Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations, with Christopher McKnight Nichols

Jan 19, 2023 59 min listen

Who is America in the world?

From racialized notions of subjecthood and civilization in the 18th century to the neoconservatism, neoliberalism, and unilateralism of the 21st century, ideology drives American foreign policy in ways seen and unseen. In Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations, edited by Ohio State’s Professor Christopher McKnight Nichols, contributors trace the ongoing struggle over competing visions of American democracy.

In this virtual event, Professor Nichols speaks with Doorstep co-hosts Tatiana Serafin and Nikolas Gvosdev for a about the ideological landscape of international relations in the United States, from the American Revolution to the war in Ukraine.

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NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Welcome, everyone, to this edition of The Doorstep Book Talks. I am your co-host, senior fellow at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Nick Gvosdev.

TATIANA SERAFIN: And I'm Tatiana Serafin, also a Senior Fellow here at Carnegie Council, so excited to welcome Christopher McKnight Nichols back to The Doorstep Book Talk.

This is your second time on. Thank you for coming back for your book that you have edited, Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories. Here is my very marked-up copy because it is that good. I learned so much. I think it is such an important topic of discussion. I appreciate you taking the time to meet with us. I know your semester has already gotten going over at The Ohio State University, so thank you for taking the time to come here and speak with us about what is going on in the world today and how we can frame it.

The news is busting today. We have reached the debt ceiling, Medvedev has threatened nuclear war if Russia loses, Peru is exploding, Brazil, name a part of the world that has to be dealt with and looked at by the United States. It is so important to have frameworks to look at these issues, and this is what Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations does. I think it is such an important book at this moment in time, in history.

I want to thank you and the scholarship that you and all of the authors have done on this book, and I want to tell our audience that we welcome your questions. Some of you may not have read the book yet. I highly encourage you to get it and send over questions to Chris or us on Twitter. Today any questions that arise we will take in the second half, but again, welcome.

I want you to frame the talk today by defining ideology. I think most people assume there is one definition, and what this book clearly puts forth is that there are many ways to define ideology and many voices. What I loved most about this book were the voices that came out, the different lenses, and we will go into more of that later on, but if we could start out just defining the genesis of this book and what you learned about the definition of ideology.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: Thanks so much to you both for having me on and the great team that helped set this up. It is a pleasure to be on talking about another book of mine with you both and this great audience, so thanks for that and your kind pitch. We learned that we are both people of the post-it note when we were on earlier. This is my own book, and it is that marked up so I could do justice to all the great contributions in the book and the great scholars it involved.

Ideology is notoriously hard to define. Probably people tuning into this have been wondering themselves to some extent how to define it and why it matters, if it is an "it" or a "them." Is it better understood as a plural, ideologies? One of the little conceits that we do in the book that we can talk about later is that it is a singular title, Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations, but each of the five subjections of the book are "Ideologies" in the plural. It is a unitary concept to help us organize the book, the history of ideas and ideologies in U.S. foreign relations, but we emphasize the plurality as you note wonderfully of views of people, groups, and change over time.

One of the reasons that political theorists, political scientists, historians, and philosophers have a hard time defining ideology in any given moment is because we argue it is not static. Ideologies evolve. That is a key part of understanding what an ideology is, that it is changing. As a historian by the name of Peter Novick—who wrote about objectivity—argued, objectivity is like "nailing jelly to a wall. It is dripping down the second you nail it up there." Same thing with ideology I would say.

The best we can do is unpack ideology in a given moment. What are the key ideas at play? What are the core values and principles? To paraphrase several ways that thinkers have defined it and to help us begin the conversation, I would say—from a historian by the name of Michael Hunt, who has written a lot on the subject—ideologies help us make sense of the infinite possibilities in the world and the complexities out there. They help us distill those complexities, whether we are policymakers or citizens, and they allow us to use our core values and sets of assumptions to organize that. Sometimes these are less well-known to us. This would be what a Marxist would argue, generally speaking, about ideology, that in fact some of this is a mask for the systems that we are enmeshed in, so that we buy into ideologies, and that helps perpetuate the status quo or a system of inequality, oppression, capitalism, pick your example.

While that is an important way of understanding it, another way of thinking this through is that often ideologies are articulated by individuals. This is what we can see in the historical record and why we unpack that in this book, but also they are under-articulated or under-examined at times, so they can function as ideologies and we can understand them as scholars, thinkers, observers, and lovers of history perhaps, in ways that historical actors couldn't. They did not quite understand fully the core assumptions that were embedded in their understandings.

This is how we start the book. We were talking about this by email before. Even with individuals and figures, presidents and policymakers, who argue for a less ideological approach—and one of the things we find consistently in the U.S. foreign policy record all the way up to the present is a rhetorical move at least to steer clear of ideologies—you find embedded very much in the same position ideology itself, a set of assumptions and core values that organize the infinite complexities of the world into something more discrete to chart a path forward. Even if they reject ideology, you in fact find ideology.

