Roundtable Review: Bruce Jentleson's "American Foreign Policy"

The following post examines Bruce W. Jentleson's American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century, 3rd Edition (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007). It features reviews by Andrew Emery (University of Birmingham), Donette Murray (RMAS), Harsh V. Pant (King’s College London), and Andrew Schwartz (Brown University). The post concludes with a reponse by author Bruce W. Jentleson (Duke University).

By Andrew Emery, University of Birmingham

During his distinguished career, Bruce Jentleson’s has served in high profile political, policy and academic capacities. With the previous two editions of American Foreign Policy established on the reading lists of colleges and universities across the world, in this third edition, Jentleson sets out the challenges facing US Foreign Policy in light of the most recent global developments. Showing a keen awareness of the perennial criticism of political science, Jentleson’s approach is to acknowledge theory as instructive and relevant to policy making but also emphasis its policy relevance. This edition achieves this through the inclusion of ‘Theory in the World’ boxes connecting theory to policy in a historical context. Jentleson addresses the oft debated tension between interests and values by establishing the ‘4 P’s’: power, peace, prosperity and principles. These concepts are categorised in relation to orthodox international relations theories, international systems, and by method (Coercive, Diplomatic, Economic or Political). Through this approach, students are introduced to concepts such as ‘soft power’, ‘exceptionalism’, ‘neo-conservatism’, and ‘Internationalism’ in a manner that integrates their domestic, historical and ideological roots.

It is Jentleson’s unique organisational skills and ability to introduce complex themes through an interdisciplinary framework that has established American Foreign Policy as a key text for undergraduates. Its accessibility reflects the author’s prowess as a teacher clearly in touch with the learning patterns and requirements of modern Foreign Policy students. In this sense, the third edition surpasses the achievements of its forbearers by including a complimentary web site to ‘enhance the instructional value of the book’. The site embodies Jentleson’s belief in the evolving nature of Foreign Policy and receives regular updates from the author on major political developments, recently released documents or academic contributions. All are linked both to their source and to the relevant chapters they relate to in the book.

The book is divided into two parts; the first examines the historical context of Foreign Policy and introduces the major theories of international relations. The anatomy of the US decision making process is outlined in relation to the major national and global institutions, as well as bureaucratic and non state actors, involved in formulating policy. The final section of part 1 deals with the uncertain factors leading to the end of the Cold War, an event described as a ‘humbling’ experience for the academic community who failed to predict it (p.170). It is part II of the book that has received the most revision. This is not surprising given that it covers the more evolving issues such as Iraq, peace in the Middle East, WMD proliferation, globalisation, global terrorism and the yet to be resolved conflict between unilateralism, military intervention and democracy promotion. Having been critical of the ‘best case scenario’ planning for the war in other publications, Jentleson is again critical of the Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal’s dismissal of the State Department’s extensive post-war planning. The survey of the discredited rationales behind the war remains broadly apolitical and retains the author’s familiar ability to connect ideology, strategy and theory from both a domestic and historical perspective. No better is this displayed than in his application of the ‘4 P’s’ to the arguments and counter-arguments made by supporters and critics of the war. Chapter 9, concerning ethnic conflict, genocide and humanitarian intervention, is at the same time depressing and insightful as Jentleson pulls no punches in drawing out the factors behind the International communities’ tragically flawed approach to developing conflicts. Michael Mandelbaum’s argument that foreign policy should not be confused with ‘social work’ is challenged by linking humanitarian disasters in failed states to problems that directly affect US security, such as terrorism and drug production. Jentleson also asserts that America’s power ‘depends heavily on credibility’ and that ‘weak action or inaction in the face of humanitarian crises undermines American credibility (p.427). The chapter ends with a call for humanitarian intervention to remain a credible option in a post-Iraq climate of conflict-aversion. Nor does Jentleson rule out unilateral intervention, warning of the potentially greater damage posed to the international community if human beings are slaughtered “while the Security Council stands by” (p.455).

