I think it is fair to say that over the past hundred years most academic students of international politics have urged the United States to take a more active position in the world, one that was more commensurate with its economic power and stake in what was happening around the globe. Roughly a decade ago this began to shift, with many in the field, especially those of the Realist persuasion, urging that it would be better for the U.S. and for others for it to be less assertive. Stephen Walt’s The Hell of Good Intentions is one of the strongest statements, of this view; our reviewers’ evaluations are not surprisingly correlated with their own views of the subject. Michael Desch has written in a vein similar to Walt’s and says that “many superlatives” can be applied to “Walt’s fine book”; Paul MacDonald has written about the virtues of retrenchment and finds the book “provocative” and “persuasive;” Sergey Radchenko, an historian from the UK who has not been deeply involved in debates on current American foreign policy says that Walt’s damning description “rings true”; Kori Schake is a distinguished member of the foreign policy establishment that Walt so strongly criticizes and perceives this book as “not so much a work of scholarship as a diatribe.”

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“Would U.S. leaders push the button?” Reid B. C. Pauly provocatively asks in the title of his recent International Security article. We know from history that the answer to that question has been an almost unqualified no. To date, President Harry S. Truman remains the only world leader to have ordered nuclear weapons to be used in war; since the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki no leader has pushed this symbolic nuclear button. This non- use of nuclear weapons has puzzled scholars for decades.

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How does a democratic (U.S.) government wield secrecy? This is the core question of Andris Banka and Adam Quinn’s “Killing Norms Softly: US Targeted Killing, Quasi-Secrecy and the Assassination Ban,” which advances a theory of how norms of secrecy can be changed to serve executive needs. Focusing on the case of targeted killing under both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, the article provides context for the case by explaining how norms develop. The authors challenge the assumption that a change of norms requires public advocacy by arguing that official secrecy can play “an instrumental role in the process of normalizing potentially controversial shifts” (666).

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The Bridging the Gap book series at Oxford University Press publishes works that are theoretically grounded and policy relevant. The co-editors—Bruce Jentleson, Steve Weber, and I—marked the formal launch of the series in 2018 with the publication of Georgetown University Professor Matthew Kroenig’s The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy.

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The idea of a liberal rules-based international order has taken a beating lately, not just from the Trump presidency but also in the pages of academic and policy publications. The administration in Washington argues that the liberal order in the post-Cold War world no longer serves U.S. interests.[1] While this argument deserves scrutiny in light of China’s spectacular rise within the order, academic writing has instead focused more on the fact that  notions of the liberal order are simply “myth” and “nostalgia.”[2] Critics allege that the liberal international rules-based order was never truly liberal, international, rules-based, or orderly.[3] In this vein, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential elections is not a cause but rather a symptom of the longer-term decline in the various pillars of the order: capitalism, multilateralism, and democracy.[4]

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Few issues arouse as much debate as the Iraq War. The decision to invade in 2003 was a milestone for U.S. foreign policy and Middle Eastern politics. Advocates of the war believed that the prior status quo was unsustainable, and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime was a ruthless anachronism. The fact that Saddam had not abandoned his interest in so-called weapons of mass destruction made his removal all the more necessary. Critics warned, however, that regime change was not in the U.S. national interest, and that by invading the country that U.S. would set in motion events it could not control. Years of grisly civil violence seemed to vindicate their warnings. The critics took their arguments further in the aftermath, casting the war as symptomatic of a deep and enduring interventionist bias in American grand strategy.

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One of Donald Trump’s superpowers is to dominate all spheres of American life, and the book industry is no exception. The nonfiction market is littered with best-sellers about life in the Age of Trump. The past two years have generated numerous genres of political tomes: the tell-alls by those who have served in his administration,[1] the hosannas to his political greatness,[2] and the journalistic accounts of his norm-defying 2016 campaign and chaotic first two years as president.[3]

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An MQ-9 Reaper taxis after a mission in Afghanistan.

Beware the grim reaper?

Analyses of drones often generate more heat than light, but Aqil Shah’s article is a welcome change. Shah argues U.S. drone strikes do not cause “blowback” in Pakistan or anywhere else, basing his claims primarily upon field interviews conducted in Pakistan. As he summarizes, “I find no evidence of a significant impact of drone strikes on the recruitment of militants either locally or nationally” (49).

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Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Steven Teles, and Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C., have written an important, nicely crafted, and provocative policy paper, representing the views of a new American political “Center,” which they have summarized for a broader audience and which has received significant praise and commentary.[1] In short, from a libertarian-oriented perspective, the paper offers a public-spirited, moderate, and appealing alternative to the partisan extremes that have been offered and debated by small government/pro-market oriented conservatives, on the right, versus supporters of big, welfare-state oriented government on the left. This alternative is presented as new centrist ideas that have the potential to move toward solving problems and mitigating the ideological conflict over pressing economic and social welfare issues, as well as related issues, on which President Donald Trump and his administration have caused unprecedented turmoil. That the report takes on the political right as well as the left suggests that it may well be on to something that the authors hope can restore lost trust in government and its leaders, who have been consumed by partisan polarization, wave elections, nationalized politics, and political incivility, with no way out in sight.[2]

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This roundtable debates ideas and evidence in Diane Pfundstein Chamberlain’s recent book, Cheap Threats; Why the United States Struggles to Coerce Weak States. Pfundstein Chamberlain’s book considers the important puzzle described in the title, and in doing so puts forth a surprising new theory of coercive diplomacy. The reviewers praise some aspects of the book, but they raise concerns about both theory and evidence. Pfundstein Chamberlain responds comprehensively to the critiques. The debate is particularly interesting because the reviewers, though all experts in coercion and/or deterrence, approach the book from quite different angles.

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