Theme Panel: American Exceptionalism, IR and Theory, and Impacts of Great Power Intervention

American Exceptionalism, IR and Theory, and Impacts of Great Power Intervention

Co-sponsored by Division 20: Foreign Policy
Created Panel

Session Description:
These authors tackle head-on issues important to the themes of this year’s conference. The panel demands that we rethink, restructure, and reconnect important elements of study going forward. Subjects include American exceptionalism, Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping, the definitions and effects of military intervention, and the role of racism in the study of international relations. Hilde Eliassen Restad asks if American exceptionalism can be salvaged for future use as an analytical concept and a research agenda. Or, is its meaning so broad and so malleable as to render its analytical purchase meaningless? Restad argues that re-thinking this often used and highly abused concept can be rehabilitated by separating its subjective and objective definition (narrative vs. measurable claim), as well as clarifying its range of possible implications for U.S. foreign policy in various historical eras. Restad attempts to separate a constructive versus a degenerative research agenda on 1) American exceptionalism as a concept and 2) its connection to U.S. foreign policy. Restad does this by offering a series of advice grounded in my own experience as a non-American who researches, and reviews articles on, American exceptionalism. Shale Horowitz and Kathryn Shapiro take different approaches to the study of today’s great powers. Horowitz starts with the fundamental changes that Xi Jinping has made to China’s foreign policy, which he says have potentially revolutionary implications for international security. Drawing on ideological statements and other evidence, the author identifies Xi’s foreign policy preferences and concludes that a broader approach to predicting preferences has greater explanatory power than those derived from general theories of international relations. Shapiro expands our understanding of U.S. military occupation by framing withdrawal and the occupation’s legacies as part of the conflict rather than the end of the conflict. Cases include the U.S. occupation of Haiti, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Reframing identifies what was left behind that continues to impact the target of occupation. This research provides a welcome expansion of the understanding of military intervention and occupation to focus on the subjects of the intervention. Naunihal Singh grapples with the question of how much it matters if the concepts and approaches used by practitioners of international relations grow from racist and colonial roots, and if much of international relations is Eurocentric in focusing on a limited and biased sample of world events reflecting a flawed understanding of the cases it centers. The author structures the paper around four concepts: (a) the state / failed states (b) anarchy (c) ungoverned spaces (d) international order. It describes the critique of these concepts and suggests ways that the practice of international diplomacy and security might be changed as a result.

Papers:

American Exceptionalism: A Call for a Constructive Research Agenda
Hilde Eliassen Restad, Oslo New University College

In public discourse as well as academic research, the phrase “American exceptionalism” has many definitions and often very different implications for U.S. foreign policy. For some researchers, it is a scientific claim of objective fact (one can ‘measure’ exceptionalism across a range of criteria). For others, it is a narrative influencing public perceptions and discourse. For Americans in general, it is often an unquestioned assumption. This paper asks: Can American exceptionalism can be salvaged as an analytical concept and a research agenda? Or is its meaning so broad and so malleable as to render its analytical purchase meaningless? I argue that separating its subjective and objective definition (narrative vs. measurable claim), as well as clarifying its range of possible implications for U.S. foreign policy in various historical eras, can go a long way toward salvaging this often used and highly abused concept. In doing so, an attempt is made to separate between a constructive versus degenerative research agenda on 1) American exceptionalism as a concept and 2) its connection to U.S. foreign policy. I do this by offering a series of advice grounded in my own experience as a non-American who researches, and reviews articles on, American exceptionalism.

China’s “New Era” in Foreign Policy: Explaining Change under Xi Jinping
Shale Horowitz, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, has made fundamental changes to China’s foreign policy, with potentially revolutionary implications for international security. What are the sources of Xi’s foreign policy changes? What policy implications follow from an understanding of such sources? Rather than assume that particular theoretical schools of international relations may provide the best explanations of foreign policy, we begin with the observation that particular leaders have distinct foreign policy preferences that vary significantly. We predict characteristics of Xi’s preferences based on his ideological statements, along with evidence from his domestic policies and habitually preferred methods of domestic rule. We find that these predicted characteristics closely match the revealed pattern of foreign policy change, but also point out that foreign policy outcomes provide additional evidence about preferences that cannot be derived from ideological statements and domestic policy evidence. We conclude by discussing policy implications; and then summarize how our broader approach to predicting preferences has greater explanatory power than those derived from general theories of international relations.

So What If IR Theory Is Racist? How Should Foreign Diplomacy & Security Change?
Naunihal Singh, U.S. Naval War College

A variety of scholarship has demonstrated ways in which the history of the study of international relations has been shaped by colonial and racist ideas. For example, many of the key figures (for example, Kant and Woodrow Wilson) were racist, and critics allege that concepts central to international relations reflect their problematic origin. There is also the criticism that much of international relations is Eurocentric — that is it is based on a limited and biased sample of world events — and that it reflects a flawed understanding of even the cases it centers. This paper grapples with the “so what” question. If we accept these (and other similar) criticisms as valid, what next? In particular, how do these criticisms impact the concepts and approaches used by IR practitioners in applied settings, many of whom work for governments around the world? The paper is structured around four concepts: (a) the state / failed states (b) anarchy (c) ungoverned spaces (d) international order. It describes the critique of these concepts and suggests ways that the practice of international diplomacy and security might be changed as a result.

When Great Powers Withdraw: The Politics of Leaving
Kathryn Shapiro, University of Florida

I am interested in studying occupational military withdrawal and the legacies of occupation from the United States. More specifically, I am interested in framing withdrawal as a transitionary event in a conflict, instead of a stopping-point that signals the end of a conflict. I want to know how Super-Powers (in the case of my paper, the United States) continue their influence in regions they previously occupied. I am looking for what was “left behind” by the United States that continues to impact the once-occupied country. My case studies will include the US occupation of Haiti, the US occupation of the Philippines, the US occupation of Vietnam, and (most recently), the US Occupation of Afghanistan. Reframing occupational withdrawal and broadening the traditional understanding of conflict is important as it helps scholars better understand the nuances of occupation as well as the events that transpire after the occupying military has left. While much has been written on the state building process and colonial legacies, there is a shortage of literature on understanding the contexts of withdrawal and how great powers navigate withdrawal for policy aims. I anticipate I will be able to place transitionary withdrawal (particularly from “great powers”) within broader theories of constructivism from international relations. In particular, I am interested in analyzing withdrawal in the context of state narratives about conflict, and want to see how occupational withdrawal fits within these narratives.


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