No book is flawless and there are one or two issues that, perhaps understandably given the huge scope of this edition, receive sparse attention. The gravity of the global AIDS epidemic and its impact on core Foreign Policy considerations is, for example, well stated. The Bush administration’s approach to combating AIDS, however, receives only one small paragraph. Coverage of economic sanctions is, on the whole, detailed and convincingly linked to power politics and the promotion of human rights and democratisation. I was surprised, however, that in a book that aims to establish a framework for US diplomatic history and then apply it to the post-Cold war world, there was little contemplation of how the end of the Cold War changed the geo-political dynamics of sanctions and prompted an increase in their use. It may have been worth identifying the efforts of those who have sought to quantify, according to set criteria, how successful sanctioning actions have been. The difficulty in establishing criteria for sanctions success, and distinctions between their strategic and tactical application, could have been better stated. I was also surprised that sanctions on Iran were hardly mentioned, especially given Jentleson’s excellent recent survey of their application for the Century Foundation.

Jentleson’s attention to environmental issues has increased during the three editions, mirroring the rise in its standing on the global agenda since the first edition of American Foreign Policy was published in 2000. Jentleson is clearly impressed by the stark thesis presented by Al Gore, even including a reading from his old boss’ engaging polemic, An Inconvenient Truth. Whilst the scale of the challenge, and the disparate economic, political, private and inter-government interests that require balancing in order to meet it, are rigorously elucidated, the US security implications of environmental changes are only mentioned in passing (p.493) and lack specific examples. I suspect that students may ask exactly how future conflicts can be prevented or resolved in reference to ecological policies or consideration of climate change. Yet, in Jentleson’s defence, the primary aim of a text such as this is to point out problematic issues rather than suggest possible solutions for resolving them. It is also worth pointing out that the conflict in Sudan is correctly cited as economic-ecological in origin.

The book is so well organised that it covers all major issues, doctrines, documents and theories in over 600 pages without the reader feeling overwhelmed. It is also incorporates a useful selection of writings by major political figures (Kissinger, Gorbachev, Kofi Annan) and academics (Fukuyama, Ikenberry, Huntington). Overall, students will be hard pushed to find a better core textbook to accompany their studies.

By Donette Murray, RMAS

Writing for students is difficult. Pitch the book too high and the majority will struggle to be able to use the text in any meaningful way; pitch it too low and you run the risk of alienating those who are looking for a source that explains new and complex facts and arguments in a lucid, cogent and accessible way. It is a notoriously difficult balance to achieve but one that Bruce Jentleson has mastered in his comprehensive text book, American Foreign Policy, now in its third edition.

In seeking to explore the vagaries of contemporary US foreign policy, Jentleson opts for a simple and effective ‘multi-integrative’ approach. His ‘essence of choice’ – the means by which goals are established and the policies to achieve them are forged - utilises four key national interest criteria: Power, Peace, Prosperity and Principles, to categorise American foreign policy strategy. Having established the nature of these goals, he proceeds to introduce the concept of the ‘process of choice’. This is the making of foreign policy through institutions and amid societal influences, in other words, the role and impact of the myriad actors who inhabit the American political system (p.xix). Meshing theory with facts (the first chapter is prefaced by a useful section explaining the theories relevant to the topic), Jentleson’s framework allows him to explore key issues in American foreign policy in historical terms before turning to the substantially up-dated and expanded post Cold War era section which forms the second half of the book.

