The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama
The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

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The USA, power and international order: Foreign policy under Obama

2 International order and American dilemmas

We will begin to think through these questions by considering at a very general level what it is that America is trying to achieve in the international system.

What are the USAs long-term goals for international order?

To answer this question we first need a working definition of what international order is. As you have already seen, there are different ways in which one might understand and characterise international order. Among these, three notions of international order underlie much of the discussion that follows here. The first, most closely but not only associated with Realism, is the idea that international order is the product, in an anarchical states-system, of a balance of power: the coercive power of states (or the potential to use such power) is ranged against that of others. Order here is shaped by the power of one checking that of others, or of the strong dominating the weak.

However, you have also seen that international order can arise from interdependence and particularly from forms of positive-sum interdependence. Order here is a collective property of states that are able to coordinate some of their interactions to mutual advantage. The English School argues that international order arises from ‘a sense of common interests in those elementary or primary goals [of social life]; by the rules which prescribe the pattern of behaviour that sustains them; and by institutions which make these rules effective’ (Bull, 1995 [1977], p.51). For the English School, the primary goals of social life include guarantees of security, agreements and property, and patterns of behaviour that uphold these. For others, such as the Liberal analysts of post-Second World War international order, the pursuit of large absolute gains plays a crucial role in sustaining the particular patterns of behaviour of a liberal international order. Finally, Marxist analyses of imperialism and hegemony in the capitalist international system seek to show how both power and interdependence are themselves shaped by the uneven development of the capitalist world economy. In this course we take the view that all three notions – power, positive-sum interdependence and capitalist development – play a role in a considered account of the USA in international order.


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