What Is Foreign Policy And Why Is It Important?

What Is Foreign Policy And Why Is It Important?

The foreign policy of a particular country is as important as its domestic policy. It is both a strategy and guideline for dealing with other countries or states, supranational organizations, other political actors and political entities, and even non-state actors. Furthermore, its general purpose revolves around promoting national interest, influencing other international actors, and shaping geopolitics and international relations.

Understanding the Definition of Foreign Policy Further

Some analysts trace the origin of foreign policy to 17th-century Europe where states began separating and categorizing policies either under their internal affairs or external affairs. Others have argued that it is as old as the oldest organized state or political communities.

Political scientist Halvard Leira explained that the discipline of international relations provides two takes on the definition of foreign policy. The first one describes it as an “abstract expression of relations between political entities” that serves as an analytical tool for examining fundamental issues emerging from the interrelation of organized groups.

The second definition is a critique of the first one. It defines foreign policy not as a bridge between two political entities or organized groups but as one of the manners in which a particular political entity differentiates itself from the rest. This definition makes foreign policy both a producer and a product of the modern state and state system.

Note that the first definition is attuned to the notion the origin of foreign policy is as old as the first organized political community. On the other hand, the second definition is aligned with the view that it is a product of modern international affairs.

18th-century Europe also saw the emergence of the need to separate the affairs of a state into two broad categories. Note that this period was characterized by extreme turbulence in the relationship among European nations or countries due to ongoing conflicts, as well as internal issues and problems affecting a particular country.

Nevertheless, the situation resulted in categorizing issues into two: civil affairs and foreign affairs. Civil affairs pertain to domestic management of internal issues while foreign affairs represent the management of issues outside the sovereign realm.

The modern definition of foreign policy now centers on it being the general goals and objectives that direct the activities and relationships or interactions of a particular state with other states and non-state actors. This policy is influenced by national interest or domestic considerations and the situations in the international community.

A Look Into the Purpose and Importance of Foreign Policy

In order to understand further the modern definition, it is also necessary to understand the purpose and importance of foreign policy. Remember that this policy is shaped both by domestic considerations and the issues in the greater international community.

The foreign policy of a particular state or country is fundamentally a product of different needs that must be met and issues that must be addressed. Of course, there is a template for designing one, and it revolves around defense and security purposes, advancing economic interest or promoting economic gains, and an internationalist adherence.

1. Defense and Security

Numerous scholars and thinkers have written and published topics on policymaking that seem to suggest the inseparability of defense strategy from foreign policy. One example is the book by Derek S. Reveron, Nikolas K. Gvosdev, and Mackubin Thomas Owens.

In “U.S. Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy,” Reveron, Gvosdev, and Owens explored the relationship between foreign policy and defense strategy. They mentioned that after the Second World War, the United States became a superpower that embraced the responsibility of promoting peace and security through policies directed toward foreign countries.

The Cold War became an avenue for the American government to influence the international community while also battling the domestic threats from the Soviet Union. The U.S. managed these threats by empowering countries at risk of transitioning to communism.

British politics lecturer Thibaud Harrois also wrote an exploratory article on the impact of the post-Cold War Era on the foreign policy and defense policy of the United Kingdom. He noted that the end of the Cold War marked a shift from a realist view of international relations to a more neoliberal adherence that upholds interstate cooperation.

Intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization are the product of this adherence to interstate cooperation. Memberships to these nonstate entities require a suitable foreign policy.

Most modern countries have specific agenda within their respective foreign policies aimed toward the promotion of military alliances to deter threats from aggressors. Some also have specific non-military or soft power agenda to promote defense and security. Notable examples include foreign aid and the rollout of different types of economic sanctions.

2. Economic Interest

Another purpose of foreign policy is to promote the economic interest of a particular country or achieve economic gains. Globalization is an inescapable reality. Countries that want to maximize their advantages must have policies aimed at guiding their participation in global affairs.

The specific process of economic globalization has compelled countries to create policies that would define their role in the global economy and international trade. Some of these policies also have specific guidelines or open opportunities for the creation of more specific policies aimed at directing the participation of a particular country in international trade.

Several countries have also formed intergovernmental organizations and multi-state entities to promote their respective economic interest. Examples include the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Maximizing the benefits of global participation for economic gains spells out the modern importance of foreign policy. A country with a specific policy aimed at promoting its economic interest generally involves creating and enforcing particular guidelines centered on directing its behavior in the global economy and international trade.

3. Internationalist Pursuit

The foreign policy doctrine called liberal internationalism and the idealist school of thought prescribes and argue that stronger and more well-off countries have the responsibility of assisting and guiding weaker and less well-off or less-fortunate countries.

Liberal internationalism has two specific main points. The first one requires international actors to attain multilateral agreements that promote and protect rules-based norms and liberal democracy. The second one requires actors adhering to liberal internationalism to intervene in other countries to pursue liberal objectives.

The foreign policy of the U.S. is partly inspired by the aforesaid doctrine. Remember that Reveron, Gvosdev, and Owens mentioned that the government embraced the responsibility of promoting democracy and maintaining global security after the Second World War.

It is also important to note that several countries also embrace the Responsibility to Protect commitment. All members of the United States endorsed this at the 2005 World Summit to address pressing global human rights issues and mass atrocity crimes such as genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.

Outside the promotion of rules-based international order, countries have specific policies for guiding their international humanitarian programs. These programs center on saving lives, alleviating suffering, and maintaining human dignity in other parts of the world.

The modern importance of foreign policy can also be understood through the emergence of international environmental cooperation. Political scientist John Barkdull explained that the international agreements on environmental issues such as the ongoing climate emergency are a product of the coordination of the foreign policies of different countries.

Acknowledging the Modern Role of Foreign Policy

In answering what foreign policy is and why is it important, it is imperative to acknowledge it based on its modern definition: a set of goals and objectives that direct the activities and relationships or interactions of a particular state with other states and non-state actors.

The foreign policy of a particular country is fundamentally both a strategy and guideline for dealing with other countries or states, supranational organizations, other political actors and political entities, and even non-state actors. The increasing interconnectedness of the world makes dealing with international actors as important as dealing with domestic affairs.

Based on the discussions above, the three general purposes of foreign policy are to promote national security, as well as peace and order elsewhere, advance economic interest through participation in the global economy, and promote the interest of other nations.

The three purposes contradict one another at times. There are situations in which national security and economic interest do not go with the security and economic needs of others. Hence, it is important to look at foreign policy not as a tool for promoting international cooperation but as a way of defining the role of a country as an international actor.


  • Barkdull, J. 2017. “Environmental Policy and Foreign Policy.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Oxford University Press. DOI: 1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.365
  • Harrois, T. 2014. “British Foreign and Defense Policy Since the End of the Cold War: The State and Security Governance.” Observatoire De La Société Britannique. 16. DOI: 4000/osb.1728
  • Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect. n.d. “What is R2P?” Global Center for the Responsibility to Protect. Available online
  • Leira, H. 2019. “The Emergence of Foreign Policy.” International Studies Quarterly. 63(1): 187-198. DOI: 1093/isq/sqy049
  • Reveron, D. S., Gvosdev, N. K., and Owens, M. T. 2014. US Foreign Policy and Defense Strategy: The Evolution of an Incidental Superpower. Georgetown University Press. ISBN: 9781626161580