American Foreign Policy has several demonstrable strengths. To begin with, its use of large amounts of varied literature and sources (including extracts from a range of primary material) gives it depth, credibility and colour. There is, after all, nothing quite like getting it from the horse’s mouth for connecting students with the people and events under examination. As for tutors, those already familiar with the subject will be pleased to see the inclusion of some if not all of their current favourites. Moreover, the new edition also boasts several innovative additions: a ‘Historical Perspectives’ segment does the vital job of helping to illustrate the continuity versus change aspect of history and politics, and an ‘International Perspectives’ section supplies students with a taste of how the US is regarded by those who are touched by its policies. One other welcome new feature, ‘Theory in the World’ highlights the connection between theory and policy – something that Professor Jentleson, by virtue of his significant governmental experience and his academic background, is superbly well equipped to do. Naturally, the text does a fine job of explaining the ‘what’ in US foreign policy; the historical context rightly merits considerable attention and students are encouraged to decide for themselves the value and implications of seeing the past in somewhat hermetic slices, but the real value of the discussions contained therein is the focus on the ‘why’. Combined, these pack a powerful punch. One only has to look as far as the quotation from Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect, beginning with the admission ‘We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people’ (p. 129) to see how the past speaks to the present. In addition, it is designed, albeit gently and perhaps too subtly for some, to provoke, engage and challenge students to consider the merits and ramifications of America’s foreign policies and politics.

Happily, it is a small collection of trivial oversights and a sprinkling of personal preferences that constitute this reviewer’s quibbles. For example, Hard and Soft Power could be usefully introduced for the first time in the ‘Power’ section (Chapter 1) rather than later in the book. Similarly, two threats (drugs and international crime) are covered in ‘threats from non-state actors’ (Chapter 6), but might be more appropriately situated in a section covering the so-called ‘New Security Agenda’. This would serve as an introduction to the non-traditional or soft security threats that are discussed more comprehensively in Chapter 10. The EU section which talks about Europe’s emergent Common Foreign and Security Policy should at least mention the existence of the ESDP (European Security and Defence Policy) to dispel the impression that the Union has not yet developed even a rudimentary military capacity. And in much the same way, further explanation of the debates surrounding the democratic peace theory, including perhaps Snyder and Mansfield’s thesis on mature and emerging democracies would enhance this analysis. Coverage of the International Criminal Court (p.276) would be strengthened by some reference to the primacy of the state mechanism contained within the ICC’s structure whereby states have an opportunity and an obligation to deal with the international crimes covered by the Court which, in actual fact, only becomes involved if a lack of will or lack of capacity exists. (It was incidentally the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that was in the process of trying Milosevic, not the ICC, p.276). Finally, the concept of pre-emption is discussed in a number of places, but could be explained more clearly in order to draw out the differences between what is widely regarded as being legal (providing certain criteria are met) and George W. Bush’s 2002 ‘prevention’ interpretation of the doctrine which is considerably more problematical.

These are admittedly petty observations and do in no sense detract from what is a succinct yet detailed offering. The book’s two main aims: ‘to provide a framework, grounded in international relations theory and U.S. diplomatic history, for foreign policy analysis’ and ‘to apply that framework to the agenda for U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War world’ have been decisively met. American Foreign Policy is, above all, accessible. Jentleson’s passion for the subject and his commitment to teaching are reflected throughout. It is an invaluable guide and comes highly recommended.

By Harsh V. Pant, King’s College London

American foreign policy is a subject area that can encompass almost everything in international relations within its fold given the predominance of the US in the international system. It is, therefore, with great admiration that one reads Bruce Jentleson’s overview of the US foreign policy. It examines both the formulation of US foreign policy strategy (the “essence of choice”) and the politics of US foreign policy (the “process of choice”) with equal clarity and sophistication. It certainly is an excellent introductory text on American foreign policy in line with author’s intent. Further, it also succeeds in going beyond that in so far as it illustrates the continuity and change in American foreign policy for successive generations of American policy makers including the current Bush Administration in the post-9/11 world. Given the tumultuous times that American foreign policy seems to be passing through at the moment, such a historical and analytical narrative helps to situate the current debates in a broader perspective.

The first part of the book provides the analytical framework to examine the foreign policy choices the US has faced in the past as well as introduces the “4 Ps” framework. These are the four core goals that, according to Jentleson, define the US national interest: Power, Peace, Prosperity, and Principles. This allows the reader to analyse the issue of US national interests in a broader analytical perspective by making the often ambiguous concept of national interest more comprehensible.