That is one set of ways to understand this, and we can talk a little bit more about differences between ideas and ideologies, particular operating ideologies in given moments, what is most ascendant or important, and other ones that are out there, but I would also say that one of the points of the project is to note that there are main organizing ideologies you can see in U.S. foreign relations that can help us make sense of this moment, where you started, whether it is Ukraine, whether it is Haiti, all of the global challenges that we are looking at, and those important ones in U.S. foreign relations endure, and that is another part of the project. They are updated and they change, but some of the core precepts, core ideas—"core values" as one historian would put it—are there and being updated for different moments, so it helps us to understand, for example, the rise of white nationalism and populism in U.S. foreign relations because it has been there from the start.

Our very first chapter in the book talks about indigenous subjecthood and colonial relations as the United States becomes a revolutionary nation, and there you see those ideologies at work. Obviously they are not the same, they change over time, but those kinds of core ideas and ideologies very frequently recur or stay there and travel a subterranean and sinuous path over time.

TATIANA SERAFIN: I think that is important because it gets to what we talk about here at The Doorstep. What you just mentioned are doorstep issues, how America began, and the grassroots. There is a chapter literally on grassroots in the book, a grassroots focus on international relations, the doorstep look, Chapter 3.

In your chapter you also talk a lot about domestic influence on foreign policy. It is important as we talk about here at The Doorstep, and Biden's "foreign policy for the middle class," and what does this mean on our ideology and how we present ourselves to the world. It was so fascinating. In all of these different chapters, even in the chapters on gender, race, and religion, it all came down to a domestic issue that was then put forward into the world as an American idea or part of an American ideology. For our audience who follows The Doorstep I want them to know that this is such an important thread historically that resonates today that I think also has an impact on what you touched on, Chris, no ideology as ideology.

Obama was one of the references you made in the beginning of the work who did not want to have an ideology, perhaps because his focus was on: "Okay, we're going to focus on U.S. issues. We're going to do what's right by the United States." This is very much as you said incorporating this domestic concern and link to foreign policy that I think this book in multiple chapters brings up as so important. I wonder what that lens looked like to you and what thread you saw across the chapters in terms of this domestic impact on foreign policy and ideology.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: That is a great comment and point for listeners to take onboard. It is very doorstep. One of the reasons I appreciate your podcast so much is that set of connections. I think for foreign relations commentators who pick up The New York Times and The Washington Post you very often find foreign relations as bifurcated or practically inhabiting a firewalled-off space from domestic politics, except when you go to, say, a coffee shop or a bar, where you find people, to the extent to which they are talking about foreign relations issues, very often present equivalencies: "You can pay for this much out of the national budget."

Americans are notoriously bad at knowing, say, how much foreign aid is out there and often scorn the amount of foreign aid when it is just the tiniest fraction of the federal budget, but that said they think in these equivalencies, which I think is important to understand when you are thinking about worldviews and ideology. A big part of that, when you actually track it to the policy record, activists, and intellectuals, not just policymakers but the wider community of thought engaged in thinking about the U.S.'s role in the world, very often if not always I would argue you find domestic corollaries or direct reciprocal ways of understanding. This is very well understood for civil rights, for instance, that civil rights in the United States was contingent on a Cold War context and vice versa. With the Brown decision, for instance, in 1954, you actually had the State Department issuing an amicus brief.

That does not happen a lot in domestic politics, although the closer you look at the kind of legal record of civil liberties and civil rights questions in the United States the more often you find foreign relations questions there, whether it is because of, as Thomas Jefferson or John Adams might put it, the "honest opinion of mankind," that observers around the world are looking to the United States, are you actually practicing what you preach, or because the State Department had a more invested set of commitments, for instance, foreign diplomats in the United States who are being subjected to Jim Crow laws in the American South when they travel around. Those are some examples. One through line there that I found in a lot of my work on this set of questions is about who and what counts as an American. There is a immigration set of questions, there is a citizenship set of questions, and these are very often embodied in the ideologies that have shaped U.S. foreign relations.

One of the reasons that is the case is because of the kind of give and take we find over visions of what the core values of the United States are and who should be protected. If you step back and think about great sociologists like Max Weber and the "monopoly on violence" that governments have, one question is: Who and what should be protected and who and what should be ruled out? That works within North America or the continent but also in thinking about borders, border-making, and boundary-crossing. It helps you think about refugees. It helps you think about whether or not immigrants are drivers of the American economy. That is both a faith-based question, an actual deep commitment to this view, and it is a scientific or economic set of questions, do you buy the data on that, and how that has changed over time. I would say that who and what counts as an American sounds deceptively simple, but it unites the foreign and domestic in a profound sort of way because that commitment then has ramifications for other kinds of moments.

Think about how terribly the U.S. State Department treated Jews fleeing Europe right before the Second World War. It comes out of members of the State Department being racist, for instance, visa policies, and other things, but it also comes out of this very parochial sense of who and what counts as an American and what the future of the body politic should look like. That has been a core battle.

