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Constructing Foreign Policy Crises: Interpretive Leadership in the Cold War and War on Terrorism

Wesley W. Widmaier
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2478.2007.00476.x 779-794 First published online: 1 December 2007


Over the past century, crises have often driven shifts in U.S. foreign policy, as a liberal tradition has been permissive of varying tendencies to isolationism, pragmatism, or a crusading internationalism. While materialist analyses emphasize the impacts of crises on the capabilities of state and societal agents, they obscure the role of agents in interpreting crises. In this paper, I therefore offer a constructivist analysis, stressing the role of presidential rhetoric in the construction of crises as events which legitimate shifts between variants of the American liberal tradition and definitions of the national interest. I specifically examine interpretations of the Cold War and War on Terror offered in the March 1947 Truman Doctrine speech and September 2001 Bush Doctrine speech. Truman and Bush each reinterpreted international challenges as pertaining to “ways of life,” transforming security and partisan debates in ways that delegitimated isolationism. In sum, this analysis highlights the enduring traditions and mass understandings which can themselves constrain elite debates.

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