Undergraduate Modules

Contemporary US Foreign Policy

The United States is the most powerful state in the world, and, consequently, its actions have impact for every other state in the world, and for the most pressing international problems - including climate change, refugees, and terrorism.

The key question you will explore in this module is: how can we understand US foreign policy? Or, in other words, why does the US act as it does in the international arena? We will discuss three ways of approaching this question, each of which will take our attention at varying points during the term:

First, what is the character of the US as an international actor? Is the US, as some have recently claimed, an empire? Or are the concepts of "hegemon" or "superpower" more useful? Is the US truly an "exceptional" nation? What is at stake in these competing ways of conceptualizing the world's most powerful state? Further, what are the limits on American action: can the US really "do what it wants", or are there limits on its action?

Second, what are the goals of US Foreign Policy: what is the "national interest" and how is this determined? How does this relate to the changing notion of American identity?

Third, which actors are most influential in shaping US foreign policy, and what are the conditions that constrain their actions? How much power does the president have to shape foreign policy, and how much influence do other actors, including Congress, the media, the public, and interest groups, have?

Together we will develop empirical and theoretical tools to answer questions such as:

  • Why did the US respond to the 9/11 attacks by declaring a (seemingly never-ending) "war on terror"?
  • Why does the US maintain a nuclear arsenal, and why does it try to prevent other countries from doing so?
  • Why has the US largely not taken action on the problem of climate change, something that is not just an existential threat to the US, but potentially to the entire planet?

The topics covered in this module include:

  1. Key Concepts and Theories for Understanding US Foreign Policy
  2. Empire or Hegemon? How to Characterize the US as an International Actor
  3. Public Opinion, the Architecture of Government, and US Foreign Policy
  4. The Influence of Interest Groups
  5. Identities and Interests
  6. The War on Terror I: America’s Response to 9/11
  7. The War on Terror II: Afghanistan and Beyond
  8. Iran and Nuclear Diplomacy
  9. Migration/Refugees/Borders
  10. Climate Change
  11. Conclusion and Recap of Main Themes

Second Year
Spring Semester
Module Code POL232


  • 11 one-hour lectures
  • 11 one-hour seminar classes


  • One essay (50%)
  • One exam (50%)