One of the things we say early on in charting what are the main battles in the ideologies—competing visions of democracy would be another way to put that. Wow. In 2023 we live with that today. We are a little past the anniversary of January 6. It is a country that has suffered an insurrection or however you want to put it, and that is continuing in American politics in this moment.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I am struck by what you have been describing here, which is, as you said, the idea that foreign policy and foreign affairs is somehow hermetically sealed from domestic policy is not the case. Listening to what you are describing now and what Tatiana had been asking you I thought there are two other elements, which are that Americans—and this is where the ideological questions come in—wrestle with the extent to what happens somewhere else—and defining what that "somewhere else" is, whether it is in Europe, Africa, Asia, or Latin America—affects them at home and therefore is something that they ought to be involved in. We have heard those tropes before, "We fight people somewhere else so we don't fight them here," we go out somewhere else to stop a crisis or problem from coming here, but there is this sense that the two worlds are linked.

There is a point too about our democracy at home or how we view ourselves as Americans at home and the extent to which we expect or require the rest of the world to align or become more like us because we feel either that our own security is involved in that. It does seem that we have this sense that America going out into the world is critical to America's own sense of identity but also, as you said, this sense of who is American and who is not.

I am reminded of President George W. Bush essentially saying that his move to push U.S.-style democracy around the world was because everywhere in the world essentially everyone has an "inner American" seeking to come out. That is an interesting vision, to say that the entire world potentially are all latent Americans. That has some implications both for domestic policy and immigration but also for what role the United States should be playing in the world. Maybe you could talk a bit more about that interchange of America going out and essentially proselytizing itself to make others perhaps more American.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: Absolutely. I think you put your finger on one of the core elements at work in a lot of the competing ideologies and visions of American democracy and American democracy's role in the world. One aspect of that, the 20th-century phenomenon, is the universal set of American-style democratic values that many American leaders and many American citizens—the "Grassroots" chapter suggests this—that are projected worldwide with relatively little understanding or recognition of the fact that people around the world may have different views about the universal applicability of those or, to put it a different way, you see this in the policy record and activist record, that there is a privileging of a kind of moral or ethical set of arguments that are understood to be American or perhaps Western and that they have subsumed other sets or ways of understanding what is appropriate for different peoples and groups.

As Tatiana said earlier, we start the book and as I was implying with the juxtaposition that you are suggesting, Nick, of the Bush administration in what they referred to as a "Freedom Agenda"—they did not like the term "Democracy Promotion," for instance, rejected that and went with "Freedom Agenda"—and this set of universalizing ideas. You will remember the title of one of his famous speeches was, "Why do they hate us?" "Because of our freedoms" was the takeaway of that. That was short on definitions of those specific freedoms? Was it FDR's "Four Freedoms," but that said I think the core of that was understandable to most Americans and to observers around the world, those who have accepted it and those who have rejected it.

We start the book with the shift into the Obama administration. The more we thought about it the more we thought this was a great juxtaposition to prove the point that ideology matters. This "Freedom Agenda," this amplified version of a Wilsonian world-transformational set of ideas, actually invading and promoting Western, American-style democracy, and assuming that it would take off were some of the blinders of the Bush administration. What is the exit strategy? Doesn't matter because the ideological commitment is founded on the assumption that others will accept this.

The Obama administration was the diametric opposite. His foreign policy team said that they would "elevate pragmatism over ideology." By this he meant we will take the real drivers of events, we will be realistic about facts, we will not be idealistic, and we will not enter other countries against their will. That became known in the pithy terminology—excuse me for saying it—as "Don't do stupid shit." One of his main foreign policy advisors, Ben Rhodes, said, "Who was in the 'stupid shit caucus' when people rejected that?" Nobody was.

If you unpack that, what is really going on there and how we got into some of our world situational problems—if there were U.S. ways of helping to solve them, which is an open question we could also talk about—what Obama did was privilege economic drivers, which meant that he did the "pivot to Asia" and thought a lot more about who the U.S.'s main rivals would be and did not think that economies like Russia's, based on fossil fuels, and with a dwindling population and just a large military apparatus, were likely to be major rivals for the United States. One of the things a pragmatism-over-ideology move did was in fact disguise an ideology that was premised on looking at noninterventionism and economics. So he said things along the lines of the fact that "Russia was bleeding," that "Real power is not using violence but real power is getting what you want through soft power means," that sort of thing.

The Obama administration, as we look with clear eyes at the last couple of decades, took their eyes off the ball of what Russia was doing. The Crimea annexation surprised them, and they were taken aback. Russia had been peeling back democracy under the Bush administration as well. They did not have any good solutions to that. The point here is that in this sense the anti-ideology reveals the ideology at work.

I think that is actually a pretty important insight historically. If you buy what I just said, then you can move this back over time, not just looking at policymakers but looking at international organizations and other kinds of groups and peoples who want to project a foreign policy or a set of foreign relations agendas, whether they are in human rights and refugees or advocating for hard-power solutions and in conflicts even.

Anyway, I think you put your finger exactly on a couple of the core questions here. For Obama, the takeaway there was when he drew a red line in Syria he did not intervene. He said, "Okay, Iran and Russia are backing this power, and we won't actually do that." For him that projection question that you were getting at—we're not fighting them over there—for him not fighting them over there also meant not fighting them over here because he thought the fight was not about hard power.

