Discussion group

The Society’s “Meeting in a Box” learning modules enable chapters to have a focused, serious foreign policy conversation week after week without much preparation. The modules dig into key foreign policy concepts, historical events, and scholarly works. Some are designed so that one person from the chapter can serve as a facilitator – presenting the key arguments from an article so that the chapter can discuss the ideas in it without requiring every member to do extra reading. Other modules have a short set of recommended readings for the whole chapter. Many have supplementary readings to enable interested students to go deeper – providing the backbone for potential papers and research projects. We’ll be expanding the module set over time.

How to Use

A single article module includes a slideshow (in both Powerpoint and PDF form) and a guide for the facilitator. Some modules will be based on a scholarly article. Other than reading the scholarly article, deploying a single article module shouldn’t take more than 20 or 30 minutes of preparation time.

  1. Read the article.
  2. Look through the slides and the facilitator guide. It may be helpful to glance back through the article as you do so, as the slides are designed to help you explain the key points from the article succinctly and apply them to current foreign policy challenges.
  3. Get the slides onto the computer you’ll use to present them. Make sure the projector works.
  4. Print off the facilitator guide and the article or otherwise make sure you’ll have them handy – you’ll want to have the suggested discussion questions on hand, and it may be helpful to refer back to the article.

Other modules are tailored around a few shorter articles that the whole chapter can read. During busy periods of the semester, it may be sensible to split the chapter into groups that will each read one of the primary articles.

In the discussion section, an effective facilitator will let others do most of the talking. Some helpful tips for facilitators:

  • Don’t be afraid of silence after asking a question – some people need time to gather their thoughts. Chapter officers, vocal members, and others with a strong, visible role in the chapter should consider staying silent for a bit too, as it will create a space where others are more comfortable jumping in.
  • Try to get everyone to offer at least one contribution at some point during the meeting.
  • If one or two people are dominating the conversation, make sure to engage others – for example, by asking them what they think about what so-and-so said.
  • Open-ended questions, often beginning with “why” or “how,” drive participants to engage with the material more deeply. Even something as simple as “What makes you say that?” can draw more out.
  • Keep the conversation on track – in a room full of smart people, it’s easy to get on tangents. Circle back to the current discussion question – or bring up a new one.
  • If you’re the only person who has read the article, you’ll want to be ready to bring out subtler points or explain how you think the author would answer an objection.


Foreign Policy Internship Guide

How can you plan your application process, pick your targets, and give yourself the best odds of landing an international relations internship that will move you forward in your career? The Society’s Executive Director explains in this informative video.

What Are America’s National Interests?

This highly interactive module has a simple structure. There’s a spreadsheet with a list of possible national interests; your chapter should put them in order of importance. Identifying which interests are most important and why will quickly yield a very serious conversation. Our generation will have to make foreign policy in a more competitive world where America no longer enjoys overwhelming military and economic advantages. Prioritization will be necessary, as will an ability to distinguish between truly vital interests and all others. (The module draws on this report for inspiration.)

What is Grand Strategy?

What principles should guide U.S. foreign policy? What is foreign policy for? What goals should the United States be trying to achieve in its affairs abroad? What does success look like? Grand strategy is “is a state’s theory about how to cause security for itself.” It is how a state prioritizes its goals and matches them against the limited means at its disposal. To those new to foreign policy discourse, grand strategy might seem like an opaque subject. This module helps break down the concept of grand strategy in a way that is digestible for people new to thinking about it, as well as outlining possible grand strategies for the United States and examining broader debates over whether grand strategy is useful for policymakers.

Primary Video

Secondary Readings

Discussion Questions

  • Posen defines U.S. security priorities as first territorial integrity, sovereignty, safety, and finally power position. Do you agree with that ranking?
  • What kinds of trade-offs does the United States face today in forming a theory for grand strategy? What does he mean by ends and means? What factors in the world constrain U.S. foreign policy?
  • Posen identifies two different American grand strategies, often known as Primacy (or liberal hegemony) and Restraint. How do the goals of Restraint and Primacy differ? How do their means they use differ?
  • What are the biggest challenges to a grand strategy of Primacy in the world today? What are challenges to the strategy of Restraint?
  • Do states need a grand strategy in order to conduct effective foreign policy? Can states rely on immediate circumstances to dictate their policy options?
  • How long in the future should the United States plan its foreign policy? Ten years? Twenty? More?
  • What are the guiding principles of current U.S. foreign policy? Do we have any?
  • Posen defines grand strategy as a state’s “theory for causing security.” Do you agree that security is the primary concern of foreign affairs?

