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The Tools of US Foreign Policy

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From diplomacy to military intervention, Senior Fellow Elizabeth Shackelford unpacks the ways Washington can pursue its foreign policy interests.
Lizzy Shackelford speaks in a video Play Video

The United States has many tools to pursue its national interests through foreign policy. What are they, and when are they most useful? Here’s what you should know.

The United States has many tools to pursue its national interests through foreign policy.

These tools can range in scale of cost and risk. On one end, you have diplomacy, the least expensive and risky tool, and also the least visible. At the other end is direct military intervention.

In between, there’s humanitarian and development aid, economic tools like trade and  sanctions, and military assistance like intelligence sharing, weapons sales, and training.

Diplomacy is unique in that it's foreign policy tool itself and it's also a way to promise or threaten the use of other tools.

The US response to Russia’s war in Ukraine provides a useful lens to see these different tools in action.

Leading up to Russia’s invasion last year, the US relied on diplomacy to communicate the threat to allies and prepare a unified response. It also tried diplomatic engagement with Russia to deter military action, but that fell short.

After the invasion, US leaders knew a Russian victory over Ukraine would harm our national security interests and our allies, so we provided humanitarian and financial assistance to help Ukraine stay afloat.

Development assistance is less useful in an active conflict but will certainly be part of any recovery. While both come at a cost, these tools are relatively inexpensive and they don’t risk the escalation that other tools can.

We also launched coordinated sanctions and export controls. Sanctions are often ineffective, particularly when countries like China help fill the economic gap, but they have limited Russia’s access to funds and made it harder to resupply for the fight.

Now these same sanctions can harm our economies, like the increased cost of energy.

Next is military assistance, like weapons, ammunition, and training.

This gets riskier because we can train and outfit a partner military, but don’t control how they use our assistance. Sometimes it feeds conflict instead of mitigating it.

But the most expensive, uncertain, and lethal tool we have is direct military intervention.

Since World War II, the US has too quickly resorted to direct military intervention often with poor results and unintended consequences.

On Ukraine, the Biden administration seems to have learned from the past and has emphasized that we won’t go directly to war with Russia—relying instead on a combination of other less risky tools, in close coordination with our allies, to secure our national security interests.

The costs today might seem high, but if we can help end an unjust war without going to war ourselves, we’re likely to save a lot more in the long run.

About the Speaker
Elizabeth Shackelford
Former Senior Fellow, US Foreign Policy
Council staff Elizabeth Shackelford
Elizabeth Shackelford, a former career diplomat who served the US Mission to Somalia and the US Embassy in South Sudan, focuses on building awareness and understanding of a "restraint" approach to foreign policy, which seeks to limit the use of force to core US security interests and favors diplomatic engagement.
Council staff Elizabeth Shackelford

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