TATIANA SERAFIN: How much of that also was what you talk about in your chapter, this idea that it is only about the United States? If you take the long view—as you do in your chapter—it is what is good for us, so whether it is ideological or not or no-ideology ideology, it is what makes sense for us as one actor on the main stage, as one power, as the key power, and how much of that is baked into how America looks at itself? Even if we say, "Oh, here's all these other nations we have to work with actually, we are the lion"—or whatever analogy you want to make—"it's up to us and that's it." We may not say it because we are not going to be that crass, but that is really how we operate.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: Obviously I buy that because it's what I argue in my chapter. That chapter looks at unilateralism. I have written a lot on isolationism and internationalism. I am committed to thinking through these concepts and how they play out in different historical moments.

"Unilateralism" as a term actually comes after multilateralism in the mid-20th century if you look at the etymology and how the word has been used. I think that is important because unilateralism has often been in political science and historians of foreign relations reject it. It is a bit of an epithet. It is not as bad as being an isolationist in the popular imagination—except for that very limited group who want that mantle—because multilateralism seems so obvious.

In the post-World War II era nations should work together. It is a question of how they should work together. What is the leadership organization of how nations move, in lockstep or not, or collaborate on different kinds of challenges from climate change and fossil fuels to collective security, vaccinations, and dealing with infectious diseases? There is a whole host of these kinds of areas.

What I argue in the chapter and what I think is actually quite insightful for thinking through the long history of the United States is that from the very start, from the so-called Model Treaty that was one of the three things the U.S. government began to do in the revolutionary moment of 1776—they made the Articles of Confederation, they did the Declaration, and they made a Model Treaty.

Why those three things? Why did these committees do them? The Model Treaty was about how the United States should interact with the world and on its own terms. It asserted that the United States would not pay duties or import tariffs to anyone, really bold for a weak power. Throughout the first half of the U.S. history it was a weak nation, so this unilateral impulse was partly about protecting the United States. You can find this in all the "great thinkers" of U.S. foreign relations and policies, but you can also find this in the letters of regular people. They don't want their vessels stopped, they don't want to be stopped when they are traveling, trading, or doing business at borders, in the water, etc. They want to assert a kind of neutral right in the world and mind their own business.

What I say in the piece—and you can see this in lots of different political parties over time; arguments for unilateralism come from across the political spectrum—is that, "It doesn't need to operate as an ideology to function ideologically," which fundamentally means that, as an organizing set of principles, as a framework for action, unilateralism can actually be more visceral.

We can think to the very immediate past—where I start the chapter and a couple of talks I have given on this—the Trump administration. People were surprised that he was pulling out of so many things. Well, not historians like me because we have studied these ideas, and they go very far back. They may be the primordial soup of how Americans have thought about their role in the world—transactionally, what benefits Americans most.

If you are thinking about what I said earlier and definitionally, what are the core values and assumptions that organize the infinite complexity of the world into discernible and discrete paths forward, how does it benefit me? Why would I be involved with other countries? Why spend blood and treasure elsewhere when it can go at home, and then other elements of that—as a weaker nation how should the United States operate?

Another piece of that puzzle on unilateralism would be that operating alone in the world gives the United States a lot more autonomy. Sovereignty and autonomy go there. You find this in lots of folks who are hawkish. You don't have to be pacifist. In fact, you can be more open to territorial land grabs and aggrandizement if you are following a unilateralist orientation in foreign policy. It isn't just insular. It could actually be quite expansive.

This set of ideas embedded in unilateralism—self-sufficiency, non-entanglement, operating alone in the world, and incubating new industries, for instance; protectionism can go in there. We have seen that recently. We have seen that in lots of different moments in U.S. history. I think that is useful for us in understanding why there is such a strong group in the American population today and has been in lots of other moments who want to pursue a kind of go-it-alone path in the world.

Early Cold War conservatives called it some combination of the "free hand." They didn't mean that economically. They meant the United States should have a free hand to follow its best interests wherever they go, especially interestingly after the Second World War, when the United States has an enormous amount of power. They say: "Don't do the Marshall Plan. Don't put bases around the world. Instead focus on exactly what is the U.S.'s best interest." We saw this again in the 2010s and 2020s, and it wouldn't surprise me if we continue to see that recur because these ideologies and core sets of ideas and convictions are so powerful.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I want to pick up on a point from there and maybe press you on this question. We talk about that there are these different ideologies, these different strains, and yet for the last 70-odd years a certain combination of ideologies that have coalesced together have been the dominant ones, which are that the United States is not isolationist, the United States needs to be involved in the world, it defines its interests primarily through the Euro-Atlantic Theater, and it sees them primarily through geopolitical terms. This has been relatively enduring.

Even with new ideological and old ideological things bubbling up, we have people saying that with the crisis the planet is facing climate should be at the center. We talked a bit about the pivot to Asia. Many people say that it was a good idea, but we seem to be getting pulled back to Europe. Climate was a big talking point for the Biden administration in 2021, and yet in 2022 it's: "Well, we'll get to the climate, but let's take care of Russia first, and if that means burning a bit more coal to deprive Russia of gas income, then we will learn to live with that."