Offshore Balancing

One possible grand strategy for the United States is offshore balancing. This strategy holds that the United States enjoys relative safety, and therefore does not need a large military spread around the globe in order to protect itself and its interests. The only true threat to a country in this position is a rival regional hegemon: a state that, like America, can reign supreme and all but unchallenged in the political and military affairs of one of the world’s key regions. The United States would only contemplate alliances and significant military deployments when a state threatens to achieve such a position. This more relaxed military posture has the potential to bring strategic and economic benefits to the United States. However, the merits of the strategy are often contested by scholars and policymakers alike. This module will introduce the concepts of offshore balancing to students and help them understand the main arguments about the subject.

Main Article

Secondary Articles

Discussion Questions

  • What are the costs of primacy according to Mearsheimer and Walt? How does Offshore Balancing address them?
  • Are regional hegemons actually a serious threat?
  • Mearsheimer and Walt argue that the US should only become involved with conflict until a state threatens to become a regional hegemon. What is a regional hegemon? Is that the right time the US should get involved? What is a good historical example of such a conflict?
  • Is China close to becoming a regional hegemon? How does the increasingly military spending and growing navy of Japan affect that answer?
  • What does Offshore Balancing recommend for Asia and Europe respectively? Do you agree or disagree with these recommendations and why?
  • How does Offshore Balancing see humanitarian intervention and nation-building?


How would a strategy of offshore balancing respond to the following?

  1. An invasion of Taiwan
  2. The seizure of Crimea
  3. A general European war
  4. A China-Japan war
  5. The election of a pro-Iran Iraqi government
  6. The Syrian civil war

Ethics and Foreign Policy

This module looks at the difficulty of achieving moral ends in foreign policy, especially in war. Good intentions are not sufficient to achieve good outcomes; sometimes well-intentioned initiatives lead to disaster. This module looks at the choice to invade Iraq in 2003 and to launch an air campaign in Libya in 2011. Your chapter will watch several videos in which policymakers lay out the ethical goals they aim to achieve by involving America in these conflicts. Other videos then dig into the results of the conflicts. The module closes with a look at an excerpt from John Quincy Adams’ famed July 4, 1821 “Monsters to Destroy” speech, which was an attempt to lay out principles for ethical action in U.S. foreign policy.

The Liberal International Order Debate

In the summer of 2018, a debate over the future of the U.S. place in the world emerged in mostly academic circles, but bled through into the broader foreign policy discourse. The rise of populism the world over, coupled with the election of Donald Trump, caused many scholars to become worried about America’s role in the world. They claimed that the US is essential for holding together world peace through a combination of robust military, economic, and institutional commitments dubbed the “Liberal International Order” (LIO). Proponents argue that the LIO is necessary to create peace and stability in the world. However, a number of prominent scholars took issue with the claim, arguing instead that the United States uses international institutions to protect its own interests and pursue hegemony, often creating conflict and instability. They further argued that the limited peace and stability of the post-World War II world depended more on the emergence of nuclear weapons and the global power structure than any series of agreements. The debate raged across several prominent publication platforms and across a number of think tank stages. This module will present a few key articles in that debate so students can engage on that topic as well.

Primary Reading

Secondary Reading

Discussion Questions

  • What exactly constitutes the Liberal International Order?
  • One critique of the LIO is that many of the institutions are actually relatively new, but are credited with providing seventy years of peace. Critics instead point to the presence of nuclear weapons and the war exhaustion of Europe as causes of the peace. Should we credit peace to fears of war or to institutions?
  • How much does the LIO depend on American will and power to maintain? How much does it require military force?
  • Are the methods used to protect the LIO actually liberal? Why or why not?
  • Many conflicts have occurred in the past seventy years, including Vietnam, the Iraq War, the Iran-Iraq War, insurgencies in Central America, the wars in Afghanistan, the Congo wars, and the Balkan conflicts, to name a few. Were they irrelevant, symptomatic, or exceptions to the LIO?
  • Should the United States promote these institutions abroad? Peacefully or by force? What are the benefits and costs of such a strategy?
  • Should the United States try to promote a set of international governing institutions or rely more on bilateral treaties and the balance of power to provide peace?
  • Does the LIO enhance U.S. security or detract from it? How could it do either?

