Syllabus Musing—can we teach foreign policy without paradigms?

13 October 2018, 0911 EDT

As a new postdoc to the Kinder Insitute, I have the good fortune not to be teaching this semester. In addition to working on my book manuscript—more on that later—I have been spending a good deal of time thinking through my class on U.S. foreign policy. This has been a good experience even at this early stage because it has forced me to think about what students really need to know about foreign policy, and it has provided me the spurring I needed to begin distilling my graduate training into a systematic framework.

Writing a syllabus poses several challenges, not least of which are what the students should learn. Although it would be nice to have some aggregate data, at this time I am unaware of anything like the GRaduate Assignments Data Set (GRADS) on graduate readings in IR. And although it would be nice to have data on what approaches work best, I have a hunch that most of what we do does not actually train students to think about foreign policy in a serious way.

My own survey of syllabi, both from GRADS and my own smaller collection, suggest that the plurality of courses in foreign policy begin with a brief survey of the paradigms, maybe some introductory concepts like the agent-structure problem, research programs, some methods, and then finally about half way through a semester or later, finally get into the meat of specific issues and themes. And sure, maybe its an exaggeration to characterize foreign policy and IR courses this way. But my growing hunch is that a lot of the explanation for teaching foreign policy this way stems from the tension between foreign policy and IR. The former, I think, looks at international politics from the vantage point of the state or politician’s view of the international system; the later looking at states like the old familiar billiard ball. There are strengths to each, and there are great ways of teaching foreign policy without relying on IR approaches as the primary lens through we introduce students to foreign policy.

Can foreign policy be taught without reference to the paradigms of realism, liberalism, and constructivism? Can be taught without weeks of theoretical and conceptual throat clearing? If so, how so?

My forthcoming class will read the intellectual history of U.S. foreign policy, or as much of it as we can in a single semester. Indeed, my hope is to read only one (maybe two) “books” on foreign policy, enough to give them a common foundation of U.S. foreign policy and then to proceed reading speeches, debates, national security strategies, and the like. So we’ll read on history, perhaps Walter R. Mead’s Special Providence so that students have a grasp on the history of the U.S. as an international actor.1

After that, students will just start reading. Classes will need at least some structure, so I plan on structuring the readings around a different debate, that between engagement and restraint. This approach has several (potential) upshots for undergraduates. First, it jumps right into the deep end of U.S. foreign policy in a way that could be more approachable. John Quincy Adam’s Independence Day Speech of 1821 (the famous “do not go in search of monsters to destroy” speech) is a relevant and oft cited antecedent to more recent arguments about U.S. overextension. So too is Hamilton’s position as Pacificus or John Hay’s “Open Door” to the arguments in favor of engagement.2

Collecting these readings poses its own challenges. As far as I can tell, the only book in print is the new to press (April 2018) of Andrew Bacevich’s Ideas and American Foreign Policy. It is an updated edition of by Norman Graebner. I’ve not yet had a chance to review Bacevich’s book, but I did request an exam copy from OUP. One weakness of the new edition is that it seems to have cut out a lot of earlier readings to make room for newer contributions. Graebner’s Ideas and Diplomacy was nearly 900 pages and was printed in 1964. Bacevich’s edition is just shy of 550. But the TOC reveals that it includes entries all the way through Trump’s inaugural.

Is this sufficient? To be honest, I’m unsure. Any class is an exercise in compromise and there would be a lot left off the table if a course were structured in this way. Granted some of it can be augmented with lecture. Since many students in political science will have taken other courses in IR, there may be ample room to discuss the core concepts either as they emerge in the primary source readings or as a sidebar from the primary organization of the class.3

But the upshot of such a design, I think, is that it will teach students to think and argue about foreign policy in a way that is grounded not in the realm of social science abstractions, but meaningful and interesting ideas. Much of foreign policy, indeed politics in general, that students are exposed to in their every day life are such ideas. Learning to identify logical fallacies, rhetorical strategies, or turns of phrase still employed should have benefits not achievable otherwise. If I can solve second order challenges like evaluation, grading, assignments, and the like, I think this course could prove to be quite strong.

Postscript. This is my first post as a guest contributer to the Duck. Many thanks to the entire team here for bringing me on. I’ve been a long-time reader of the duck, and one had the chance to guest blog on Star Wars and Just War Theory. Maybe I’ll do so again. But for now, all my gratitude to the Duck and its readers.

  1. Careful readers may wonder what the difference between my “common foundation” for the class is and the “theoretical and conceptual throat clearing” I criticize. Perhaps nothing. It might be a distinction without a difference. But I think the main difference is that it orients the richness vs rigor toward the former.
  2. Btw, if you have taught a class this way, please reach out to me. I’d love to see some examples and chat with anyone who has thoughts on what work and did not work.
  3. Case in point, during my intro to IR course at Texas, Pat MacDonald had a number of research design sidebar scheduled throughout the course. At the time, the department did not have a dedicated research design class and Pat wanted to ensure that the IR students had, at a minimum, a place of reference for those ideas. It was a much needed and much welcomed addition to the usual intro survey.