Friday, 17 October 2008

"Reluctant Crusaders", by Colin Dueck (Princeton University Press)

An excellent examination of American Foreign Policy Tradition

Following the widely-considered disastrous Bush Doctrine, there’s been broad discussion about what America’s “grand strategy” should be in the years following Bush’s departure from the White House. Almost every journal or major magazine has, in some way, posited solutions to America’s declining status and influence in the world. Colin Dueck’s Reluctant Crusaders joins a long and illustrious lineage of work exploring the trends and traditions in US foreign policy.

Reluctant Crusaders examines historical patterns of change and continuity in America’s foreign policy strategy. Dueck looks at four major turning points: the periods (“puzzles”) following World Wars I and II, the Cold War, and 9/11. He shows how American cultural assumptions regarding liberal foreign policy goals, together with international pressures, have acted to push and pull U.S. policy in competing directions over time. The result is a book that combines an appreciation for the role of both power and culture in international affairs.

While liberal internationalists argue that the United States should promote an international system characterized by democratic governments and open markets, Dueck argues that these same internationalists tend to define American interests in broad, expansive, and idealistic terms, without always admitting the necessary costs and risks such a grand vision would entail. The outcome is often sweeping goals (something apparent throughout the 20th Century, from Wilson and Roosevelt, to Clinton and Bush), pursued by disproportionately limited means (see, for example, the current War in Iraq), as a result of entrenched “limited liability” preferences. Dueck has attempted, with considerable degree of success, to explain how this situation is arrived at, and why it continues to endure.

With Reluctant Crusaders, Dueck has attempted to bridge the gap between realism (which emphasises international pressures in foreign policy) and constructivism (emphasises norms, ideas and culture) in the study of US grand strategy. He offers alternative possibilities for policies that could have been pursued, and shows how they might have fit in with American foreign policy tradition – something he does for the eventual policies that were implemented, too.

Despite Dueck's thorough analysis, some will disagree with his conclusions. For example, Dueck significantly reduces the importance of realism in American foreign policy making, identifying it as one of four approaches that make up just one half of foreign policy, where many (myself included) would argue that realism actually underpins a majority of US foreign policy throughout its history - Dueck attributes America’s liberal tradition to the remaining half. Another problem is Dueck's insistance on providing all sides of an argument (as though he was hoping to be all things to all readers), the sides of which he doesn't always flesh out completely - such as the importance of liberal rhetoric and how it reflects actual motivations. Dueck was on to something very good in this section, but he didn't develop the idea as much as he perhaps could.

Nevertheless, and theoretical differences aside, Dueck offers cogent, well-thought-out arguments, which should provide material to either make people rethink their opinions (even I did a little), or help others come to grips with the various issues at stake in American foreign policy.

The book is well structured and clearly laid out in sections which deal with Dueck’s various arguments and theories, offering a user-friendly guide to American foreign policy strategy. The book’s main strength is the argument that no one theory explains American foreign policy culture, but rather that it is a combination of realism, liberalism and cultural constructivism that can help to explain US grand strategy – Dueck refers to this as “neoclassical realism”. Another strength is Dueck’s lack of stridence, as he freely admits that this theory is not faultless; he uses a good range of examples to “prove” that it suffices for a broader understanding of foreign policy. While some might be put off by his theoretical chapters (1 & 2), the following chapters that focus on the aforementioned turning points are extremely good, full of historical detail that should interest most, even if you are not overly familiar with the theory.

Insightful, detailed, persuasive and engaging, Reluctant Crusaders is a fresh (and sometimes unique) look at how America historically has approached the world, and the various forces exerting pressure on the tug-of-war policy-making process of today.

Also try: My PhD thesis (pending, 2010); Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State (1997); Stephen E. Ambrose & Douglas Brinkley, Rise To Globalism (1997)

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