The second part of the book is focused on contemporary issues in the US foreign policy agenda and applies the “4 Ps” framework to various issue areas that include post Cold War geopolitics, 9/11 and the Middle East, humanitarian intervention, globalisation, and democracy and human rights. It is a wide-ranging survey of twenty-first century foreign policy agenda that deftly brings to the fore the complex choices the US as the sole global superpower has to make in an increasingly uncertain world.

Three new pedagogical features – Historical Perspectives, International Perspectives, Theory in the World – introduced in this edition of the volume are particularly noteworthy for what they bring to our understanding of US foreign policy. At a time when the big debate in the US with regard to the rise of Islamist forces and anti-Americanism across the globe has evolved into “Why Do They Hate Us?” the perception of other countries about American foreign policy is a useful addition. Given Jentleson’s experience in the policy world, it is not surprising that he is interested in bridging the gap between the “abstract” world of theory and the “real” world of policy. While theories are needed to make sense of the information at our disposal, good theories cannot be constructed in the absence of due knowledge about the empirical reality. The dichotomy between theory and practice is a fallacious one and this book makes this point with great force by reminding the reader of the policy implications of various theories and concepts.

It has been argued by many that the Bush Administration has revolutionised the US foreign policy in light of the events of September 11, 2001. Some have attributed it to the unipolar global order in which the US retains its pre-eminence in almost all spheres while others have underlined the ideological proclivities of the Administration of George W. Bush. There is an overriding perception today that the events of September 11, 2001 have reoriented the American foreign policy priorities, perhaps forever. This book by covering a vast expanse of US foreign policy shows that the above notion is not quite accurate. The structural foundations of the US foreign policy remain, by and large, the same. Examined carefully, one finds that even the notion of preventive war is not all that revolutionary after all. Preventive war thinking has played a much greater role in shaping US policy than it is generally assumed and Bush Administration’s attitudes in this regard should not be viewed as anomalous.

If I have a small quibble with this volume, it is that it does not make the theoretical distinction between international politics and foreign policy very clear. I remain a “Waltzian” in so far as the view that “international politics is not foreign policy” is concerned. I, however, do not agree with Waltz when he argues that scholars should not strive for a truly theoretical explanation of foreign policy because theories must deal with the coherent logic of “autonomous realms” and as foreign policy is driven by both external and international factors, it does not constitute such an autonomous realm. As Jentleson clearly demonstrates that there are a number of theories of foreign policy that give us great leverage over foreign policy issues. It would have been useful to have had a section on what theories of foreign policy were to enable the students to determine the difference between International Relations theories and foreign policy theories and what each of these bring to the table in so far as our understanding of US foreign policy is concerned. However, since this volume is primarily aimed as a teaching tool for undergraduates, this perhaps might be too much to ask for in what remains a benchmark text.

This volume is an innovative and nuanced approach to the study of US foreign policy. By seamlessly blending historical and conceptual analysis, it offers students a substantive foundation to build on. Moreover, by being so compelling and accessible, it sets the standard for texts on the subject.

By Andrew Schwartz, Brown University

The book succeeds as a textbook for an introductory international relations or foreign policy course. The main strength of the work is the close and consistent connections made between theory and real world events. Jentleson makes a very clear effort in this regard, drawing, as he notes, from his own experiences in the policy arena. The examples chosen are, quite frequently, extraordinarily current, which makes the text much more engaging for readers to young to remember the events on which many classic discussions of theory are based. Of course, in the strength of the book lies its weakness as well. By emphasizing the practical applications of foreign affairs theories, the theories themselves are occasionally presented as mere caricatures of themselves. As a result, the nuances that make a theoretical study of international relations entertaining and exciting are overlooked, and a certain type of reader is left unfulfilled. One mechanism designed to correct this dearth of theoretical depth is the inclusion of scholarly works within the textbook itself. Most of the field’s classic works are included, albeit in highly condensed versions. Morgenthau’s Mainsprings of American Foreign Policy is reproduced here as a short four-page essay that, once more, captures the main theoretical arguments and leaves out the subtleties.

