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- Author or Editor: Morgan T. Rees x
The decision to mount an armed foreign intervention is one of the most consequential that a US president can take. This book sets out to explain why and when presidents choose to use force.
The book examines decisions to use force throughout the post-Cold War period, via flashpoints including the Balkans, the ‘War on Terror’ and the Middle East. It develops new explanations for variation in the use of force in US foreign policy by theorizing and demonstrating the effects of the displacement and repression of ideas within and across different US presidential administrations, from George H.W. Bush to Donald Trump.
For students, scholars and anyone with an interest in international relations and global security, this book is an original perspective on a defining issue of recent decades.
Outside of the crisis in Syria, Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy has also seen some interesting and comprehensive deviations concerning Iran. Iran posed a unique challenge for Trump given his well-established disdain for the Iran nuclear agreement and his renewed framing of Iran as the ‘leading state sponsor of terrorism’, coupled with his caution at the prospect of escalation. As a result, Trump was almost consistently on the cusp of conflict with Iran following the decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCOPA) in 2018. These tensions would culminate in the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani and increase the presence of US troops in the region, following an Iranian missile attack against the K-1Air Base in Iraq which left an American contractor dead on 27 December 2019. While there is a clear distinction between the different types of ideas presented, the manner in which they present is slightly different compared to previous cases, yet the impact on foreign policy remains formally the same. Variation is still present and persistent despite relative stability in the material and ideational bases of state interests.
In this chapter, I work to show how tensions between principled and cognitive interpretations of US interests towards Iran saw the Trump administration on the brink of conflict as Trump struggled to reconcile his desire to re-establish US dominance, while at the same time avoiding war. I begin by providing a brief overview of the tensions that surrounded the construction of the JCPOA.
Every president has a foreign policy doctrine, until they don’t. In this book, I have argued that in order to better understand foreign policy decision-making, we need to look beyond the material and ideational structures emphasized in conventional approaches to International Relations (IR) and zoom in on the discursive interactions that take place among foreign policy agents as they contest ideas in the construction of policy. This volume sought to answer the question: what explains variation in foreign policy decisions when the material and social conditions of state interests remain formally the same? The purpose was to show how different types of ideas see agents interpret interests in principled or cognitive ways. Specifically, I have sought to understand the seemingly confounding variation in decisions to use force in American foreign policy. In doing so, I turned to constructivist and discursive institutionalist insights to highlight the interplay between different types and forms of ideas within presidential administrations.
Developing these insights, I have offered a theoretical framework in an effort to provide a means for understanding how agents can interpret ‘interests’ – defined as ‘beliefs about how to meet needs’ (Wendt, 1999: 130) – in different ways. The basic notion that interests are interpreted in different ways is not a new claim, yet it is a claim that has been under-examined.
In Part V, I examine variations in decisions to use force in the Trump administration across the crisis in Syria and the escalating 2020 Iranian crisis. The foreign policy goals outlined by President Donald Trump have been markedly different to the post-Cold War presidents that came before him. Throughout the campaign, he had professed an ‘America First’1 foreign policy promising to regain American dominance in the world. As a part of this vision, he sought to ‘rebuild’ America’s military, renegotiate what he viewed as ‘unfair’ or ‘one-sided’ trade deals, and reassert a unilateral foreign policy, free from multilateral constraints. Yet, upon entering office in January 2017, an actual guide as to how such an ‘America First’ foreign policy might manifest remained unclear. To be fair, this lack of clarity surrounding Trump’s foreign policy platform can be attributed, in no small way, to Trump’s tendency to self-contradiction. Broadly speaking, however, ‘America First’ could be viewed as a revival of a Jacksonian foreign policy – a renewed yearning for an isolationist-style turn and a revival of American ‘greatness’.
Despite President Trump’s somewhat unconventional,2 almost ‘kaleidoscopic’3 statements around his foreign policy (Goldberg, 2017; Kagan, 2018), it is still possible to identify certain variations which do not neatly conform to his ‘America First’ worldview. In fact, there have been instances in which Trump has used force in ways very much counter to this doctrine. In some ways, this variation is more explicit.