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Human Nature in American Foreign Policy

Fri, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Hilton Union Square, Franciscan B


An emerging literature on individual leaders in International Relations (IR) has demonstrated just how widely heads of state vary in their life experiences. As these studies relate to American foreign policy, however, they have not yet examined how the forty-five presidents compare with respect to their philosophical anthropology--that is, their conception of the human. Although I cannot directly assess presidential beliefs on such matters, all presidents have made frequent use of human nature claims--claims that explicitly justify policy with reference to what constitutes "human nature," "the essence of man," or other such rhetorical commonplaces. I argue that the use of these rhetorical devices can help us to better understand presidential beliefs and American political discourse more broadly. In particular, because presidents use human nature claims to justify their preferred forms of political order, these claims will be especially revealing in the ambiguous post-war moments that require the (re)construction of world order. I will thus examine the human nature claims made by Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and George H. W. Bush in an effort to help IR scholars better understand sources of continuity and variation in American foreign policy.