Journal: Jeffrey W. Legro's Argument Concerning

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¶ … Jeffrey W. Legro's Argument Concerning the Source of Foreign Policy Change using the United States as an Example

During the early 20th century, the sources of foreign policy change were based on national responses to unlikely international events that morphed into unprecedented levels of multinational conflict. Germany, of course, stands out as the chief source of foreign policy change for the United States. In response to German hegemonic overtures after World War I, the ill-fated League of Nations promoted by President Woodrow Wilson but unsupported by the American legislature sought to become the world organization that could focus international efforts to defuse tensions and disagreement without the use of war. According to Legro, "In other situations, nations understood their interests as best served by separating themselves from that [international] society, or even by dramatically revising it" (p. 2).

An important point made by Legro, though, is that the sources of foreign policy changes at this time were largely regarded as being at the national level with little understanding of the internal or domestic issues that were shaping the views of the national leadership of the United States. In this regard, Legro writes, "What remains a puzzle . . . is why collectively held (or group) ideas sometimes radically change. Max Weber compared ideas to 'switchmen' who work the railroads: they point actors, like trains, down tracks in some directions and divert them from others" (p. 2). Extending the metaphor a bit further to include the source of change in national foreign policy, Legro asks the question, "What decides the direction of the switch?"

Despite a growing body of research from psychologists concerning these issues, it remains unclear how individual ideas coalesce to influence national ideas, including those that are responsible for shaping foreign policy. Other researchers have examined the source of change in foreign policy to identify its antecedents and how they affect national foreign policy, but it also remains unclear how the underlying ideas themselves tend to experience change over time. Given this nebulosity in the relationship between underlying ideas and the national foreign policy that results, it is not surprising that it becomes more important than ever to understand how ideas change and why they change. In this regard, Legro points out that, "In the absence of some general notion about the transformation of ideas, we cannot begin to think about likely outcomes in ongoing specific cases" (p. 3).

A noteworthy point made by the author concerns the notion of the perception of other countries that shapes national foreign policy. According to Legro, America's ideas about Great Britain helped these two countries forge stronger areas of agreement during the early 20th century rather than going to war over any remaining disagreements. This level of perception was easier for U.S. policymakers to be sure because they knew more about Great Britain. The same cannot be said of all of the other countries of the world, though, and the foreign policy response used by the United States at a given point in time may be based on erroneous perceptions of how much power is involved.

This appears to have been the case near the end of the Cold War when the Soviet Union collapsed on itself even as foreign policymakers in the United States were proclaiming the country a monolithic threat to rest of the world. As Legro puts it, "In these cases enduring ideas (e.g., how much to integrate into the extant international order, which states to align with) played a central role. Positing such a role for ideas does not explain their sources, however" (p. 3). These are important issues, the author argues, because the last half of the 20th century was characterized by more systematic engagement of the rest of the world on the part of the United States, a trend that gained further momentum following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. According to Legro, "New foreign policy ideas are shaped by preexisting dominant ideas and their relationship to experienced events, sometimes reinforcing the continuity of concepts and infrequently leading to their radical change" (p. 4). One common approach that is used to better understand the relationship between ideas and foreign policy is to posit that when group interests or power changes, their corresponding ideas will change as well. Likewise, researchers have also tried to explain the source of foreign policy changes in terms of individual leaders or political parties, all of which fail to completely comprehend the dynamics that are involved in foreign policy formulations.

Chapter Two:

In this chapter, the author invokes his original arguments about ideas and their influence on foreign policy to explain that more is involved when states changes their foreign policy stances. In this regard, Legro points out that, "Understanding why states sometimes fundamentally revise how they think about international politics requires some explanation of the way that collective ideas affect that process" (p. 24). Even though researchers have suggested that individual leaders can account in some part for changes in foreign policy, Legro emphasizes that nations are not individuals and foreign policy decisions are made in an environment of complexity and uncertainty.

Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made this point when he observed, "There are known unknowns . . . There are some things we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know that we don't know" (quoted at p. 25). In some cases, the ideological paradigm that is in place is too well entrenched to change, or at least change quickly, and these tendencies also beg the question where does the source of change for foreign policy originate? As Legro points out, "The problem with such a bottom-up view [about ideas] is it cannot explain why certain ideas (of the many possible) of certain people triumph. Analytically, it ignores the structuring effects that ideas (in combination with other factors) may have on the possibility of certain ideas succeeding and of other failing" (p. 39).

With an arsenal of foreign policy tools at their disposal, foreign policy makers in the United States are no longer geographically isolated from the rest of the world and a globalized world requires global policies. For instance, according to Legro, "Foreign policy idea change is often an international or transnational phenomenon in that the actions of other governments and nonstate actors can influence collapse and consolidation" (p. 39). Different countries, though, vary in their susceptibility to these types of external forces in shaping their foreign policies. In this regard, Legro advises that, "Transnational influence on national ideas is greater in countries that are less powerful and/or more integrated in international society. The degree of transnational influence depends on how such efforts play into collapse and consolidation dynamics in the target country" (p. 40).

In other words, to the extent that the scene is set for change at home will likely be the extent to which such countries are vulnerable to external forces that shape foreign policy. In the case of the United States, the general perception of U.S. interventionism abroad following World War I remained essentially unchanged despite overtures on the part of the federal government to join the international community in more meaningful ways. For instance, according to Legro, "Despite a militarily successful intervention in World War I and the president's own entrepreneurial efforts, the nation's aversion to commitments on security apparently changed little after the war was over" (p. 57). Indeed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's early foreign policy decisions reflected this national attitude as well, and it required an event on the level of Pearl Harbor to yank the people of the United States out of their isolationist complacency to effect changes in the nation's foreign policy that led the country into World War II and the Cold War that followed.

Chapter Three:

During the 20th century, America's level of engagement with the rest of the world ebbed and flowed, but the importance of this engagement continued to escalate throughout the century. For example, Legro writes, "The U.S. has in all periods both supported and rejected international regimes and rules" (p. 53). The significance of these shifts in foreign policy was enormously important for the rest of the world as well. In this regard, Legro notes that, "In the 20th century, U.S. ideas about foreign policy were particularly important in molding world politics. They were also puzzling -- in some periods inclined toward integration with international society, in other periods not" (p. 49). The so-called "failure of leadership" has been advanced as an explanation for the complacency that existed during the period between the two world wars, but this failure still does not help identify the original sources of change to a country's foreign policy. Indeed, Legro suggests that America's destiny was being shaped by policymakers who realized the U.S. must engage with the rest of the world, even if the results were not always favorable. For instance, Legro notes that there were two poles… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Jeffrey W. Legro's Argument Concerning.  (2013, May 6).  Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

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