In an effort to provide a theoretical construct to frame the book, Jentleson elaborates a “4 P’s” framework for understanding foreign policy decisions. The four “P’s” are Power, Peace, Prosperity, and Principles, and foreign policy decisions are made based on policymakers’ valuations of the four distinct variables. Jentleson does an admirable job of returning to this framework consistently throughout the work, emphasizing the construct as an organizing method for students just beginning to take an in-depth look at foreign policy. With this framework in place, the book’s first half takes a fairly typical walk through the history of American foreign policy from Independence through the Cold War. In this section there is, however, a break from the typical textbook, and that is Chapter 2’s strong treatment of the domestic factors influencing foreign policy decision-making.

The discussion of domestic factors is one of the real strengths of this work. This treatment is more inclusive than most, and is the main contribution of the work to the wide collection of foreign affairs textbooks. Jentleson recognizes five main domestic factors that shape foreign policy decision-making, and does a superb job of explaining the specific effects of each factor. The dynamics of Presidential-Congressional relations – and the subsequent impact on treaty formulation and the appointment of foreign policy officials – are presented with clear examples. Jentleson also discusses politics within the Executive branch (weaving in theories of leadership and of bureaucratic functioning), the proliferation of foreign policy interest groups within the US, the effects and tendencies of the domestic news media, and the trends and currents of public opinion. Each of these factors is illustrated with practical examples. In Chapter 2 these examples are of the historical variety, whereas a similar and equally strong section in Chapter 6 provides evidence of a more contemporary nature. This focus on recent happenings in Chapter 6 certainly makes for easier reading and comprehension by students, especially at an introductory level. The strength of the section – in both of its iterations - lies not only with the sweeping breadth with which Jentleson examines the domestic inputs to foreign policy formulation but also in the depth to which each factor is explored and explicated. Following the traditional tour of American foreign policy history, debates, theory, and practice over the last 225 years (certainly a difficult undertaking in thousands of pages, let alone the two hundred that Jentleson uses here), the work turns to the present and future of US foreign policy. It is here that the main strengths of the book lie.

The strongest section of the book is Chapter Six’s discussion of “Foreign Policy Strategy and Foreign Policy Politics in a New Era.” This chapter takes as its starting point the attacks of 11 September 2001 and seeks to provide a foundation for the following chapters on key foreign policy issue areas. Jentleson begins with a discussion of the similarities and differences between a multilateral and unilateral foreign policy viewpoint, and does a very successful job of situating this debate in the policies of the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. There is a brief discussion of the theoretical points of these two schools of thought, but Jentleson quickly shifts the focus to the practical application of the ideologies. Even the theoretical sections of the discussion are laced with quotations from the likes of Condoleezza Rice and Richard Haass, as well as excerpts from key foreign policy statements made by the Bush and Clinton administrations. The expected essential quotations from Mearsheimer, Krauthammer, Nye, Keohane, and the other heavy hitters are also woven into the discussion, but in such a way as to maintain a more practical, less theoretical treatment of the debate. This makes for a discussion of overarching theory that is comfortingly grounded in real-world events. The choice of examples – issues such as the so-called “revolution in military affairs,” strategic nuclear deterrence, and the Bush Doctrine of preemptive military action – gives the reader an appreciation of how the ideological wrangling between proponents of multilateralism and unilateralism shapes day-to-day headlines. To be sure, for students interested in a more theoretical approach to the material, Jentleson’s treatment of this key debate in American foreign policy will feel incomplete. However, as an introductory text intended for a wide range of students – from those that will go on to study International Relations or Political Science to the Biology student taking the course to better understand current events – this section does provide a useful and interesting summary of one of the foremost debates in foreign policy.

In all, that is what this text does best: provide a worthwhile summary of the theory and practice of American foreign policy that is accessible to readers approaching it from many different viewpoints and interest levels. As an introductory text, then, it is certainly a success. It certainly has the capacity to start students on the road to a better understanding of and appreciation for American foreign policy – which, for an introductory text, is a very good place to start.

