The Foreign Policy Triangle: A Schema to Promote Understanding of the Basis for Foreign Policy Decisions.

Author:Brown, Russell C.
Position:Commentary & Analysis - Essay

March/April 2017

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...

To continue reading