Oil and National Security

We frequently hear that the United States must have a large military presence in the Persian Gulf in order to prevent crises there from disrupting the global economy via massive spikes in the oil price. Similarly, we often hear that any disruption in the global oil market is a source of chaos and economic instability. Thus, in a phrase – blood for oil. But is that theory correct? It may not be. Past disruptions in the global oil market haven’t had the disastrous impact that many expect; moreover, a large Gulf presence is likely to be less helpful than you’d think in preventing larger disruptions.
Citation: Eugene Gholz & Daryl G. Press (2010) Protecting “The Prize”: Oil and the U.S. National Interest, Security Studies, 19:3, 453-485, DOI: 10.1080/09636412.2010.505865

Security Clearances 101

Many college students are eager to serve the United States in positions that require security clearances, but find the process mysterious and intimidating. JQA Society Executive Director John Allen Gay breaks down the process, what investigations look for, and how you can prepare to make it as easy as possible. Whether you’re interested in government internships, State Department jobs, intelligence jobs at places like the CIA, NSA, or DIA, Department of Defense jobs, Homeland Security jobs, or even working in the White House, you’ll need to get a clearance if you’ll be handling top secret information. Surprisingly, there’s a lot of information in the public, if you know where to look. You should read this guide to intelligence careers from an intelligence community veteran. You can find the SF-86 here, the policy guidance document that goes into detail on how particular categories of concern for a background investigation are evaluated here, Matthew Heiman and Jamil Jaffer’s “A Short Primer on Security Clearances,” which forms the basis for much of the material in this video about the clearance process, here and FAQs about clearances in this Congressional Research Service report here.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, and American Strategy in the Gulf

Since the end of the Gulf War, the United States has had a large military presence in the Persian Gulf region. The purposes of this presence have changed over time. During the 1990s, the goal was to contain both Iraq and Iran and to enforce no-fly zones in Iraqi airspace. In the 2000s, this presence focused on supporting the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, as those wars wind down, there are new questions about our regional security strategy. Should we retain a large military presence there and align closely with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates against Iran? Or does the Gulf no longer demand the attention it once did?

Possible discussion questions:

  • What are America’s interests in the Persian Gulf? Which of those interests are truly vital?
  • What military tools might be needed to defend those interests?
  • Should the United States deploy troops or go to war in order to protect economic interests? How large do economic disruptions need to be to justify this? Whose economic interests?
  • Does America need to pick sides in the Gulf?
  • Can America establish friendlier relations with Iran? How?


Modern Mercenaries

Mercenary forces are making a comeback. A recent, noteworthy news report highlighted how former American special forces are increasingly being tapped to serve in foreign militaries. As mercenaries, those soldiers can carry out highly-specialized missions, including targeted killings. No one is more suited for such missions than former US special forces. These soldiers, whose skills and tactics honed from 17 years in the War on Terror, often feel pulled back to combat rather than languish in a civilian life. Mercenary forces are of interest to US foreign policy because the United States has been using and producing large number of private military forces. US contractors increasingly represent the larger share of deployed Americans in combat zones. Some are even arguing the US should exclusively use mercenaries in places like Afghanistan. More importantly, the drift to mercenaries is a related to a recent change in US grand strategy. Rather than try to win wars against insurgents and terrorist groups in disparate countries, the United States is using proxies and airstrikes to achieve limited objectives at little political cost. As a result, current conflicts that the US is either involved in or supporting will not be resolved in the short term, increasing the need for drones, mercenaries, and other less formal military forces.

Primary Article

Secondary Articles

Discussion questions

  • Should the United States allow foreign countries to use former American soldiers as mercenary forces?
  • Should former U.S. intelligence personnel work for foreign governments?
  • What benefits and drawbacks are associated with the use of mercenary forces?
  • Should the United States commit to “violence management” as a solution to drawn-out conflicts in failed states? (See the Staniland article.)
  • Is it better for the United States to fully commit its own forces to a conflict, use proxies, use paid mercenaries, or stay out of the conflict altogether?
  • The United States has outsourced many traditional military roles (cooks, logistics, police, force protection) to private contractors. Do you think this is a wise move?
  • U.S. allies aren’t the only countries using mercenaries. How should the United States treat proxy forces of rival nations? Do you think future conflicts will include more and more private forces?
  • Is the growing use of mercenary forces simply a reality of the international security environment?

China and the Thucydides Trap

Is the United States destined to have a war with China? This is a question that academics and policymakers in both countries are seriously thinking about. As China rises, its relative economic and military capabilities have the potential to eclipse American power. Historically, such a scenario has often lead to conflict and has even gained a name “The Thucydides Trap” after the quote from the Greek historian: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspired in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Many scholars dispute whether the relationship between the US and China matches that of Athens and Sparta, however. Their research suggests that China and the United States can avoid conflict, even while still having a competitive relationship. This module will dive into articles that explain the parameters of the debate and provide different perspectives about the rise of China and the risk of conflict.

