Robert E. Osgood and the Origins of Social International Relations Theory

By Schonberg, Karl K. | International Journal, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Robert E. Osgood and the Origins of Social International Relations Theory


Schonberg, Karl K., International Journal


Perhaps the most significant trend in international relations theory in the last two decades has been the emergence of approaches emphasizing social, cultural, and ideational factors into the foreground ofthe field. What various authors have termed the sociological, cultural, or constructivist "turn" in IR theory was a direct result ofthe discipline's need to address the causes and consequences ofthe end ofthe Cold War and collapse ofthe Soviet Union, events that had been largely unforeseen by IR theorists operating within the structural-materialist paradigm of neorealism that had dominated the discipline in earlier decades.' The emergence of constructivism as a body of theory offered an alternative to this previous orientation, one that promised to account for the significance of cultural and sociocognitive factors as they affected state foreign policies and the nature of the international system.

While these were regarded as radically new perspectives on international politics in the post-Cold War era, however, this article will contend that these constructivist authors owe much to Robert E. Osgood, whose arguments about the history of US foreign policy decades earlier suggested many of the same conclusions.

REALISM AND THE HI STORY OF US FOREIGN POLICY: ROBERT OSGOOD'S CRITIQUE

More than 50 years after its publication, Osgood's 1953 work Ideals and Selfinterest in Amerìca's Foreign Relations continues to be a seminal analysis of the evolution of US foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century. It was an attempt to chronicle what had clearly been a major evolution in American foreign relations since the late 1800s, to illustrate the sources of America's conduct in that period, and to prescribe a course for future policy based on the application of power in the pursuit of both moral and pragmatic ends.2

Osgood suggested a pattern by which change had occurred in the first half of the 20th century in US foreign policy. He argued that paradigmatic understandings of the nation's proper role in the world come to hold sway for long periods, based on their ability to describe a coherent and believable view of the world more adequately than competing conceptions. As a result, American foreign policy had been marked by long periods of consensus, punctuated by periods of redefinition, which occur when established beliefs no longer seem effective in explaining and dealing with the international environment. Osgood argued that the 1920s and 1930s, for instance, were characterized by varying degrees of general reluctance on the part of Americans to play an active part in international security affairs. This was a result of the fact that a consensus was reached, among American leaders and the nation as a whole, that non-interventionism was the most appropriate role for the United States in the world, based on traditional ideals and revisionist arguments that the nation had been duped into fighting an old world power-political conflict in World War I. Osgood claimed that while US interests remained consistent throughout this process, they were properly perceived or ignored to greater or lesser degrees by the dominant consensus of each era.

Osgood described American foreign policy in the early 20th century as dominated by the excessive idealism ofthe American people and most US leaders alike. Woodrow Wilson was his archetypal example. While Wilson's moralism allowed the nation to bring to bear its inchoate power in the First World War, it also created unrealizable expectations in the minds of Americans, and the inevitable result was disillusionment and ultimately a withdrawal to neo-isolationism in the war's aftermath. Osgood claimed that it was only through the "discipline of adversity" forced on the United States by World War II that a more mature understanding ofthe need for longterm, patient, and moderate involvement in an international system dominated by the exercise of national power took root firmly in the American psyche. …

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