US foreign policy in the Middle East – the relevance of a Constructivist approach.

Published: 2019/12/05 Number of words: 841

Foreign policy and international politics have been observed through a range of disparate and often competing theories, yet realism has somehow managed to consistently dominate the literature on foreign policy. Whilst it is true that, to some extent, all international relations (IR) theories make certain assumptions about state behaviour,1 the inability of realism to separate these assumptions from its framework has often caused it to fall short when applied to Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). As will become evident, whilst the theory has been useful in explaining many of the strategic elements inherent in American policy, it has failed to effectively incorporate the US position on Israel into its framework. This is, due to its aforementioned assumptions, a result of the theory’s rigidity on the process of foreign policy construction. The failure of realism to address many of the factors associated with the development of foreign policy shows its inapplicability to FPA in general. This was pointed out by Kenneth Waltz in his 1996 seminal work on neorealism – Theory of International Politics. Waltz concedes that the balance-of-power theory that underpins his neorealist perspective (and indeed any realist perspective) ‘makes assumptions about the interests and motives of states, rather than explaining them’.2 This led him to concede that realism has limitations when studying foreign policy and that realism cannot account for ‘why state X made a certain move last Tuesday’.3

The state-centricity of realism simply does not allow for a spectrum of influences to be considered when discussing state action and foreign policy. Its main shortcoming lies in its assertion that in reality the self-concerned state will not be prone to domestic influences when taking decisions affecting the security and wellbeing of its territory and population (foreign policy). Constructivism however is able to tackle such an issue. Its perspective allows study into how the domestic environment within a state ‘conditions’ 4 the decisions that are undertaken by decision makers within that state, through the influence of individuals, groups, and general norms and values inherent in that state’s society. These norms and values relating to government decisions can be regarded as a ‘consensus of mood, of shared emotional states in response to changes in the domestic and foreign arenas’.5 The significance of this is that, just as international norms (for example those concerning human rights) can influence governments’ domestic decisions,6 so can domestic norms influence governments’ international decisions. Jeffrey T. Checkel remarked that the constructivist approach to FPA ‘supplements the traditional FPA approaches by broadening both the array of actors considered and the assumptions made about what leads them to act’.7 A constructivist approach still appreciates the relevance of material factors in the determination of state interests and policy objectives, and the theory still appreciates the authority of the nation state,8 but it does so through recognising the importance of the social context in which these concepts arise.

The difficulties and complications in attempting to combine IR theories with FPA are clear;9 this paper attempts to question the fundamentals and assumptions that govern much of the work on foreign policy. Through a specific case study on American policy in the Middle East, this paper argues that the American approach in the region gradually became less influenced by Cold War logic and strategic elements and more by a cohesion of domestic factors, most notably the strengthening of American-Jewish ties and the growing power of the pro-Israel lobby. It will be seen that during the period in question the interaction of these factors culminated in a positive shift in American social values and attitudes towards the Jewish community and, by default, towards Israel. This allowed the pro-Israel lobby to gain a louder voice and domestic factors to overpower strategic considerations in the US policymaking process. There have been attempts to single out domestic factors and their influence on US policy towards Israel and the wider Middle East; however, the originality of this paper lies in its attempt to analyse how the interaction of these factors affected the domestic environment itself.

1S. Smith, A. Hadfield, and T. Dunne, Foreign Policy: Theories, Actors, Cases (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 6
2K. N. Waltz, Theory of international politics (New York; London: McGraw-Hill, 1979), p. 122
3ibid., p. 121
4Meritt, Richard L. Foreign Policy Analysis (Lexington, Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1975), p. 15
5G. A. Almond, The American people and foreign policy (New York : Praeger, 1960), p. 158
6T. Risse-Kappen, and S. C. Ropp, The power of human rights: international norms and domestic change (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1999)
7quoted in Smith, op. cit., p. 74
8M. Zürn, and J. T. Checkel, Getting Socialized to Build Bridges: Constructivism and Rationalism, Europe and the Nation-State, in ‘International Organization’, Vol. 59, No. 4, Autumn (2005), pp. 1065-72
9Smith, op. cit., p. 4

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