American Foreign Policy and National Security: A Documentary Record

  • Published

American Foreign Policy and National Security: A Documentary Record edited by Paul R. Viotti. Cambria Press, 2020, 255 pp.

Paul Viotti’s anthology American Foreign Policy and National Security is the most recent book in Cambria Press’s Rapid Communication in Conflict and Security (RCCS) series. A professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, Viotti focuses this work on US foreign policy and national security. The anthology overviews US foreign policy and national security decision-making. Viotti has produced a far more concise read than other reviews of US foreign policy, such as Frank Costigliola and Michael Hogan’s Explaining the History of American Foreign Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2016) or The Oxford Handbook of U.S. National Security edited by Derek Reveron, Nickolas Gvosdev, and John Cloud (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Viotti lays out his ambitious thesis in the first sentence: identifying a central factor or theory in American foreign policy decision-making. In making his case, Viotti focuses on the decision makers of the American national security establishment, namely the presidents and the foreign policy elite—those professional policy makers in the Department of State and the US government at large (xiii). As a framework for his argument, Viotti outlines four foreign policy orientations: liberal internationalists, conservative internationalists, neoconservative internationalists, and nationalists/isolationists. In part 1, Viotti defines the characteristics of each orientation, noting the subtle difference between the conservative and neoconservative internationalists camps lying in their propensity for aggressive or unilateral foreign intervention (chap. 1).

In parts 2 and 3, he offers historical perspectives and examples as support for his thesis, along with insights into the dynamic influence of presidential power and Washington politics on foreign policy decision-making. Concluding his argument, Viotti indicates the two most influential factors in US foreign policy making: first, the personalities and personal preferences of those making policy decisions; and second, the influence of domestic politics on the ebb and flow of presidential power. This constant internally focused balance between presidents and policy elites, Viotti concludes, is the real defining factor in US foreign policy and national security decision-making.

Viotti’s opening and concluding chapters represent the strongest portions of his case, neatly spelling out his framework and tying together his main points with his conclusions. However, in the middle section, his presentation becomes muddled and disjointed. The two largest flaws in the book are Viotti’s clear bias toward foreign policy elites and a lack of coherent historical support for his argument. Viotti clearly prefers a foreign policy guided by policy elites—characterized by the liberal internationalist stance of President Barak Obama—over the neoconservative stance of President George W. Bush. Further, throughout the book, he does not hide his distaste for President Donald Trump or his decidedly nationalists ideology (64).

The second flaw is more subtle but more damaging. Throughout part 2, Viotti makes several claims about foreign policy decisions and outcomes across the span of American history but offers little in terms of researched support for his conclusions. His notes are sparse and consist largely of secondary sources, indicating that his conclusions offer no fresh perspective on his subject. Finally, he makes no connections with the history of US foreign policy and his conclusions. Scoping the sections on American foreign policy history as direct case studies aligned with the four foreign policy orientations would improve the work and, ironically, is something Viotti almost does in chapters 2 and 3. However, the examples in these chapters, along with part 2, are left as stand-alone reviews of American foreign policy history.

Because of these flaws, American Foreign Policy leaves the reader with few insights about the mechanisms of US foreign policy and how they historically shaped US national security. Further, Viotti’s conclusion provides no roadmap for how policy experts might behave in the future. In short, as an introduction to readers uninitiated in the dynamics of US foreign policy, Viotti’s work might make a fine starting point, but policy professionals and students of American foreign policy decision-making will find their time better spent elsewhere.

Lt Col Matt Dietz, USAF, PhD



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."