For all their differences, Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama have taken remarkably similar approaches to Afghanistan. Both entered office, conducted reviews of the domestically unpopular American-led war, and ultimately decided to increase the U.S. troop numbers there while continuing to support shaky, often corrupt, Afghan government partners.

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Plus symoblOur reviewers agree that Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth have produced what Rosemary Kelanic describes as “an extremely useful book that should be required reading for all students of US grand strategy.” The reviewers have paid Brooks and Wohlforth the deep compliment of taking their arguments seriously, and any course on American foreign policy would do well to assign American Abroad and these responses to it.

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By Jiyea9090 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51379981

“The hub-and-spokes system (San Francisco system) in East Asia.” By Jiyea9090 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.

For alliance scholars who are interested in institutional design and U.S. foreign policy in Asia, Victor Cha’s 2010 International Security article, “Powerplay: The Origins of the U.S. Alliance System in Asia” is a valuable resource.[1] Cha has expanded his article-length treatment into a thoughtful and timely book, and in so doing has given us much to digest and discuss.

 

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Sir Julian Corbett (courtesy D.M. Schurman), Project Gutenberg

When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, Washington and Beijing were on good terms–the military balance between the two countries was not politically salient. Much has happened in the ensuing decades. While American attention turned towards battling Iraq in two wars, responding to the threat posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan and around the world, and in dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/DAESH) as the latest manifestation of the jihadist threat, the status quo was changing in Asia. China has emerged not only as a global economic and political power, but also as a conventional military power in the Western Pacific that possesses a small nuclear arsenal that under permissive circumstances can hold a few United States (U.S.) cities at risk. The conventional and nuclear balance in Asia is shifting from one of overwhelming U.S. preponderance to a situation in which things might become a bit more sporting.

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World Upside Down

To what extent is it possible for less powerful states to influence the behavior of great powers? Do weaker states possess sufficient agency to advance their own objectives? These fundamental questions lie at the heart of Tom Long’s Latin America Confronts the United States. Through an examination of four case studies he finds that, indeed, Latin American states have found success adopting strategies of cooperation with the United States in their efforts to advance their interests. In the process, Long contributes a historical narrative of his selected cases and advances an internationalist framework for understanding U.S.-Latin American relations.

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In this detailed and scholarly article, Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar is definitely on to something. He argues that those who captured and occupied the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979-1981 (the so-called “Moslem Student Followers of the Imam’s Line”) were responding to serious challenges from Iranian leftists. By their action, he argues, the occupiers were pre-empting the leftists’ anti-American rhetoric and undercutting their claims to be the standard-bearers of Ayatollah Khomeini’s campaign to end Iran’s ties to the United States.

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The scholarly study of American foreign policy and international relations hasne (at least one?) important peculiarity that distinguishes it from many other forms of scholarly inquiry: a fairly high degree of intellectual exchange between social scientist and subject. Of course, zoologists interact with the animals they study, but the animals are not reading what the zoologists say about them and reacting accordingly. Nor do children tend to read child psychology texts, or the indigent subjects of socio-economic inequality keep up with political economy treatises.

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USS_Theodore_Roosevelt_-_BigStick

“The Big Stick”

The debate about American foreign policy has always divided along two dimensions. How close in or far out should America protect its security? And for what moral or political purpose does America exist and participate in world affairs?

‘Nationalists’ adopt the close-in approach to American security, generally confined to America’s borders and the western hemisphere.[1] They dominated American foreign policy in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Realists’ venture further out to anticipate and counter threats in distant regions–Europe, Asia and the Middle East–before they reach America’s shores.[2] They formulated the containment doctrine during the Cold War, permanently stationing for the first time American forces in Europe and Asia. Both nationalists and realists focus on security, not the spread of human rights and democratic regimes. They accept the world as it is, not as they might wish it to be.

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The Donald Trump administration seems to value change for its own sake. The new President appears intent on rethinking all foreign-policy rules and norms, from diplomatic protocols to staffing to relationships with traditional allies. The next four-to-eight years may prove to be a watershed for U.S. grand strategy, a challenge to fundamental assumptions that forces security experts to re-examine their most deeply held beliefs. Or, perhaps little will change. At the very least, the Trump administration will test the notion that U.S. foreign affairs are marked far more by consistency than by change.

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Reset ButtonIn the first half year of the new Trump administration, United States-Russian relations sped through a series of phases only to end suspended basically where they were on Election Day, 8 November 2016—badly damaged, friction-laden, and immobile. Whatever muddled hopes Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage may have had for better times with Trump in the White House and whatever obscure intentions President Trump may have had of improving relations, the two sides remain mired in the new Cold War into which they had plunged in the last years of the Obama administration.[2] Their leaders were like figures in straitjackets: the more they struggled, the more their straitjackets tightened. Straitjackets, it might be noted, of their own manufacture, although each was of a different design. Trump was hamstrung by a Congress angry over the Russians’ interference in the presidential election and the possibility that Trump’s people had helped them, and in any event, persuaded that he meant to ‘go soft’ on Putin. Putin’s constraints were self-imposed. Much as he may have wished to ‘normalize’ the U.S.-Russian relationship, his jaded view of what drives U.S. foreign policy left him unwilling or, worse, unable to do his part to make progress possible.

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