As a new postdoc to the Kinder Insitute, I have the good fortune not to be teaching this semester. In addition to working on my book manuscript—more on that later—I have been spending a good deal of time thinking through my class on U.S. foreign policy. This has been a good experience even at this early stage because it has forced me to think about what students really need to know about foreign policy, and it has provided me the spurring I needed to begin distilling my graduate training into a systematic framework.

Writing a syllabus poses several challenges, not least of which are what the students should learn. Although it would be nice to have some aggregate data, at this time I am unaware of anything like the GRaduate Assignments Data Set (GRADS) on graduate readings in IR. And although it would be nice to have data on what approaches work best, I have a hunch that most of what we do does not actually train students to think about foreign policy in a serious way.

My own survey of syllabi, both from GRADS and my own smaller collection, suggest that the plurality of courses in foreign policy begin with a brief survey of the paradigms, maybe some introductory concepts like the agent-structure problem, research programs, some methods, and then finally about half way through a semester or later, finally get into the meat of specific issues and themes. And sure, maybe its an exaggeration to characterize foreign policy and IR courses this way. But my growing hunch is that a lot of the explanation for teaching foreign policy this way stems from the tension between foreign policy and IR. The former, I think, looks at international politics from the vantage point of the state or politician’s view of the international system; the later looking at states like the old familiar billiard ball. There are strengths to each, and there are great ways of teaching foreign policy without relying on IR approaches as the primary lens through we introduce students to foreign policy.

Can foreign policy be taught without reference to the paradigms of realism, liberalism, and constructivism? Can be taught without weeks of theoretical and conceptual throat clearing? If so, how so? Continue reading