Courtesy Reuters

Two Hundred Years of American Foreign Policy: U.S. Foreign Economic Policy, 1776-1976

It is tempting to view the evolution of U.S. foreign economic policy from 1776 to 1976 as one from isolationism to participation to leadership of the world economic system, a process now starting to show signs of reversal. In terms of the theory of private and public goods, this country for some 170 years looked after its private national interest, then spent a quarter of a century playing a leadership role, pursuing at the same time what it conceived as the public international interest, before exhausting itself and perhaps turning back exclusively to its own affairs.1 Or, in Albert Hirschman's brilliant model of relations within social groupings, the country has moved from "exit" to "loyalty" to "voice"-first a participatory voice and then the voice of command-and may be again heading for the exit.2

But such themes would be too simple. The country is not a unified actor with a single set of purposes, but an amalgam of shifting interests which engage customarily in ambiguous compromises. Economic foreign policy may be global or may make distinctions among regions (North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia, Australasia and most recently Africa); among functions (trade, money, capital and aid transfers, migration, not to mention foreign growth and integration). At any one time there are complex trade-offs among various national and international interests rather than any one dominating the others. There is likely to be a high positive correlation among policies regarding different aspects of the country's economic relations with the rest of the world; nonetheless, there is no escape from detailed description and analysis.

Our interest attaches principally to the recent past. I propose first to sketch the period to World War I rapidly. Thereafter follow sections dealing separately with the 1920s, the Depression, the years following World War II through the 1960s, and then from about 1968 to the present. A brief section concludes with reflections on the prospects now facing both the United States and the world.


The American Revolution represented not so much

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