations in a Changing World


In 1940, there were 77 independent nations in the world.  Today, there are more than 180.  Some nations are friendly with one another, while others are hostile.  Some are rich in natural resources, while others must import large quantities of energy, minerals or food.  Some nations have thriving economies that make them rich and largely self-sufficient, while others are so poor that their existence depends almost entirely on foreign assistance.  These and other characteristics (including language, religion, culture and type of government) influence the way particular leaders think the world should function and the role their nation should play in world affairs.

   In today's world, no nation acts in isolation.  Decisions made by one nations leaders (about agricultural production, regulation of industry or military expenditures) can have a dramatic effect on other nations.  The interdependence of nations makes international relations, or the interaction among nations, complex and ever changing.  Once a collection of isolated nations, the world can now be called a global community.  Modern methods of communication and transportation provide world leaders access to more information more quickly, but the revolution in communication can also increase the chance of misunderstanding and conflict.  And because the world is so closely linked, understanding the behavior of individual nations is crucial to understanding world events.


   Although every nation in the world has a unique perception of its own national interest, all nations share three broad concerns: security, economics and ideology.  To determine its nations interest, a national government assesses threats to its security, the health of the economy and the well-being of its citizens.


SECURITY.  The most basic interest of any nation, whether it is the tiny island state of Grenada or the giant Peoples Republic of China, is ensuring its physical survival.  Nations form armies to protect themselves from attack and establish military alliances to ensure protection against powerful foes. A nations concern about security depends on its perception of threat.  For example, the small nation of Israel maintains a large, well-equipped army because it is surrounded by hostile neighbors.  The United States maintains large military and nuclear forces for protection against attack.  In contrast, the nation of Switzerland finds security in its mountainous borders, its friendly neighbors and its history of neutrality. But security interests mean more than just protection against outside attack.  A nation must also make sure that social order is maintained and that citizens are safe from violence and crime. 


ECONOMICS.  Most nations seek to promote the economic welfare of their people.  The economic interest of nations varies according to available resources and the development of those resources. Developing nations, such as Botswana in Africa and Bangladesh in Asia, need to procure the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter and health care) for their people.  These nations do not yet have the sophisticated agricultural methods that would enable them to advance beyond basic survival.  Because they are unable to produce enough food for their people, they trade raw materials or cash crops for food and advanced technology. Other nations, such as Germany and Japan, are more industrialized and produce a variety of products, including food, industrial machinery, cars, computers and clothing.  Developed nations usually produce more products than they need.  They then export these products, mostly manufactured goods, to other nations in exchange for needed raw materials and other products. The economic growth of many nations depends on their ability to buy and sell products abroad.  Their economic interests are determined by the needs of their citizens, the types of products they have to sell and how developed their economies are.


IDEOLOGY.  Ideology, a combination of the beliefs, values, culture, religion and historical experiences of a nations people, also plays a role.  All nations have an interest in protecting and promoting their way of life, both domestically and abroad.  The United States, for example, has an ideological interest in promoting and protecting democracy, which it believes to be the best form of government.  U.S. leaders encourage nations around the world to hold free elections and to establish representative government.


   These three concerns, security, economics and ideology, do not exist independently.  Oftentimes, an economic or ideological concern is viewed as a security concern.  For example, if people do not have enough food to eat, the stability, and therefore the security, of the government may be threatened.  Some leaders believe that the physical security of their nation depends on adherence to a particular religion.  These leaders encourage their citizens to do whatever is necessary (including going to war) to defend their ideological beliefs. The responsibility for determining the national interest falls to a nations political leaders.  There is no election to determine national interest. Leaders base their views on what they perceive to be the best interest of the nation.  However, perceptions change and people do not always view the same situation in the same way.  A perception is but one view at one particular time and not necessarily the only view.


   In every nation around the world leaders first determine their nations national interest, then develop a foreign policy, or course of action, to pursue this interest.  The ability of a nation to carry out its foreign policy is based on many factors, including the capability of its government to fund its foreign policy programs, the strength of the nations military and the commitment of its people to support their leaders foreign policy actions.  All leaders must consider these factors carefully because their decisions will have far-reaching effects both at home and abroad. In developing a foreign policy, leaders generally try to balance the immediate needs of their nation with long-term goals.  For example, leaders faced with massive starvation may give higher priority to trading for food than high-tech equipment.  In addition, new circumstances, such as an improved or weakened economy, the discovery of mineral wealth or the militarization of a hostile neighbor, can force leaders to reevaluate the needs of their country.


   A key factor in international relations is power, that is, a nation's ability to influence others.  For centuries, philosophers, world leaders and scholars have tried to define the nature of power.  No one formula exists for predicting the power potential power of a nation.  Like national interest, power derives from a variety of characteristics. Some nations are powerful because they occupy a strategic location or because they control a valuable resource.  Others are powerful because they develop strong, diversified economies.  And their people are willing to sacrifice anything to achieve the nations goals.  However, the most powerful nations are ones like the United States, which seems to have many of these characteristics. No nation has absolute power.  The amount of power is relative to that of other nations and is based on a combination of many factors.  An economist might think that Japan is powerful because of its efficient and prosperous economy.  A general, on the other hand, might disagree, because Japan relies on the United States for military support.  In developing a foreign policy, the relative power of a nation may affect the strategies it employs to achieve its national goals.  A key element in evaluating a particular nations power is geopolitics.