People come in with new ideologies and saying we should put climate first or we should refocus on women, peace, and security, and yet we go back to a plastic that says, "Yes, yes, but really we go back to Europe, we go back to geopolitics." Is there a certain dominance of a particular ideological frame for the United States, and what would change that? Donald Trump certainly tried to be much more transactional, tried to break some of these approaches with perhaps some degree of success, but with the Biden administration we have seen how much we have snapped back to these older models.

When you are looking at these other ideologies do you see something where down the line America says, "Look, we're going to focus much more on climate, we're going to look much more at the Western Hemisphere, we're going to put women, peace, and security at the top of the agenda rather than other sets of priorities," or is there a certain thing where people come in with these different ideas and then they get ideologically "converted" into what has been the dominant U.S. approach for the foreseeable past?

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: That is a good question. Some of the predictions I am not sure I could make here, but I would love to brainstorm with you on that.

In the historical record one of the things you find for transformations of ideologies is moments of crisis. Crises reorient the priorities. What you are describing in some ways is about a limited reorientation of priorities, the "values filter," for a dominant set of ideologies or a singular ideology here, you might say something between a rules-based order and liberal internationalism and a kind of set of multilateral commitments, maybe too broadly defined, and within that the filter is "foreign policy for the middle class" or putting at the top of the list climate change. The aberration there of course is the much more unilateralist turn of the Trump administration or the more idealistic "coalition of the willing" of the Bush years but still within that same organizational system, so the system is mostly the same but it is how the hierarchy functions within it, just to give you a rough social science-y way of thinking about it.

These moments of sharper crisis or transformation I think are the ones you need to look for, and they could be pretty cataclysmic. Imagining climate change is a good example here. When it gets so terribly bad it is not just the Department of Defense saying this is a security concern, we are all, from insurers to multinationals to citizens, deeply affected, so deeply affected that it follows that it is not just a top-line filter in a multilateral set of commitments but something much bigger, say, a new kind of coalition formation.

I point to a few examples to not be quite so abstract. One of the chapters in the book that has gotten some attention that I think is great on this is by Andrew Preston—a scholar at Cambridge and who also edited the book that I talked with you about before, Rethinking American Grand Strategy—and his chapter is about fear. One of the turns in foreign relations that we have been seeing recently in scholarship is a kind of affective of emotional turn, thinking about other kinds of drivers of thought, practice, and policy.

It won't surprise people watching and listening to this podcast that the central paradox that has been evident since at least 1945 is that fear has been a major driver of one of the most secure nations in the world, maybe in world historical terms. Of course nuclear war is a cataclysmic, existential thing to fear, but to understand why Americans were more afraid of North Korea than South Koreans were afraid of North Korea just a few short years ago by polling you need to unpack the relationship between fear and national security, for instance.

There is a political rhetoric that does service to that. You could argue from a very transactional self-interested way that the military-industrial complex benefits, certain political parties benefit from militarization and fear, but on a deeper level or a different kind of level of thinking that through what Preston argues is that this tendency to fear the worst was never more acute than when U.S. power was at its height.

Perhaps what you are getting at, Nick, is that fear of climate change is insufficient or we are not leveraging it well enough, but perhaps when the U.S.'s power is more diminished you could see a crisis then reorient that fundamental ideology that organizes things.

Another chapter in the book that people have also liked and that has been useful in pushing forward this kind of conversation is by Jeremi Suri, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, that is pretty thought-provoking on freedom as an organizing ideology. He says freedom maybe is not best understood as an ideology, but if you look rhetorically at how freedom was used, then you can add in and look at different eras. He argues that there is an era of a "freedom from," an era of "freedom to," and an era of "freedom over." The Monroe Doctrine era is the classic example of freedom from, so freedom from European meddling in the Western Hemisphere and freedom from other kinds of interventions as the U.S. economy is developing.

"Freedom to" is the Woodrow Wilson era, World War I-ish to the Second World War, and he argues that the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War marked a period of purposefully extending freedom "over" other nations, or as Rousseau said something like, "Forcing them to be free"—to get this back to Bush—became an essential task of U.S. foreign policy.

If you buy that trajectory—and he paints that in a mere 6,000 words, so there is a lot missing there, it is a great, thought-provoking kind of thing for the audience to think through—then perhaps you can see different breaks just from those moments, the 19th century, the early 20th century, and the mid-20th century, as ways of reorganizing those ideologies.

What will the next one be for the United States? We could attempt to tackle that, but I think those are some useful ideological ways that the scholars in the book try to address exactly your concern.

TATIANA SERAFIN: Before we move onto a question I am interested in and a chapter I am interested in, there is a question in the chat from our audience—thank you: "How does the myth of American exceptionalism play into the formation of American ideologies?" I think that goes along with what we have been talking about, so I wanted to insert that question here.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: That is a great question. Thanks for asking it.

