GVSU panel discusses U.S. foreign policy, global citizenship

October 17, 2023 (Volume 47, Number 4)
Article by Brian Vernellis

Since its formation as a nation, Americans and their leaders have grappled with the role of the United States in international relations. 

Should the U.S. be a nation that embraces isolationism and an “America First” philosophy, or should the U.S. employ a stronger presence to protect its interests and allies?

Grand Valley’s Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies welcomed author and historian Christopher McKnight Nichols to lead a panel discussion exploring the centuries’ of influences upon U.S. foreign policy and how they will shape the nation’s path with current global conflicts.

Joining Nichols in the discussion were:

  • Polly Diven, professor of political science and director of the international relations program at Grand Valley
  • Emily Conroy-Krutz, associate professor of history at Michigan State University
  • Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University

In her research, Diven pointed to four objectives that drive U.S. foreign policy: national security, ideology (i.e. the Cold War), humanitarianism and domestic economics. 

“Most of foreign policy is the result of two or three of those objectives happening at the same time,” Diven said. “There is no one core value, but we see that foreign policy is an amalgam of certain levels of people becoming involved and asking for different things.”

U.S. foreign policy will be tested with current geopolitical challenges around the world and will likely shape how Americans perceive their place in international relations, said Nichols, professor of history and Wayne Woodrow Hayes Chair in National Security Studies for the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at Ohio State University.

“The main questions really are oriented around what are the core values and assumptions that have guided U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “They obviously haven't been static, no one would argue that, but to what extent have there been consistencies.”

It’s been nearly 20 months since Russia invaded Ukraine, Taiwan is facing the looming threat of an invasion by China and, most recently, Hamas and Israel are engaged in a devastating conflict that will carry repercussions for decades.

“One of the things that we need to really bear in mind is the continued contest over what the U.S. should be doing, how it should be acting and what its values ought to be,” Conroy-Krutz said. “This has never been something that Americans have been in agreement with and they've argued about it from the very beginning.”

Engel said since the end of World War II, every U.S. administration, with the exception of one, believed that if Americans are not engaged in the world, particularly in Europe, then chaos will emerge, and the consequences will be larger than taking an isolationist perspective. 

“The problem is the American public did not necessarily buy into that,” he said. “The American public did not have the same viewpoint as their elite policymakers. The American public asked questions of the domestic economy or values or anything else that would say. ‘How is this important to me?’” 

The discussion evolved into the importance and ethics of global citizenship, an idea that Americans have debated since the American Revolution, Nichols said. 

“Thomas Paine famously said, ‘I’m a citizen of the world, and my mission in the world is to do good,’” Nichols said. “Gov. Morris made an argument that if any of the people at the Constitutional Convention identified as world citizens, then they would be bad citizens for the United States.”

The panel was part of the Hauenstein Center’s 2023-2024 programming theme of “Empowered Citizenship.” Throughout this academic year, the Hauenstein Center will present authors, lecturers and experts to discuss and examine what it means to be a citizen in modern society and the responsibilities it entails.

For more information, visit the Hauenstein Center’s website

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This article was last edited on October 17, 2023 at 3:23 p.m.

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