   Geopolitics refers to the way a nations geography (its size, terrain, natural resources and location) affects its political interaction with other nations.  Historically, the geographic characteristics of a nation have greatly influenced its national experience and its behavior toward other nations. Although modern technology allows nations to overcome some obstacles, geopolitics continues to play an important role in the relations between nations.


SIZE.  Size is an important geopolitical characteristic of every nation.  The nations of the world vary tremendously in size.  At one extreme is Russia with just under 8 million square miles and is larger than the entire continent of South America.  At the other extreme, for example, is the tiny nation of Grenada, which covers 133 square miles, only one-ninth the size of Rhode Island. Large nations have several advantages over smaller ones.  First, they are more likely to contain several important mineral resources, different types of soil, diverse terrain and a variety of climates.  These conditions allow a nation to develop a diversified economy, that is, one that is not dependent on a single crop or industry.  For example, American farmers can produce several types of crops and livestock, requiring different types of soil and growing seasons.  U.S. manufacturers have a variety of natural resources, such as coal, oil, natural gas, timber and minerals, which allow them to develop a wide range of industries and products. Second, large nations are better equipped to sustain natural disasters.  If an earthquake, drought, tornado, hurricane or crop failure strikes a large nation, the country as a whole can survive the catastrophe and even help the afflicted areas.  Third, large nations are more likely to be able to survive a military attack. The size of a nation contributes to its ability to absorb disasters and recuperate and prosper. However, it is only one factor that affects a nation's geopolitics.


TERRAIN.  Terrain is another factor.  For example, the country of Chad, located in northern Africa, is a desert nation.  It does not receive sufficient rainfall to grow enough food to feed its population.  Its leaders must cultivate good trade with nations capable of providing Chad with large quantities of food. The terrain along a nation's borders can affect that nation's security.  For example, Poland has been invaded many times because its western border is a plain that offers no natural protection.  Switzerland, in contrast, has been able to maintain a policy of neutrality despite several wars in Europe because of its mountainous borders.


NATURAL RESOURCES.  The natural resources of a nation can be a key factor in the geopolitics of a nation.  For example, small nations with few resources can command considerable influence if they control a resource that is in demand.  In 1973, the major oil-producing nations (including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Nigeria) raised the price of oil, curtailed production and placed an embargo on some shipments.  Since the world's industrialized nations depend on oil as a key energy source, the result was an energy crisis of massive proportions around the world.  The Arab Oil Embargo of 1973 demonstrated how the world's dependency on one source of energy could give several nations tremendous power over the rest of the world.  Some nations, such as Germany and Japan, are endowed with several key resources, but need to import others.  The relationships of these two countries with other nations reflect their need for oil and other raw materials to fuel their growing industrial economies.  As a consequence, both try to maintain a neutral policy toward nations in the Middle East because they are dependent on that regions supply of oil. Nations with a diversity of resources, such as the United States, Russia and Canada, are usually less dependent on other nations to fulfill their needs.  Rich in natural resources, these countries are able to pursue foreign policies that reflect their relative independence from other nations.


LOCATION.  One of the most important geopolitical concerns of a nation is its location.  If a nation is surrounded by friendly neighbors, it does not have to take undue measures to protect its borders.  For example, the border between the United States and Canada is the longest open border in the world, but requires little monitoring because the two countries maintain good relations.  The United States is also protected by the world's two largest oceans, which historically has saved it from invasion. However, if a nation is bordered by hostile nations, that nation will have to protect its borders against attack.  For example, Russia borders twelve, sometimes hostile, nations.  No other nations shares borders with as many countries, and because of this the Russians are extremely concerned about maintaining secure borders against potential invaders. The location of some nations gives them a strategic advantage.  The word strategic describes something that is of great importance to a strategy or plan, usually a military plan.  The United States considers Iceland strategic because it is located halfway between North America and Europe.  The U.S. considers the Philippines strategic because of its location in the South Pacific.  The U.S. Government maintains friendly relations with both nations because it wants to keep military bases there.


NATIONAL RESOLVE.  Geopolitical advantages enhance a nation's ability to promote its national interest.  However, a nation with few advantages can achieve some power if its people share strong beliefs about the nations goals and interests.  The willingness of people to sacrifice to achieve national goals is called national resolve.  National resolve is an important, though intangible, element of power. Very often the political leaders of a nation mobilize public opinion and motivate people to work for a nations goals.  Throughout history, appeals to nationalism, ideology or religion have prompted people to sacrifice much.  Threats to national security also increase resolve.  But sometimes people are not willing to support the policies of their nations government.  In the 1960s, many Americans did not support U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.  Public reaction against the war eventually forced the government to withdraw its troops from Vietnam.  Few leaders can be successful in international relations without the support of a majority of the nation's people.