One of the most fundamental ideologies at work in U.S. foreign relations is exceptionalism, and it is amazing to see how policymakers and citizens invoke exceptionalism. We have a few different chapters that talk also about synonyms. In some cases civilization, American civilization, is seen as a kind of synonym for exceptionalism. It is this unique derivative of an Anglo-Saxon or Anglosphere kind of civilizational project that only the United States can fulfill. In different eras you see that.

There is a great chapter in the book on civilization in American presidential rhetoric by a scholar named Ben Coates, who is at Wake Forest University. You also see exceptionalism playing out in providential millennialism and religious arguments, so the U.S. "mission" meets this kind of divinely ordained project of exceptionalism that no other country can embody in this logic. You see this in, for instance, "mission literature" even intended for children.

There is another chapter in the book that is fascinating and worth thinking about as well on how ideologies are projected generationally to kids. That is by Emily Conroy-Krutz, a scholar at Michigan State University.

There is a chapter by Daniel Immerwahr at Northwestern University on Star Wars. You can think about mission literatures intended for kids projecting a kind of exceptionalism and then a kind of anti-exceptionalism embodied in things like Star Wars, where George Lucas was rejecting both modernization theory as Americans had developed a vision for how other nations should modernize and push back against socialism and communism through a "step series," as theorist Walt Rostow used to put it, to jump off into modernity, and Lucas rejected that.

In the Star Wars series it inculcates in kids a vision of the United States as the "Empire." What is amazing about this is that the United States is not the good guys, not the "Rebels." A lot of Americans probably think that they are at this point, but that is not Lucas' point. In fact what Lucas is talking about in that piece that gets back to this exceptionalism kind of myth is, "Doesn't the Empire think that it's doing right and saving the universe?" What Lucas wants you to note is that the revolutionaries, the poor people on the receiving end of the Empire, are the exceptional ones, perpetuating an authentic, "Force"-driven, universally transcendent set of ideas. Immenwahr does a better job than I do of explaining that, so I highly recommend you read that chapter.

Back to the core question, the myth of American exceptionalism is embedded in virtually all American ideologies related to foreign relations. It is either in there embedded as a justification of some sort or outright rejected. In order, for instance, for anti-imperialists to make the argument that the United States should not take other territories, it argues that the United States is not like other empires and should not be like other countries. You then either see there an argument for exceptionalism, that American democracy requires not ruling alien people "against their will," to use that terminology, or that American democracy is like other Western burgeoning democracies at the turn of the 20th century and therefore shouldn't do that thing that monarchies and other kinds of governments have done in the past.

We see exceptionalism at work in the vast majority of ideologies and ideological debates about U.S. foreign relations. It is a crucial piece of this puzzle, and many scholars have argued this. I will add one more piece. Michael Hunt's groundbreaking work on this that we amplify in our project argues that American exceptionalism is very much enmeshed with racial hierarchies.

First, before the social science literatures of the mid to late 19th century made arguments for scientific racism, Americans performed their own exceptionalist versions of this. Then, in the late 19th century and into the 20th century we started adopting a classification of civilizations and hierarchies that is very race-based and very exceptionalist in that form, that somehow who and what counts as Americans were exceptional racially and civilizationally. Therefore that was the grounds for expansion around the world and a justification for the divine project that was allowing the United States to first outcompete other rival powers and rising powers in the world system and then become a hegemon after the First World War.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Just to add onto that too a point about exceptionalism from the questioner, I think we see that in the idea that even to this day the United States has a special quality to knit together coalitions that no other country seems to have. We see this argument playing out right now in Europe, the idea that only the United States has the capacity to hold together a coalition to support Ukraine, that the Germans can't do it, the French can't do it, the British can't do it, and in East Asia the idea that the United States is the only country capable of knitting together a balancing coalition to China.

There is also this idea that the United States has somehow exempted itself from some of the laws of history and social science that affect other countries. I am wondering—and this may be for another time—whether the extent to which the experiences of the last couple of years, including January 6, are reminders that, no, the United States is not exempt from some of the same rules.

And perhaps that also goes into the second question we are getting in from the Chat. Of course one of the things about American exceptionalism that I remember very clearly from 2001 was that after 9/11 when we went into Afghanistan we were not like the British. We were not like the Soviets. We would succeed in Afghanistan where the British and Soviets had failed.

From the Chat we have: "The failure of the Afghanistan pullout followed rather quickly by intelligence and military success of supporting Ukraine against Russia. How do you think the United States is viewed today by allies and/or potential allies, as a partner that they can rely on, because certainly two years ago the narrative was that the United States is unreliable?" Is U.S. reliability back, and how does this tie in again to this American exceptionalism question?

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: There is a lot there for us to grapple with.

To your initial point, one of the things I want to make clear, at least from my read of the history, is that exceptionalist arguments can be positive, even if we accept the fact that they are a myth, that in fact the United States is no more exceptional by virtually any grounds or variables than other countries or peoples.

There are a few places where we could argue that the United States may be in fact exceptional. Mass shootings for instance. It is a carceral state today; we have more people in prison as a percentage of population. Our peers are countries that the United States would reject as peers, generally speaking. So there are a few places we could argue that the United States is in fact exceptional, but they do not ground us in anything glorious, I would argue.

