Wednesday, 24 March 2010

“American Foreign Policy”, by Paul Viotti (Polity)


War & Conflict in the Modern World – How the US approaches Foreign Policy

As the world’s only superpower, America’s foreign policy inevitably has a major impact – be it positive or negative – on contemporary international affairs. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, George W. Bush’s decision to move away from multilateral decision-making toward a more aggressive, pre-emptive style of foreign policy attracted widespread debate, and criticism, throughout the world. Reversing direction, the Obama presidency is placing greater emphasis on constructive or peaceful engagement within multilateral frameworks, relying on special envoys to deal with some of the thorniest problems.

This book explores American foreign policy from the founding of the Republic in the late 18th Century to the present day. Part 1 examines the broad policy options available to the US government. Part 2 looks at the American experience in foreign policy. Part 3 concludes with an analysis of the politics of interest on the Potomac with analysis of the interplay of contending policy elites, factions and parties influencing foreign policy making today.

Assessing alternatives, the author concludes that even though containment and armed intervention will remain part of the way the United States conducts its foreign policy, diplomatic engagement options are the most promising course of action for the coming decades.

Paul Viotti has written a very interesting, accessible, and well-structured book. He hopes to provide the “long view” of American foreign policy, “seeking in an historical search for explanation at least some ground for practical expectations.” He does this by identifying key policy elites and the ideaas that inform them. The blend of international relations theory and history is well-balanced and detailed. After first setting the scene, with a little discussion of President Obama and the foreign policy agenda and approach he will likely pursue:

“Those who understood the liberal-internationalist orientation of Senator Barack Obama and the policy elite that surrounded him were not surprised when the Obama administration… immediately exhibited a decided preference for constructive or peaceful engagement pursued both bilaterally and multilaterally as the main focus of US foreign policy”

He proceeds to offer chapters explaining – with detailed examples – the key foreign policy approaches available to the US government. First, peaceful engagement – which can be applied to relations with both adversarial states and also indifferent states. Viotti uses Nixon’s engagement with China as a good example of this approach. Next, the author explains containment (and all the “essentially negative measures short of going to war”) through deterrence or coercive diplomacy; and also armed-intervention or warfare. He also explains (coherently and convincingly) how these three approaches can often be combined to create a grander, less-narrow foreign policy.

The second part of the book, “Foreign Policy in the American Experience”, attempts to outline key trends and traditions throughout American history, starting with the late-18th Century foreign policy (the importance and enduring legacy of George Washington’s precedent-setting administration). By exploring these early precedents and elite practices, the moralism of American exceptionalism, as well as the roots of an expansionist American foreign policy, the discussion draws out the continuities running from the 18th century to the present. All these ideas and themes are explained clearly, if not exactly succinctly (Viotti is not averse to over-writing, at times reiterating things that might not need it, or elaborating on some obvious terminology or idea). Viotti then moves on to 19th and 20th Century foreign policy, with territorial-/continental-expansion and the rise of interventionist foreign policies (the World Wars and others).

Part three of the book is especially interesting. In this part, the author locates American foreign policy within international relations theory, looking at both contemporary issues and historical trends and traditions. This makes American Foreign Policy, in my mind, an essential introduction for all IR students who want to learn more about US foreign policy and how it might fit in with theoretical studies of international relations. There will be some who might still get lost by his sudden, increased, use of IR jargon and terminology, but for the main this is a very clear explanantion. (I actually wish this book had been published sooner, so I could have benefited from his explanations when I was first learning about US foreign policy.)

Viott’s approach is predominantly realist (as are, he suggests, most US policymakers), though he acknowledges that much of the content is applicable regardless of your chosen or preferred theory:

“Whether or not consciously realists, liberals, constructivists, or something else, policymakers nevertheless tend to have internalized the set or sets of assumptions. material and ideational understandings, and theories offered by one or other of these camps.”

Throughout American Foreign Policy, Viotti writes about the importance of the individual policymakers’ beliefs, and how they can help shape policy-preferences and decision-making.

“Patterns and relations we observe in the making and implementation of American foreign policy are highly dependent on the subjective and intersubjective exchanges and relationships decision-makers establish within their own policy elites and with those abroad as well.”

Also, in a break from realist theory, Viotti says,

“The ideas human beings formulate, the social constructions that inform our view of the world, and the shared meanings within and across policy elites define the domain of actions and interactions in world politics.”

This quotation is interesting, as it is contentious. While Viotti does recognise that “specifying the relation and causal order between the material and ideational” understandings of IR, “as well as how much allowance is made for human action remain core questions in theory development”, there is little doubt that he believes actors are important to the formulation of foreign policy, and that the structure of international relations must still be taken into account. In other words, he appears to be taking a structural realist macro-perspective and adding a constructivist caveat or addendum at the micro- or individual-level.

The structural framework that must be operated within and taken account of exists on the domestic scene as well. There is only so much an individual can do to affect policy outcomes and decisions, because

“established modalities usually hold sway and, as with other issues, changes in foreign policy tend to be incremental, not sweeping”

And also:

“The status quo is not easily moved, even by presidents, much less those in positions of lesser authority”

In the final two chapters, Viotti takes a look at “Politics on the Potomac” and Presidential Power. For the former, Viotti makes the argument that,

“Interests drive politics. Foreign policy is no exception. But interests do no exist separately as some abstract, purely objective factor external to policymakers. It is their understandings of whose interests and what interests are at stake that matters.”

Viotti walks us through the place of ‘factions’ in US politics and foreign policy, from Madison’s Federalist Paper No.10 and Hamilton’s Federalist Paper No.51 to modern day examples and the workings of ‘K Street’. This book probably won’t satisfy PhD students or professors, but MA and undergrad students should find this invaluable. On Presidential Power, Viotti draws on the formulation and research of Richard Neustadt’s classic work, Presidential Power (1991), and the importance of the president’s powers of persuasion, professional reputation and popular prestige. Specifically:

“Although the general public may not focus on the details or understand the complexity of issues on domestic-, much less foreign-policy agendas as well as policy elites and attentive publics do, the esteem (or lack of it) people hold for a particular president can enhance or diminish the persuasive power of the incumbent and the administration as a whole.”

To which Viotti adds another factor:

“we add that popular prestige also affects professional reputation among policy elites as they take account of the presidents legitimacy or standing with the people as a whole.”

The author then provides a long section discussing the presidencies from Nixon to George W. Bush and their respective usage of presidential power, as well as discussing their ups and downs. This was an interesting section, although I can’t help wishing the author had written this differently, as it has become a most common approach to look at the foreign policies of administrations from Nixon to Bush II, chronologically (Peter Rodman and Neustadt are just two examples). In fairness to Viotti, there aren’t manny other approaches that could be taken – especially as each administration, for the main, builds on the policies of its predecessors.

It would be easy to include far greater detail and more quotations from American Foreign Policy, though the only way you will properly appreciate the contents is by picking up a copy for yourself. If I had one main criticism, it would be that sometimes Viotti remains too much in the abstract – there were plenty of instances, when discussing interests, actors, and so forth when specifics would have added to the discussion. For some reason, however, the author seemed almost allergic to providing names (referring just to, for example, George W. Bush’s vice-president or secretary of defence by job description only).

Filled with interesting analysis and commentary, grounded in solid theory, this is overall a very good book.

Further reading: Ted Widmer, Ark of the Liberties (2008); Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty (2009); George C. Herring, From Colony to Superpower (2009); David Reynolds, America: Empire of Liberty (2009); Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy (2007 - Domestic as well as Foreign policy); Stephen Ambrose, Rise to Globalism (1998); Simon Schama, The American Future (2008)

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