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American Foreign Policy


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: to be confirmed
  • Assessment: an examination (50%) and a written assignment of 3000-4000 words (50%)

Module description

In this module we examine how the US acts in the international arena, and how international politics in turn has shaped the US. The module is divided into three broad areas:

  • An examination of the theory and history of US foreign policy, focusing on the Cold War, post-Cold War, and post-post-Cold War eras and debates between realists, liberals, neo-conservatives and other approaches.
  • An analysis of the institutional framework of policy-making, highlighting the domestic sources of foreign policy, focusing on: the constitutional context and war powers; the competing roles of the President, the executive bureaucracy, and the US Congress; political parties, public opinion, and interest lobbies.
  • An examination of contemporary US policy options today, and past and present US policies towards the Middle East, Russia and China.

We will consider the following three questions:

  • To what extent has US policy been guided by ‘realism’ broadly conceived (power politics/national economic self-interest) or by idealism (the promotion of certain ideological values commonly associated with liberalism, democracy, human rights and market economics)?
  • How far is US policy determined more by domestic political pressures than by calculations of national interests, and to what extent are elite decision-makers able to act with relative autonomy from democratic/pluralist forces in the US?
  • How successful has Washington been in achieving its goals in international politics, and why?

The module is designed to develop balanced, informed and dispassionate critical views and the ability to think critically about the goals, processes and effectiveness of US foreign policy in the contemporary international system from historical, international relations and political science perspectives. We will introduce you to scholarly debates about the objectives of post-1945 American foreign policy, the processes by which it is made and the domestic political pressures and constraints that shape US policies. The emphasis is expressly contemporary, but you will gain a clear historical grounding to better analyse more recent and current policies and responses to them.

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will have:

  • a comprehensive understanding of continuity and change in the objectives and instruments of US foreign policy since 1945, based on in-depth study of both debates about the making of US foreign policy and specific case studies
  • a clear and balanced understanding of the interactions between US foreign policy and the domestic processes and politics that shape their formulation
  • developed a critical approach to debates concerning the nature and effectiveness of US policy in advancing US national interests during the Cold War, the post-Cold war era and since 9/11.