Primary Reading

Secondary Readings

Discussion Questions

  • Should the United States see China as a rival or a partner?
  • For the United States to be safe from attack and prosperous, what does it need from East Asia?
  • Does China’s behavior, such as militarizing the South China Sea, seem offensive or defensive? Why?
  • Should the United State deploy its military into China’s near-abroad to deter China’s rise?
  • What does Edelstein mean by time horizons? What benefits does the US forfeit by competing with China now for fear of a rising China later?
  • Do American alliances in the region reduce or increase the chances for competition with China?
  • Does China’s system of government change how it sees security threats? Can differences of culture or domestic politics heighten security suspicion?
  • What is extended deterrence? Why does the United States need to demonstrate its ability to extend deterrence? Are there any risks involved?

Discussion Poll: Ask participants to answer the following questions

  • If China attacked Taiwan, would you go to war to defend it?
  • How many US and Allied casualties (people killed and wounded) would you accept to defend Taiwan? How many casualties would make you withdraw?
  • If Taiwan initiated the conflict with a Taiwanese declaration of independence, would you still defend it?
  • Will China and the United States have a war in the next 30 years?

Russia in World Affairs

The collapse of the Soviet Union put Russia on the back burner and dramatically reduced Russian influence in its own neighborhood. Recent years have seen a revival of Russian assertiveness, including the seizure of Crimea, heavy support for the Assad regime in Syria, and covert actions in a number of countries’ political processes. Russian relations with China have warmed, too. How did we get here, and what does all this mean for the future of American strategy?

  • Can Russia be integrated into a U.S.-led global order?
  • Why are U.S.-Russian relations so bad? Can they be improved?
  • Is Russia a potential hegemon in Europe?
  • What are the causes of Chinese-Russian cooperation, and what is the impact of this cooperation on the global balance of power?


The New Progressive Debate on Foreign Policy

With 2020 looming, 2018 bringing forward new voices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and memories of Bernie Sanders’ strong 2016 primary performance still fresh, progressives are in a position to have real impact. At the same time, foreign policy has not been a central issue in recent elections. Will the left articulate a coherent alternative to both Trump and more centrist rivals? What might the goals of a progressive foreign policy be? What challenges will it face if implemented?

Supplemental readings:

  • The Yemen issue has been a hot topic during this debate: see in particular this essay by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Ro Khanna, and this by Sen. Bernie Sanders for representative offerings.
  • colloquium in which other writers, paralleling Bessner’s essay, offer five principles.
  • Phyllis Bennis offers an issue-by-issue breakdown of how a progressive foreign policy might look.
  • A pseudonymous essay argues that a left foreign policy, coupled with trends in the global military balance, will increase the opportunity cost of interventionism.

Conservative and Libertarian Alternatives

The presidency of George W. Bush and the prominence of neoconservatives in right-leaning foreign policy circles have created the impression that conservative principles entail an expansive, militarized foreign policy strongly shaped by ideological goals. However, several strains of thought with deep roots on the right have been skeptical of this vision. These alternative perspectives have tended to see a large, activist national security state as dangerous to freedom at home or an idea-driven foreign policy as not conservative, but radical. The collapse of the Soviet Union amplified these divisions, and the Iraq War and its aftermath brought the intellectual struggle to a climax.

This set of readings will focus on three strains of the foreign policy status quo’s right-leaning critics: paleoconservatives, conservative realists, and libertarians/classical liberals.

Supplemental readings:

Neoconservatism and Foreign Policy

What is neoconservatism? Emerging from the social chaos of the 1960s, they became champions of a crusading creed of “benevolent hegemony” that reached its zenith in the choice to invade Iraq in 2003. The aftermath of that decision caused major fractures within the movement. Today, neoconservatives remain an influential faction in Republican foreign policy circles, and their distaste for the Trump administration has endeared them to some Democrats. What ideas animate neoconservatism, and where will it go next? This module digs into their writings and those of their critics, internal and external.

