How Do Governments Approach Foreign Policy?

In this educational video, explore three fundamental questions that shape a country’s relationship with the world through foreign policy.

How to Approach Foreign Policy

Foreign policy of all kinds has a primary objective: to influence other countries in order to protect and advance a government’s interests, values, or both. However, leaders approach that common goal with different strategies.

In general, three main questions inform a government’s approach to foreign policy.

Engagement vs. Isolationism

One debate considers how extensively countries should involve themselves in foreign engagements. Should a country actively participate in global affairs (engagement) or instead try to pull up the drawbridge and shield itself from the outside world (isolationism)?

Idealism vs. Realism

Another debate revolves around which principles should drive foreign policy, and how a government sets its foreign policy priorities. Idealists would say that foreign policy should reflect a country’s internal values and that nations should seek to promote those values abroad. Realists, on the other hand, would say that foreign policy should focus less on a country’s domestic values and more on shaping the foreign policy of other countries to achieve basic economic and political interests abroad.

Unilateralism vs. Multilateralism

A third debate explores what approach governments should take to achieve a country’s foreign policy goals—namely, whether to work with others (multilateralism) or go it alone (unilateralism).

All foreign policy combines elements from both sides of those debates. In turn, the real question facing decision-makers is how much to emphasize each approach in order to achieve their aims.