Exceptionalist arguments can be very positive. If you think about the self-sacrifice that is required to die for a cause, a belief in exceptionalism, particularly if you think in war and intervention, to help others, to spend blood and treasure, however potentially misguided that might be, that exceptional grounding for it may do positive work.

One of the things that I think is important to take away from projects like ours and conversations like this is that ideology is not necessarily good or bad. Obama's rejection and Bush's acceptance of a kind of ideology should not lead us to any particular perspective just from those presidential views, but unpacking ideology, interrogating it, and understanding its role is crucial. We could look at other moments of exceptionalism and say, okay, it's better or worse leveraging exceptionalist arguments for particular ends we can make value judgments about, but I want to lay that out there, which I think is important.

I will confess—I don't know how you would feel, Nick and Tatiana—that what a lot of scholars when I talk to them who know a ton about U.S. foreign relations history and the international system have been surprised about is that many of us made assumptions about a consistency across U.S. presidential administrations, that the United States, generally speaking, has in the past and has continued to the near past abided by most of the pledges made in foreign relations, commitments of presidents, commitments of secretaries of state, agreements, treaties, nonbinding, binding, all sorts of commitments. One of the things that the recent past has shown is that not just at the level of security alliances and actual allies in hot combat but also fairly undramatic, unimportant commitments that are ruled by norms and not laws are things that can be peeled back.

I think the question from the audience is a very astute one: Is the United States a partner other countries can rely on, bottom line? If you are an observer around the world, I think your clear takeaway of the last six years—and if you want to go farther, 20 years, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—is no, the United States is not a partner that you can rely on in a longitudinal sort of way. You might be able to rely on the United States through one or two presidential administrations. You probably should not bet on relying on the United States as a reliable partner moving forward I would say as a world observer thinking about this.

In the way that you might have been able to believe that between Eisenhower and JFK, a generational transformation happened—and I could point to the differences in foreign policies—as a general yardstick of what was going on that shift was not one that observers around the world thought would radically shake U.S. foreign relations and commitments to foreign allies and rejections of adversaries.

I think it is a really important set of lessons that the world is learning from U.S. politics, and Americans—back to the other part of your question, Nick—are learning about their own government, that we are a nation that much more relies on norms and practices of solid people who we assume will mostly keep their word, and that is not necessarily the case. The United States has been incredibly fortunate to have at least decent leadership over time and not have as many guardrails as now seem useful in foreign and domestic and at the intersection of the two.

Just think about the debt ceiling debacle that is on the horizon. Virtually everyone agrees that the United States should not default on its debts, but for particular political reasons people in Congress are going to use that as leverage to make particular kinds of cuts to programs or other sorts of things. This is just one of many sorts of examples where outside parties—lenders and individuals within the country who are also owed—may not receive what they are owed. This is the sort of core commitment that nation-states make to pay back their loans. This is what we do. My house will be foreclosed on if I don't pay my loans.

The United States is a hegemonic force, and that is not the case, but again back to that question: Is the United States a partner that other countries can rely on? You look at these kinds of moments, and you have to think, Probably not. If you have a clear-eyed, realist perspective, I think recent events should shake us all and certainly have shaken the international community.

TATIANA SERAFIN: That is kind of pessimistic. I am going to reel it back into optimism because that's my role here at The Doorstep. I do actually think there is a lot of optimism in this book.

Particularly I am going to look to Chapter 4 on the gender lens and change," and Chapter 12 on Flemmie Kittrell and the idea of the "international citizen." Those were two chapters that resonated with me.

I think the power of this book is the idea that this is not just a white male-dominant ideology. It has been, but there is now room and scholarship looking at how different voices have influenced foreign policy from the bottom up. Certainly Flemmie Kittrell, an unknown figure who did so much at the State Department and the White House, these figures now need to be looked at and their role, certainly her role in transforming this idea of international citizenship and bringing forth the voices of those underprivileged and in poverty. I think these new voices and looking historically at the voices that were underserved because of race, gender, or sexuality—that is missing from the book, but here is a new opportunity for us to bring different ideas of change. I do fundamentally believe that change happens from the ground up and that we need to be looking at, as you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, Chris, what they talk about at the barstool, what are people really concerned about now, and these cultural influences.

I want to get back to the Star Wars chapter because I do believe it is super-interesting to note what are people talking about not at the water cooler anymore, but online or on Twitter, for as long as Twitter lasts? The powerful idea of Yellowstone—I don't know if you have binged that yet—of 1883, 1923, this idea of freedom that we talk about today and the idea of the individual making change and each individual having a voice, the power of Gen Z to change the way thought processes work, that it is not just the elite think tanks in Washington, DC making foreign policy decisions or shaping ideology.

I think I want to ask you about this, what I thought was an optimistic note, in two great chapters. Also there were threads of this discussion in other chapters as well, but these were the chapters that stood out to me.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: Absolutely. Thank you for highlighting those. Those were some of my favorite chapters of the book as well.

