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Duck Forum on Teaching US Foreign Policy #1

October 16, 2013

replace-a-us-passport-main_Full[Note:  This is a guest post by Bruce Jentleson from Duke University.  It is the first in a four-part forum on teaching US Foreign Policy.]

Six Concepts in Teaching American Foreign Policy by Bruce Jentleson

As the Cold War went on, among scholars and teachers of American foreign policy there was some settling in to a sense that we knew the questions – containment? nuclear deterrence? Bretton Woods stability? —- and were mostly debating the answers. Since the end of the Cold War there’s been renewed debate over what the questions themselves are. While this bears broadly on IR, it has been especially true for American foreign policy – making the subject as intellectually invigorating as it has been policy challenging.

This was the context in which I wrote the first edition of my American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century (W.W. Norton, 5th edition 2013). The intent has been to serve courses which are more focused on U.S. foreign policy than Intro to IR ones, and broader than ones with regional foci. While the world is not as US-centric as it used to be, how the US handles its 21st century transition has been having and will continue to have broad impact on the rest of IR. And while courses like US-China relations and US-Middle East delve into depth on particular areas, general survey AFP courses provide broad context and framework.

I characterize my AFP teaching approach in six respects:

  • Breaking through the levels-of-analysis barriers and integrating foreign policy strategy — the essence of choice — and foreign policy politics – the process of choice: While in IR’s disciplinary intellectual history emphasis on the systemic level of analysis helped counter reductionist tendencies, it has posed its own problems in limiting a Lasswellian understanding of who influences U.S. foreign policy, how, with what impact, and why.
  • Getting beyond the debate among the “-isms”, and avoiding the reification of “grand strategy”, while providing an analytic framework that helps students see patterns across issues and over time: I’m of the “analytical eclecticism” school, as Peter Katzenstein and Rudra Sil call it, not dismissing the value of macro-theory but getting beyond the either/or terms of debate among the standard paradigms. Similarly while critical of ad hoc issue-by-issue approaches, I often find invocations of “grand strategy” to have less substance than claimed. The analytic framework I’ve been working with is organized on the “4 Ps” conception of the national interest as Power/Peace/Prosperity/Principles. This helps bring out choices about priorities and corresponding debates about complementarity, trade-offs and deep dissensus among the components of the national interest both over time and across issues.
  • Grounding the contemporary focus in historical context: One of my in-class tirades (for effect but still felt) is against “new-isms”: “the Internet changed everything,” “why can’t we have bipartisanship like the good ol’ days”, and sundry others. Whether its presidential-congressional pulls and tugs over going to war, balancing national security and civil liberties, determining how much is enough for defense, how true to be to professed American ideals, where to be along the isolationism-internationalism spectrum, or other recurring “great debates” , so much can be learned from historical perspectives that provide insights and context for 21st century issues.
  • Bridging the gap between theory and policy: This is a theme of much of my work. In my own career my policy experience has enhanced my teaching and scholarship, and I’ve found at least some aspects of my work and perspective as an academic helpful in the policy world. Students find anecdotes from my policy roles to provide color as well as insight, and help with street cred! (Relatedly let me also mention the Bridging the Gap Program that I co-direct with Jim Goldgeier, Steve Weber and other colleagues providing conferences and training for faculty and Ph D students interested in policy relevance).
  • Cultivate critical thinking, research and writing skills: Occasionally I tell my students as they hand in a major research paper that I’m going to throw it out, not read it, that the goal was the process of developing better analytic, research and writing skills. I obviously don’t do that, but the point is important. In my own experience I’ve too often found very smart students who can execute this and that task but whose research, writing and critical thinking skills lag. Math literacy gets all the attention, but I’d put this problem up there at least as high.
  • Burden of understanding on the author not the reader: Many of our books in the scholarly world are written with a tacit sense that the burden of understanding is on the reader. I’m smart, if you don’t get what I say you’re not. A book written principally for others to use in their teaching and with their students has to be written with the author putting much more of the burden of understanding on him/herself. I’ve tried to do that in my book – to the extent that I have, it’s great to hear such from colleagues and students; to the extent that I haven’t I also need to hear that – here on Duck as well as on Twitter #TeachForPol

I’m also teaching a Coursera “MOOC” (massive open online course), starting October 20, in the non-credit quasi-continuing education domain, through which I hope to become more informed on high tech application to higher ed.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.