The Author's Reply

By Bruce W. Jentleson, Duke University

My thanks to J Simon Rofe for organizing this colloquium on the new edition of American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century, and to Andrew Emery, Donette Murray, Harsh Pant and Andrew Schwartz for taking the time and investing the effort to give such serious review to the book.

I especially appreciate the reviewers picking up on my motives and intentions for writing this book. While drawing on research, my own and so many others’, the book’s primary purpose is for teaching. As such it reflects my – and our – “passion for the subject and commitment to teaching,” as Professor Murray so nicely captures it. It also is very much an effort to “bridge the gap,” as Alexander George and others put it, to draw links between theory and policy that demonstrate how the one enhances understanding of and insights into the other.

In these and other respects I see our role as helping our students learn how to think, not telling them what to think. This can be tricky in a subject like American foreign policy. But it is the essence of the professorial responsibility, our equivalent of the old adage, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” I would never claim that the book is totally void of my policy views, but I do try to be balanced and to provide analysis more than advocacy. In this regard I’ve been gratified by the range of adopters, including the U.S. Army War College on both the second edition and this third one.

In a similar way I have tried not to be parochial. This is, by definition, a book about the United States and its foreign policy, and as such is structured around America’s role in the world. The key is taking this approach and having this perspective, and bringing out ways in which American foreign policy itself at times has been parochial, without lapsing into the trap oneself. The “International Perspectives” special features were added with this in mind. The reviewers did not seem to see much parochialism, but if any other colleagues do please convey it.

The reviewers also address, appreciatively as well as critically, key challenges and at times trade-offs writing such a book poses. Perhaps the greatest challenge is that our subject matter does not stand still for the life of an edition of a book. As all the reviewers acknowledge, AFP’s central purpose is to provide background, framework and in-depth discussion of core issues and patterns, not fully up-to-the-minute accounts of this and that issue. Still strictly saying “wait til the next edition” is not a very pedagogically sound position. One way to help with this, in addition to what individual faculty provide, is through the new website we added with periodic updates on key issues presented so they track with the chapters (website is at; it also includes teaching tools such as study questions and internet exercises).

The concerns Professors Schwartz and Pant raise about whether IR theory is treated fully enough and linked clearly enough to foreign policy are well taken. The treatment is necessarily limited but it could be richer; e.g., Chapter 1 has some room for expansion. The “Theory in the World” boxes were added as another way to carry the application of theory through the book, and to help students make linkages; e.g., Kissinger and balance of power theory in Chapter 5, debates about free trade in Ch. 10, democratic peace theory in Ch. 11.

An inherent trade-off is breadth vs. depth. It is important to include as many of the issues on the contemporary foreign policy agenda as possible, while also providing some depth of treatment. The skills of the publisher W.W. Norton help, as this book is longer than the second edition but leaner thanks to thinner pages and narrower margins. (I confess that I try to prevent my students from using similar techniques to squeeze within length limits on their papers!). Even so there are issues that do not get adequate attention. One that Professor Murray points out concerns the European Union Common Foreign and Security Policy. The Globalization chapter (10) is more developed than in prior editions but as Emery and others state, more on issues like the global environment and global public health is warranted. Professor Murray’s point about drugs and crime hones in on my own uncertainty about how best to address these issues.

Emery asks why there is not more on Iran, particularly in the section on economic sanctions, especially given other work I’ve done on the subject. The main reason was that I was in the midst of the Century Foundation study when AFP was sent off for printing. We did use the website for a Fall 2007 update and are in the process of doing so for Spring 2008.

When I wrote the 1st edition, the dedication was “To my students, and those of my colleagues, with whom the choices soon will lie.” Eight years later, and taking into account that I have been professoring for now close to 25 years (and some of you longer, some shorter), the dedication now reads, “To my students, and those of my colleagues, with whom the choices have begun to lie.” We all are in this together. Cheers --- 

Matthew Hill