The United States faces a host of strategic geopolitical challenges today, many of which have long been brewing as a result of structural changes and some of which have been self-inflicted by successive administrations, most recently and most especially the Trump Administration.  In An Open World, Rebecca Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper deliver a lucid and incisive diagnosis of these multidimensional strategic challenges that is strengthened by their admirable restraint in dwelling on where any blame should be apportioned and is written in precise and elegant prose.  Their goal is to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the current geopolitical landscape facing the U.S. and to chart a strategy for how the U.S. should navigate the world it faces today in order to advance its national interests in a manner that is in line with its values — and they succeed, to a very large extent, on both counts.  An Open World is an important and timely contribution from two scholar–practitioners who wrote this immensely relevant book with the explicit aim of bringing rigorous research to bear on American foreign policy and are now positioned, as senior national security officials in the Biden Administration, to work to bring parts of their vision to fruition as they contribute to the new National Security Strategy and beyond.[1]

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Unfamiliar with sanctions issues, and accustomed to their capitals’ discreet use of this foreign policy tool, the European public follows sanctions-related headlines with some puzzlement.  If the United Nations (UN) lifted sanctions on Tehran following the conclusion of the nuclear deal, why was it necessary to create a special vehicle for trade with Iran, the Instrument for Trade Exchanges (INSTEX)?  If sanctions regimes are invariably endowed with provisions for humanitarian exemptions, why do humanitarian agencies struggle to get aid to places like Iran and Syria?  Why are European banks like BNP Paribas fined with exorbitant penalties?[1]  As it turns out, these are manifestations of the same phenomenon, and Bryan Early and Keith Preble have the answer to these questions in the article under discussion here.

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In November 2016, I wrote an essay for H-Diplo on the possible impact of the Trump administration on U.S.-UK relations.[1]  My first paragraph included the following sentences: “If Trump himself knows what he truly plans to do – as opposed to what he would truly like to do – he has hidden it from the rest of United States.  Although the British government has a long tradition of adjustment to whichever government is in power in any given country of interest, adjustment needs an object or action or policy to which to adjust.  Thus far, President-elect Trump has not felt the need to provide any of them,” other than the slogans promising to put America First and Make America Great Again.

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When Ben Rhodes, a top foreign policy adviser to President Barack Obama, dubbed the Washington foreign policy establishment the “Blob,”[1] one question that probably occurred to many H-Diplo/ISSR readers was, “What will Jervis think of this?”

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In 1895 Henry Cabot Lodge declared that the United States had compiled “a record of conquest, colonization, and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century.”[1]  Throughout the nineteenth century, the United States, motivated by a potent mixture of security, economic, and ideological motives, pushed westward, subjugating once sovereign Native tribes and dismantling European empires on the North American continent.  But, as Richard Maass argues, while U.S. expansion was vast in scope, Americans often left valuable territory on the table.  He argues that, even when annexation would have been profitable, democracy and xenophobia—more often than not, outright racism—blocked the United States from claiming territory. American leaders could not envision conquering land without incorporating it as a state; European imperial arrangements were illegitimate.  At the same time, if politicians believed that annexation would either weaken their political influence, or “worsen” their political (white) identity, annexation was impossible.

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The study of bureaucracy as an influence in the formulation and conduct of foreign and defense policy has receded in popularity since its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the limits of bureaucratic processes, the influence of the decorum generated by organizational culture or even the constraints created by the overall structure of government itself are rarely identified as much of a contributing factor in policy success or failure.  Instead, the world seems focused on a vicious partisan politics that demonizes the opposition and reduces issues of specific policy selection and implementation to little more than an afterthought, as if ideological purity can substitute for bureaucratic acumen and political savvy.  Nevertheless, as Robert Art noted in his survey of the first-wave of the bureaucratic politics literature, how we make decisions influences the types of decisions we make.[1]  Organizational processes and bureaucratic culture can frame opportunities, challenges, and options in sometimes surprising ways.

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Are China and the United States on a dangerous collision course, and if so, is there any hope of avoiding a Sino-American conflagration over the future of the international order?  As important as such questions may be, their ubiquity threatens to render them banal.  Steve Chan’s new book elevates the discourse around these common questions by compelling readers to see them in a new and distinctive light.  With Thucydides’s Trap?  Historical Interpretation, Logic of Inquiry, and the Future of Sino-American Relations, Chan interrogates frameworks commonly used to address such questions without losing sight of their practical significance or the practical consequences of asking and answering the questions in conventional ways.

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Nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from other military tools.  The technology is familiar and yet still exotic; the ability to split nuclei and fuse them together remains one of the most extraordinary technical milestones of the last century.  And the yields of nuclear explosions are orders of magnitude greater than those of conventional weapons, making the effects of a hypothetical nuclear war hard to comprehend.  In a clash between nuclear-armed states, the devastation might overwhelm the value of any imaginable political goals.  Such a conflict may not be unthinkable, but it is hard to think about.

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In his review of Fred Kaplan’s The Bomb, Marc Trachtenberg reminds readers that “it is important to see the past for what it was.”  This, as both Trachtenberg and Robert Jervis agree, is the overwhelming merit of The Bomb, a remarkable history of one of the wonkiest niches of U.S. national security strategy—the operational planning of nuclear wars.  In the book, Kaplan takes readers across six decades of nuclear planning and, in doing so, reveals a remarkable consistency throughout America’s nuclear history: despite numerous attempts by many presidential administrations, U.S. nuclear strategy has never been able to escape the impetus for first strike.  Kaplan makes a compelling argument that the U.S. has been imprisoned by its own operational planning requirements, unable to draw down its nuclear arsenal largely because of path dependencies that were set in motion by service cultures which Kaplan traces back to World War II.

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It is not typical for H-Diplo to publish a roundtable on an article.  But Daniel Bessner and Fredrik Logevall’s “Recentering the United States in the Historiography of American Foreign Relations” is not a typical article.  Before it was published, it was already provoking hallway conversations at conferences.  The Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) scheduled a rare debate-style panel for its 2020 conference on the still-unpublished article.  Surely the attention has been helped by the fact that both Bessner and Logevall are prominent figures: Bessner an up-and-coming young scholar with a polemical social media presence who helped advise the Bernie Sanders campaign on foreign policy; Logevall a recent past president of SHAFR and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in History for his book, Embers of War.[1]

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