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of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) scheduled a rare debate-style panel for its 2020 conference on the still-unpublished article.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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The debate about contemporary geopolitics, and American grand strategy, is shaped by two competing narratives: unipolar stability vs. rising China. The unipolar stability narrative holds that the distribution of power in the international system remains unipolar, and will remain so for a very long time.1 The rising China narrative holds that American power is in relative decline, and that the primary reason for this is China’s ascent.2 By some metrics, China has vaulted over the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy. In 2014, for example, the International Monetary Fund announced that, measured by purchasing power parity (PPP), China’s GDP had surpassed that of the United States.3 Many analysts expect that, even in terms of the market exchange rate (MER), China’s GDP will overtake America’s in a few years’ time.4 Viewing this trend line, some scholars have warned that the U.S. and China are locked in a power transition dynamic, which could lead to a war between them in the coming decades.5

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In this tightly-written and richly-sourced article, Rosella Cappella Zielinski and Kaija Schilde offer a theory to explain why some U.S. presidents have been able to make targeted military spending cuts according to strategic needs whereas others were forced into blunt across-the-board cuts to assuage entrenched domestic interests. Although developed from U.S. cases, the authors expect that their theoretical framework has generalizability to other countries.

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The 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the tenth such event, will be held from 27 April to 22 May in New York. One of the most important and controversial pillars of the global nuclear order will be evaluated there. The NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Its ratification was a milestone in nuclear history and gradually developed into a centerpiece of the liberal international order.[1] The NPT was the first joint international arms control treaty signed by the Soviet Union and the United States. With it, the Soviet government led by Leonid Brezhnev turned definitively away from demanding a complete ban on nuclear weapons, which had informed Soviet nuclear policy between 1946 and the mid-1960s.[2] The NPT encompassed a threefold strategy that aimed first at preventing further proliferation, second at reducing existing arsenals, and third at the promotion of non-military nuclear technology under the condition of compliance with a safeguards system based on inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).[3]

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The adjective ‘timely’ is perhaps overused, but in the case of Nicholas Miller’s Stopping the Bomb—the subject of this roundtable review by four excellent scholars of nuclear politics—it is well-earned. Miller’s book was published in the spring of 2018, just as President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, and months before Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in Singapore. Trump vowed to persuade North Korea to denuclearize, even as most nuclear experts, Miller included, argued that that particular train had already left the station.[1] Miller’s book helps provide theoretical and historical context for understanding not only the causes but also the effectiveness of U.S. nonproliferation policy.

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There are good reasons to study Russia, China, and U.S. hegemony now. Facing common threats from the West, Russia and China have been moving closer since the 2010s. Are they going to finally form an alliance against the United States.? Will these rising powers seriously challenge or shake up the liberal world order that is built on U.S. hegemony? With Russian annexation of Crimea and China’s assertive diplomacy in the East China Sea as well as in the South China Sea, will a military conflict between the hegemon and rising powers be inevitable in the future? In a word, will “the ill winds”[1] from China and Russia, to borrow Larry Diamond’s phrase, pose fatal challenges to U.S. hegemony and world democracy?

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In The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, William Joseph Burns writes about his life and times in the hope that his reflections—and regrets—will be helpful to the next generation of diplomats. Diplomacy “is by nature an unheroic, quiet endeavor,” as the author puts it, “less swaggering than unrelenting, often unfolding in back channels out of sight and out of mind.” (10) As he was taught early in his career, diplomacy is about managing problems, not solving them.

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In this important article, Ahsan Butt advances an innovative argument for why the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Countering other common explanations, Butt argues that the United States was not motivated by a desire to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), promote democracy in the Middle East, or satisfy pro-war domestic interest groups. Instead, he maintains, the U.S.-led overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was a “performative war” carried out to generate “demonstration effects” (263)—in particular, to show adversaries and potential challengers that the United States would act with overwhelming force to counter any threats to its power and standing. Backed up by a compelling array of evidence, this argument represents a major contribution to understanding the origins of the Iraq War.

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Sixteen years after the beginning of the Iraq War, American public support for the war remains a puzzle. Why would the public, scarred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and overwhelmingly supportive of sending troops to Afghanistan to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and fight terrorism,[1] be willing to use military force on a different country, one not directly involved in attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon? The 9/11 attacks psychologically shook the public[2] and reshaped politics and society in the U.S., perhaps no more so than by involving the U.S. in two overseas wars that continue today. American support for wars is generally contingent[3]; Americans are more supportive of war when the war is expected to be short with few casualties, when military force is multilateral, and when the aim is military restraint rather than humanitarian. In times of crisis, the public does “rally around the flag,” increasing their support for the president and giving him more room to maneuver on foreign policy, an area where presidents already have an advantage.[4] Americans may be supportive of realist foreign policy,[5] but even if we allow for the framing of the war in Iraq as being in part of the War on Terror[6] and in the U.S. national interest George W. Bush administrations, we cannot fully explain why the public was supportive of the war as early as January 2002, as the authors document (3).

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No president has cast as much uncertainty over American alliances as Donald Trump. Despite the assiduous damage control of his rotating secretaries of State and Defense and national security advisors, comments from the chief executive matter; uncertainty has increased. Moreover, the unexpected willingness of the president to undertake direct, high-level contacts with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un are both promising and unsettling. Do these contacts augur peace on the peninsula? Or are they but another example of the long-standing North Korean effort to drive wedges between the alliance partners? And looming still larger over these questions is the role that China’s rise might have in determining the alliance’s future. Will it, for example, strengthen as China’s capabilities increase and become more threatening? Or will the desire to accommodate Beijing pull South Korea away from the United States?

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