UCL Institute of the Americas


AMER0010: Politics of US Foreign Policy

Module convenor: Dr Tony McCulloch


This module examines the politics of the American foreign policy-making process, both contemporary and historical. It analyses how decisions are made, who and what influences foreign policy and why the US government acts as it does. Its emphasis is on the domestic politics of US foreign policy within the context of international relations more generally. An historical approach is adopted during the course but one informed by the main tenets of Foreign Policy Analysis.

We begin by considering the domestic influences on the President and his administration in formulating and executing US foreign policy, with specific reference to a current crisis - North Korea's development of nuclear missiles - as an on-going case study. Relevant factors include the attitude of the President, competing views within the foreign policy-making bureaucracy (State Department, Defense Department, National Security Advisor, intelligence community), Congress, opinion within the political parties, public opinion, the role of the media, etc.

We also briefly examine some of the main theories or paradigms within the study of International Relations that attempt to classify and explain the interaction of states and other actors on the world stage and that necessarily involve the analysis of US foreign policy as part of this process. These theories - Realism, Marxism, Liberal Internationalism, Constructivism, etc - are explored in terms of the light they shed on the relationship between domestic politics and US foreign policy.

The bulk of the module - from week 2 - consists of a series of case studies drawn from some of the most significant events and decisions in the history of modern US foreign policy, before and during the Cold War. We start by analysing the US domestic politics involved in the war with Spain in 1898 - an event often taken as signalling America's emergence as a world power. Next we examine the decision-making of Theodore Roosevelt during the Alaska Boundary dispute with Britain and Canada in 1903. This is followed by an analysis of the US decision to reject membership of the League of Nations in 1920 and of Franklin Roosevelt's role in the 'destroyer bases' deal with Britain in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.

The second half of the course, after Reading Week, focuses on Presidential decision-making during the early and middle phases of the Cold War - and discusses the domestic political considerations influencing the Truman Doctrine of 1947, McCarthyism and the Korean War of 1950-53; Eisenhower and the Suez Crisis in 1956; Kennedy, the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962; Johnson and US escalation and retreat in Vietnam, 1965-68; and finally Nixon, Kissinger and détente, the visit to China and US policy towards the Vietnam War with particular reference to Ford's decision-making during the Mayaguez incident of 1975. The course ends with a brief look at the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and the resumption of the Cold War, and this is where the term 2 module AMERG011 - Post Cold War US Foreign Policy - begins.

Teaching, learning and assessment

The module is taught through a combination of lectures, seminars and tutorials - with a lecture from 12.00 till 1.00 on Mondays followed by one-hour seminars at 2.00, 3.00 and, if necessary, 4.00pm. Assessment is by means of a 4,000-word essay in which students analyse the role of domestic political considerations in the conduct of US foreign policy with reference to a specific case study. Students are encouraged to choose a case study of their own, arising out of the course, subject to the agreement of the module convenor. Tutorials are available to students during the module to advise on the assignment.

Introductory reading

  • Alden, Chris and Amnon Annan, Foreign Policy Analysis: New Approaches (London: Routledge, 2016)
  • Heffner, Richard and Alexander Heffner, A Documentary History of the United States, 9th edition (New York: Signet, 2013)
  • Hook, Steven and John Spanier, American Foreign Policy since World War II, 20th edition (Los Angeles: Sage, 2015)
  • Herring, George, The American Century and Beyond: US Foreign Relations 1893-2014, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Neustadt, Richard and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Macmillan, 1986)
  • Patrick, David, The Decision Point: Six Cases in US Foreign Policy Decision-Making (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012)