One of the things that we thought about, my colleague David Milne at the University of East Anglia and I, in editing the book was to put together these kinds of voices and chapters and to find scholars who were experts in African American intellectual history and foreign relations, who were doing cutting-edge work on grassroots understanding of foreign relations, the role of women's international thought, and how that was grounded not just in how women interacted with international systems or in U.S. foreign relations but actually the whole broader systems of ideology as they adapted to the fact that there are suddenly lots of women with advanced degrees and significant activist orientations changing those foreign relations and altering the discourse.

There is a chapter by Katharina Rietzler in the book on that, women's international thought. She is at the University of Sussex. There is a great chapter by Brandy Wells on Flemmie Kittrell, who you mentioned, who is a home economist, an educator, and a thinker, and the chapter is about how she thought of herself as an international citizen and the kind of work going back and forth between being an agent of the U.S. government, an agent of state, an academic and thinker, and someone with broader commitments, well beyond the parochialisms of a nation-state, trying to do more, particularly as a black woman in a world in which she faced all kinds of oppression and all sorts of challenges.

One of the things you note there on an optimistic note—and generally I am optimistic about some of these things, but is the United States a reliable partner now from a world historical perspective? I am not so sure. But from how does change happen, I think you are exactly right. I think a lot of people who have studied ideology have defaulted to looking at just those foreign policy makers, the National Security Council, the top institutions and thinktanks. They all have their roles in this conversation for sure, but I think the chapter that you also mentioned on grassroots by Michaela Hoenicke-Moore from the University of Iowa—and she is writing a book on the subject which I think will be groundbreaking—helps us to understand that through close attention to the ways that regular individuals thought about foreign relations your average American citizen has a much more robust view of foreign policy and a deeper ideological set of commitments than we often recognize fundamentally.

One of the things she observes is that a bottom-up approach shows there is a diversity of foreign policy perspectives across the landscape. Perhaps this gets back to Nick's question of how does change happen. Perhaps we are looking at the wrong actors. If we think there has been this consistent through line, perhaps we are looking at the wrong peoples and groups, and if you look to regular folks—she says that this diversity of foreign policy perspectives defies conventional binaries. It rejects isolationism and internationalism, and it pushes back against facile understandings of elites versus the masses or hawks and doves.

She looks at GIs coming back from the Second World War—some of her broader work is about black GIs coming back from the Second World War. One of the things that they evidence is a real view that they were proud of their service in the war and absolutely did not want the United States to take on the Cold War internationalist role that it wound up taking. They did not want lots of U.S. troops committed around the world for peacekeeping, and they had very good arguments for why.

Look to regular folks, look to women, look to people of color, look to activists like the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which I have written a lot about. I think we need to think more deeply about the varied landscape of ideologies and ideological actors. I think, Tatiana, that is where you get to this generational piece too that I have been puzzling through based on a couple of chapters here, and I would be curious to plant this seed with the audience: How are the kinds of ideologies that we are exposed to as kids largely or at least partly determinative of the kinds of foreign policies and worldviews we have later?

Right now we three and this whole audience if they are all adults maybe are thinking that they have fully-formed ideas. They want to learn and think more but are those core assumptions that I was describing earlier embedded in the formative stages of your life and have they come not through listening to presidents or foreign policy documents or studying all of the stuff that is behind me. No. They come through comics, cartoons, what your parents tell you, what you see on the street, and all kinds of different interactions.

They come through Star Wars. They come through mission literature intended for kids. They come through life experience and cross-cultural awareness. They come through Twitter or TikTok and not through sitting in conferences or understanding that sort of thing. It is, in other words, often "offstage" in the scholarly study of ideology, all of those formative parts of what makes for the ideologies of human beings later.

I think on the optimistic side the fact that in the United States we are seeing a lot more younger people voting and registering and we are seeing more women of a younger generation elected to Congress, those generational dimensions that we are witnessing right now are the things that scholars in a generation will look back at and say, like this book does 100-plus years later, "Those are the formative moments that came out of an ideological milieu of things like Star Wars," suggesting that in fact the U.S.'s role in the world isn't so benign, that perhaps the exceptionalism that we found some of our arguments on, even our best ones, need to be better interrogated.

NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: I just saw something coming in about not forgetting the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in focusing on human rights and also on getting the United States involved and sustaining its role in the United Nations. I don't know if we have time, this may be for another podcast, but there is also the question of global biodiversity and preserving and protecting that as an organizing principle for foreign policy, but certainly I think this is only the start of a conversation rather than its end.

Tatiana, your final thoughts?

TATIANA SERAFIN: I am glad that we are leaving off in an optimistic frame of mind, looking at younger generations. That is your next book: Social Media Impact on Foreign Policy Ideology.

For now, the book is Ideology in U.S. Foreign Relations: New Histories. Thank you so much for joining us, Chris. Everybody get this book. It is so thought-provoking, such a fun read, and has so many different ideas. Thank you for coming back to The Doorstep. We can't wait to have you again.

CHRISTOPHER NICHOLS: Great to be on The Doorstep with you both. It is such a pleasure. Hopefully people will read and think each of the chapters is very accessible, and at the end of the day every single one tells us something about the world we live in.

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is an independent and nonpartisan nonprofit. The views expressed within this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position of Carnegie Council.

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