Many believe that the Bush administration's emphasis on unilateralism, preventive war, and forcible democratization represents nothing less than a revolution in the way the United States thinks about and conducts its foreign policy. Yet, despite the fact that we may be living through a transformative moment in international politics, scholars have done little to explain the origins of this change, other than offering the facile observation that the attacks of September 11 “changed everything.” Nor have scholars paid much attention to determining whether the changes ushered in since September 2001 add up to a veritable revolution or represent nothing more than a temporary deviation from the post-World War II orthodoxy.
Enter Jeffrey Legro, whose new book, Rethinking the World, provides a framework for evaluating the purported Bush revolution while simultaneously offering a general theory of the determinants of foreign policy transformation. Legro's central question is a simple one: why do states sometimes dramatically revise their foreign policies? The answer, he argues, is that they change their ideas about how to deal with the rest of the world. This ideational change is, in turn, best understood as a two-stage process in which a previously dominant collective idea collapses and a new one is consolidated. Neither collapse nor consolidation is a simple process, which explains why change is so rare. A reigning idea will collapse only if a state acts in accordance with its prescriptions, and this leads to foreign policy failure. A prominent example is the demise of the German belief that security could only be obtained through armed expansion in the wake of its defeat in World War II.
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