   In every nation of the world, a national government strives to assess threats to security, the health of the economy and the well-being of its people in order to determine the national interest.  Since no nation can fulfill all its needs domestically, every nation must have a plan for dealing with other nations, that is, a foreign policy. Geopolitical advantages and national resolve add greatly to a nations power.  For this reason, a nation's leaders seek to convert the geopolitical advantages of their nation into economic and military power.  Economic and military strength adds to a nations stability (e.g., its security) and most leaders recognize that ensuring stability is in their nations interest.


   In the modern world, no nation acts in isolation.  All nations depend on one another for goods and services.  Therefore, decisions made by one nation about its industrial output or agricultural production can affect nations around the world.  This concept, called interdependence, guides the economic relations of all nations in todays world.  The economic health of one nation is intertwined with many others. Trade between nations has been going on for thousands of years.  Even when a nation's standard of living was primitive enough not to require international trade, people still sought spices, textiles and minerals that could enhance the quality of their lives. Today, few nations can satisfy all their people's needs or desires with the resources available within their own borders.  Thus, international trade is a way for a nation to obtain goods that would be uneconomical or impossible for it to produce.  World trade is also an important way for a nation to increase its supply of money and jobs.  Through trade, the economies of nations grow faster than they would if all goods and services were produced for just their people.


   In the past five decades, leaders of the international community have come to recognize that the health of one nations economy can affect the health of others.  To encourage world trade, they meet periodically to discuss economic issues and negotiate agreements on the conduct of trade.  They recognize that it is in the interest of all nations to promote a stable world economy.


BRETTON WOODS.  Toward the end of World War II, world leaders began to develop the international economic system that exists today.  In 1944, forty-four Western nations met at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire to create a new monetary system.  Under this system exchange rates between foreign currencies were fixed against the value of the American dollar.  In 1971, it was reformed into a floating exchange system in which the value of currencies relative to one another are free to change daily.  With this new system, the value of a country's currency reflects the health of its economy.  Adopting guidelines on currency exchange rates helps to stabilize international trade.


INTERNATIONAL MONETARY FUND.  The forty-four countries that participated in the Bretton Woods Conference also agreed to establish the International Monetary Funds (IMF).  The major purpose of this institution is to lend money to nations in need of financial assistance.


WORLD BANK.  The Bretton Woods Conference proposed the creation of another organization, the World Bank, to assist in financing post-war reconstruction projects and to support less developed nations in their search for credit.  Money for loans was to come either from private sources or from the World Bank itself.


GATT.  In 1947, shortly after establishing the Bretton Woods systems, eighty-three nations signed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which established a code of conduct for trading nations.  GATT provides an international forum for nations to discuss trade issues such as tariffs, quotas and other forms of economic protectionism.


ECONOMIC SUMMITS.  In 1975, the leaders of seven leading non-Communist countries (Canada, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, West Germany and the United States) met for an economic summit to coordinate policies and seek solutions to common problems.  The economic summit has since become an annual event. The economic landscape has changed considerably in the last twenty years.  The United States and Europe, once considered the economic giants of the world, are increasingly being challenged by nations that were once non-competitive, such as Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. 


   Nations that support free trade, or trade without restrictions, believe that consumer demand, rather than government regulation, should determine which products are sold in a country and at what price.  Supporters of free trade argue that restrictions on trade (such as tariffs and quotas) can cause the price of imported goods to increase.  In the early 1980s, for example, when the United States and Japan agreed to restrict the number of Japanese-made automobiles that could be imported, the price of those cars rose dramatically.  Such price increases reflect government interference rather than consumer demand, which alone should determine the price of goods and services.  However, for free trade to operate fairly, all nations must abide by the same rules.


   Protectionists believe that a nations primary responsibility is to protect its domestic industries from foreign competition.  They view tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers as necessary tools to limit the number of foreign goods that enter a country so that consumer demand for domestic goods increases and thereby keeps domestic industries fully employed.  Protectionists believe that government regulation can preserve jobs in domestic industries, thereby protecting economic stability.  Japan has been severely criticized for its strict protectionist policies that prevent many foreign-made products from entering the country.


   Trade can be an essential part of a nation's foreign policy.  Nations use trade to promote domestic economic growth, but they can also use it as a tool to attain a foreign policy goal.  For example, trade was a key element of détente, the goal of which was to ease tensions between the United States and the then Soviet Union.  President Richard Nixon believed that an increase in trade between the superpowers would increase their sense of interdependence and therefore decrease the likelihood of military conflict.  Trade can also be used to influence a nation to change a particular policy.  For example, many nations imposed trade sanctions against South Africa at one time in an attempt to change that countrys racial policies.


   Protectionist trade barriers can create ill will among nations.  The imposition of tariffs and quotas by one nation can lead to retaliation by another.  In today's world, however, assuring the economic well-being of other nations is within the national interest of most others.  Economic well-being is usually associated with political stability and a politically stable nation is a more predictable trading partner.  Generally, the more nations trade with one another, the greater the chance that they will try to avoid conflict in other areas.