Primary Readings

Supplemental Readings

Cancelling the INF Treaty

In 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. The treaty banned the production of missiles with ranges between 500 and 5500 kilometers. Importantly, the treaty included both conventional and nuclear weapons. In 2018, the Trump administration announced its intention to leave the treaty to induce the Russians to return to compliance after they deployed the new medium-range missiles in Eastern Europe. Additionally, the Trump administration and proponents of leaving the treaty cited the large Chinese stockpile of intermediate-range missile forces as a reason for the United States to develop its own equivalent systems. The military on its own began exploring new options for intermediate-range weapons. However, many nuclear weapons and arms control scholars oppose the deal and argue the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be further reduced. The debate is significant, as the winner could define the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This module will provide background information on the debate, allowing chapters to understand the significance of the treaty.

Main Reading

Secondary Reading

Discussion Questions

  • Why is it important that the treaty refers to conventional and nuclear weapons? Why does the treaty refer only to land-based weapons?
  • What was the historical significance of the INF in the Cold War? Why does eliminating intermediate-range weapons lower tensions?
  • China has a large arsenal of intermediate-range missiles. Does that undermine the treaty? Should the treaty be expanded to include other countries? Should it be expanded to apply to air and sea missiles?
  • Proponents of leaving the treaty see intermediate-range weapons as useful for matching similar weapons in other arsenals. Does the United States need additional weapons to strike into the homeland of potential rivals? Are other nuclear weapons sufficient or insufficient to maintain deterrence?
  • Should the United States arms race with countries that appear to be challenging us? What are the benefits and the drawbacks?

Tensions in the South China Sea

One of the most contested pieces of territory right now is the South China Sea (SCS). In the last several years, China, the United States, and other countries have aggressively opposed each other over the disputed claims in the body of water. However, as the United States conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) and China build militarized islands, it can be hard to maintain focus on the political foundations for the dispute: the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This module will examine what is at stake in the South China Sea, some of the history of the tensions there, and options for U.S. policy.

Main Reading

Secondary Reading

Discussion Questions

  • Where in the SCS is China building islands? Is the United States affected by new islands at those specific locations?
  • How is the United States confronting China? Do you think that is effective or ineffective?
  • Why is building an island so effective? What is the role of UNCLOS in helping or hurting the crisis?
  • Why is China targeting the South China Sea so heavily? Why does Taiwan agree with the Mainland’s 9-dashed line?
  • Is China the primary driver of tensions in the region? Should the United States specifically oppose China’s actions or take a neutral approach?
  • How strategic is the South China Sea in East Asia? How important are the islands to any claimant’s security? How integral is the sea to U.S. security?
  • What does a conflict look like in the South China Sea? Do China’s new bases confer an advantage?
  • China has ignored the ruling of the Court of Arbitration. What does that say about the effectiveness of international institutions to constrain China?


The Strategic Triangle: Russia, China, and America

Russia, China, and the United States are the most powerful states in the international system. That means their relations with one another have a strong impact on the rest of the world. President Richard Nixon famously went to Beijing and pursued detente with Moscow just after the two Communist states had fought a war with one another. This deft diplomatic move placed America at the pivot of the “strategic triangle.” And “since the Nixon administration directed America’s foreign affairs,” writes former Nixon advisor Dimitri K. Simes, “it has been the policy of the United States to strive for better relations with China and Russia than the two powers have with one another. Yet America’s current policy seems to amount to a simultaneous frontal assault on both countries, at least as they see it.”

Is this true? Has an overambitious U.S. approach in both Europe and East Asia led to a Russian-Chinese alignment, leaving America the odd man out? If so, can America split the two apart, or must it learn to live with a world in which Putin and Xi are, as a recent National Interest cover asked, “New Best Friends?”

Primary Readings:

Secondary Readings

Discussion Questions:

  • How deep is the Russia-China partnership, and how deep can it go? What does this mean for America?
  • How much responsibility do US policymakers bear for Sino-Russia alignment?
  • What role, if any, does political ideology play in both Sino-Russian cooperation and distrust between the US, and Russia and China?
  • If America were to attempt to split the partnership, which state should be the target for closer relations? What should America offer, and what should it seek in return?
  • How would the other states respond to an attempt to split the triangle?
  • Is the triangle a product of American strategy, or more of other factors?
  • What are the implications of strategic confrontation with both Russia and China at the same time?
  • Is the triangle the right unit to evaluate, or do side players (like the stronger states of Western Europe and East Asia) mean that more is lost than gained by simplification?
  • Is it the case that, as Wishnick argues, “China and Russia oppose who we are, not what we do,” and that therefore there is little chance of splitting them?
  • From the perspective of U.S. national interests, what is the ideal Russia-China relationship?


We’re always adding to this list!