GOVT 385: American Foreign Policy

Fall Semester Course  

Download Syllabus

Many liberals and realists have regarded the triumph of neo-conservatism after 9/11 as a freak accident that will come to an end together with the Presidency of George W. Bush. And many neo-conservatives have regarded the war in Iraq as a noble experiment in democracy-building that the United States so successfully accomplished in Germany and Japan after World War II. In tracing the effects of America’s multiple political traditions on its foreign policies at home and in analyzing how America’s civilizational imperium encounters “the other” abroad, this course disagrees with both views. Neo-conservatism is not a freak show but draws on and adds to America’s multiple political traditions. And the Iraq war is not a noble experiment but arguably the greatest foreign policy fiasco of the last generation.

The first half of the course argues that at home America is distinguished by multiple traditions and identities which find expression in its foreign policies. It thus challenges two oversimplifications: in liberal America political divisions stop at the water’s edge; and the main fault line on issues of foreign policy have divided realist-nationalists from liberal-internationalists. These are very partial views. They disregard multiple intersections of ideology, class, religion and race that shape American politics and foreign policy. And they fail to accord proper weight to the pivotal role of the South in the political coalitions that have shaped American foreign policy in the last half century.

The second half of the course argues that America is a state on steroids, or imperium, and a nation on stilts, or civilization. The limits of its enormous hard, military power have become painfully clear during the failure the United States has encountered in Iraq. And some of its considerable soft, civilizational power has been squandered. During the Cold War the United States was able to contain the Soviet Union because of its successful incorporation into an anti-Communist alliance two former enemies turned supporter-states, Germany and Japan. Defeated, occupied and subsequently persuaded, both Germany and Japan became civilian powers and strong allies of the United States. With the Cold War receding into history, the irrelevance of Germany and Japan as role models for Iraq well established, and the limits of U.S. military power now clear, we need to inquire into the potential of America’s soft power. America’s civilizational imperium is distinguished by a multiplicity of different kinds of values and types of soft power. Pro- and anti-AmericanismS reflect the diversity of America and of the world. In an increasingly global and international world America is a significant political force everywhere and for all states and polities. But with the exception of Central America it cannot dictate outcomes anywhere. The American civilizational imperium lives in the same neighborhood as do the states in North and Latin America that move in its orbit. At a greater distance it encounters other types of civilizational polities embodying no (Islam), low (Europe), medium- high (China, India) and high (Japan) degrees of stateness.

The intellectual hinge that connects the two parts of the course, is the idea of multiplicity –of traditions and values motivating American politics and its foreign policies on the one hand and of forms of modernity that are distinguishing civilizational polities and states on the other. When the multiple gears that connect America with the world mesh properly, mutual engagements are possible that preserves both diversity in values within a loosely shared sense of moral purpose and international order. When those gears do not mesh properly, mutual engagements are likely to feed misunderstandings and conflicts of interests that can lead to war. The levers that match or mismatch these gears are operated by different actors: governments in Washington D.C and other national capitals, corporate executives shaping and reacting to global markets, NGO’s and individuals meeting in the world of virtual chat rooms or organizing in the back-alleys of Basra. Advocates of one-size-fit-all solutions – right, left and center – to a variegated world politics are in for disappointments.