BSocSc Politics and International Relations / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
United States Foreign Policy: Dominance and Decline in a Complex World

Course unit fact file
Unit code POLI32132
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Why does the United States behave as it does in international politics?  How did it become so powerful? Who really makes the decisions in US foreign policy? Is it a stabilising influence in international politics, or an overly aggressive and unrestrained superpower?

US foreign policy has a profound impact on the actions of other states and the prospects for peace and stability in world politics, and this course will examine some of these important questions.  Whether we like it or not, US foreign policy has an impact on many aspects of our day-to-day lives.  This course will help students to develop a strong understanding of the concepts and real life events and processes that have come to define US foreign policy in the post-World War II era.

The course provides an exploration of some of the central concepts and processes that shape the formulation and direction of US foreign policy.  The course examines the different ways in which these concepts and processes have influenced foreign policy decision making by recent US governments, the ways in which the US has responded to the challenges and crises in global politics in the post-World War II era.  It explores the different ways in which successive presidents have handled issues of war and peace, terrorism, economic co-operation, and partnership and rivalry with the other states of the world.

The course examines the challenges, controversies and dilemmas of the America’s self-assigned role of global leader, and the short and long-term impacts of this on its national interest, the emergence of resistance to US hegemony, and on the broader prospects for a peaceful, co-operative and stable international order.   

The course helps students to master important intellectual tools in foreign policy analysis, which can also be applied to the analysis of foreign policy in other states.  It also emphasizes personal reflection on the week-by-week development of student’s thinking, and on personal research skills and the handling of primary documents.   


The unit aims to:

 Introduce students to some of the key intellectual tools in foreign policy analysis, used to interpret the foreign policy of the United States and other countries

Allow students to develop a strong grasp of the process of foreign policy formulation in the US context and the contestation between divergent international priorities and conceptions of the national interest

Help students to develop a critical understanding of the main traditions and influences on US foreign policy, alongside the sources of US power in the world  

Provide students with an insight into the connections between US foreign policy traditions, elite agency and real life policies adopted by successive US governments

Support students in developing their research skills and in formulating their own perspectives and analyses of US foreign policy, articulating them in verbal and written form 


Topics explored on the course are likely to include:

  • The historical context: Isolationism, internationalism and the rise of the US as a global power
  • Thinking tools: theory and methods for analysing foreign policy
  • Who makes US foreign policy?  The Presidency, Congress and foreign policy influencers
  • US Exceptionalism: ‘Benign Empire’ and the foundations of liberal world order
  • What is the US national interest? Realism, liberal internationalism and neo-conservatism
  • Sources of US ‘Hard Power’: Violence, Intervention and the US Military
  • Sources of US ‘Soft Power’: Diplomacy, Trade and Cultural Hegemony
  • Fighting the Cold War: ‘Containment’. ‘Roll-Back’ and superpower rivalry
  • US foreign policy and the Global South: Latin America, Africa and the Middle East
  • After the Cold War: ‘The New World Order’ and the unipolar moment
  • The War on Terror: Unilateralism, intervention and the Bush Administration
  • Dominance and decline in the post-War on Terror world: The ‘Obama Doctrine’, economic crisis, a shifting balance of power and the challenges of ‘leading from behind’
  • Donald Trump’s world? Incoherence, ‘America First’ and neo-isolationist/neo-interventionist tensions

Teaching and learning methods

The course is taught using a mix of interactive lectures and small-group seminars.  The lectures provide an introduction to the key concepts or the empirical context related to the theme of the week.  Lectures will often include film clips, points for discussion or short audience exercises using clickers. 

The weekly seminars provide an opportunity for students to discuss the important themes or concepts and to practice developing their own arguments and exploring those of their classmates.  Seminars will be structured around a specific task, designed to open up space for discussion and debate.  Depending on the topic in question, this might involve policy simulations, role play or ‘flipped classroom’ task where the students report back on a research task that they have prepared in advance.  Each week, specific openings will be created in the seminar exercise for students to receive formative feedback relevant to their assessment and to the development of their thinking.

The VLE will be used as an online platform for linking the different class activities together.  It will be used to allow student’s access to lecture notes in advance and to provide instructions for the two main assessment points and the seminar exercises.  It will also be used to allow students to access digitised preparatory reading material and video clips relevant to the course.        

Knowledge and understanding

Understand the key institutional processes that influence US foreign policy formulation, with specific reference to the Presidency, Congress and the wider US government bureaucracy

Demonstrate a critical awareness of the ways in which concepts of American Exceptionalism, isolationism, realism, liberal internationalism and neo-conservativism, have influenced the formulation and practice of US foreign policy both historically and in the present day.

Demonstrate a well-developed knowledge of the empirical events and processes that have characterised the role of the US in the international system since 1945, its response to key issues in world politics, and in its engagement with other states. 

Intellectual skills

Make effective use of key thinking tools drawn from foreign policy analysis approaches, to explore and interpret US foreign policy

Present well-developed and articulated arguments in written and verbal form

To draw out connections between guiding traditions and concepts in US foreign policy and the eventual ‘real life’ US conduct in international affairs

Research US foreign policy issue areas systematically and rigorously, using appropriate resources

Practical skills

Apply foreign policy research methods in exploring case studies in US foreign policy

Demonstrate skills in the effective handling of primary foreign policy materials e.g. speeches, policy documents, Congressional records etc.

Collaborate with others to solve problems in seminar policy simulations and role plays  

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Reflect on their own intellectual development and the progress of their learning

Manage their own study time and preparatory work effectively

Work effectively with others towards defined goals

Be able to present their views and ideas to others, clearly and succinctly in both written and verbal form

Assessment methods

Reflective Learning Journal: 1,500 words (40%)

Essay: 3,000 words (60%)

Feedback methods

Politics staff will provide feedback on written work within 15 working days of submission via Blackboard (if submitted through Turnitin).

Students should be aware that all marks are provisional until confirmed by the external examiner and the final examinations boards in June.

For modules that do not have examination components the marks and feedback for the final assessed component are not subject to the 15 working day rule and will be released with the examination results. This applies to Semester 2 modules only. Semester one modules with no final examination will have their feedback available within the 15 working days.

You will receive feedback on assessed essays in a standard format. This will rate your essay in terms of various aspects of the argument that you have presented your use of sources and the quality of the style and presentation of the essay. If you have any queries about the feedback that you have received you should make an appointment to see your tutor. Tutors and Course Convenors also have a dedicated office hour when you can meet with her/him to discuss course unit specific problems and questions.

On assessments submitted through Turnitin you will receive feedback via Blackboard. This will include suggestions about ways in which you could improve your work in future. You will also receive feedback on non-assessed coursework, whether this is individual or group work. This may be of a more informal kind and may include feedback from peers as well as academic staff

Recommended reading

Michael Cox and Doug Stokes (Eds.) (2012) US Foreign Policy, 2nd Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Stephen Ambrose and Douglas Brinkley (2012) Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938, 9th Edition, London: Penguin

Chris Alden and Amnon Aran (2016) Foreign Policy Analysis, 2nd Edition, London: Routledge

Adam Quinn (2009) US Foreign Policy in Context: National Ideology from the Founders to the Bush Doctrine, London: Routledge

John Ikenberry (2012) Liberal Leviathan, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press

Inderjeet Parmar, Linda Miller and Mark Ledwidge (2009) New Directions in US Foreign Policy, London: Routledge

Colin Dueck (2015) The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today, New York: Oxford University Press

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Tutorials 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Jonathan Gilmore Unit coordinator

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