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American PendulumAmerican Pendulum

Recurring Debates in U.S. Grand Strategy

Christopher M. Hemmer

Narrated by Jim Woods

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

As new presidential administrations come into power, they each bring their own approach to foreign policy. No grand strategy, however, is going to be completely novel. New administrations never start with a blank slate, so it is always possible to see similarities between an administration and its predecessors. Conversely, since each administration faces novel problems and operates in a unique context, no foreign policy strategy is going to be an exact replica of its predecessors. In American Pendulum, Christopher Hemmer examines America's grand strategic choices between 1914 and 2014 using four recurring debates in American foreign policy as lenses. First, how should the United States balance the trade-offs between working alone versus working with other states and international organizations? Second, what is the proper place of American values in foreign policy? Third, where does the strategic perimeter of the United States lie? And fourth, is time on the side of the United States or of its enemies?

Offering new readings of debates within the Wilson, Truman, Nixon, Bush, and Obama administrations, Hemmer asserts that heated debates, disagreements, and even confusions over U.S. grand strategy are not only normal but also beneficial. He challenges the claim that uncertainties or inconsistences about the nation's role in the world or approach to security issues betray strategic confusion or the absence of a grand strategy. American foreign policy, he states, is most in danger not when debates are at their most pointed but when the weight of opinion crushes dissent. As the United States looks ahead to an increasingly multipolar world with increasing complicated security issues, Hemmer concludes, developing an effective grand strategy requires ongoing contestation and compromises between competing visions and policies.

Christopher M. Hemmer is the Dean and a Professor of International Security Studies at the Air War College. He is the author of Which Lessons Matter? American Foreign Policy Decision Making in the Middle East, 19791987.


American Pendulum is a well-crafted, mature reflection on certain recurring debates in American grand strategy and an introduction to the history of the subject over the past century with current implications. Christopher Hemmer provides a balanced and reliable survey of American grand strategy from the early twentieth century to the Obama era, pointing to recurring tensions and debates.”

—Colin Dueck, George Mason University, author of Hard Line: The Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy since World War II

“Christopher Hemmer's American Pendulum provides a crucial historical perspective that helps us grapple with the recurrent themes of U.S. foreign policy since the country’s emergence as a world power. Hemmer helpfully explodes the myth that U.S. foreign policy is characterized solely by a battle between global engagement and isolationism. The reality is far more complicated, and the nuances come through clearly in this thoroughly researched and well-written volume. Bold ideas frequently crash against the reality of resource and time constraints; American Pendulum reminds us of the wisdom of learning from the recent past, and affirms the value of strategic patience. This creative and perceptive work deserves the attention of both scholars and policymakers.”

—Christopher Preble, Cato Institute, author of The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free

“Recent years have witnessed a renaissance of interest in the subject of U.S. grand strategy. Christopher Hemmer makes an important contribution to the literature by contextualizing recurring debates about American grand strategy—about unilateralism versus multilateralism; the role of values in U.S. grand strategy; the question of demarcating America's security frontiers—and showing how past debates about these questions illuminate the contemporary debate about American grand strategy. Formidably researched and clearly written, this book is required reading for students of U.S. grand strategy, and will be of interest to nonspecialist readers as well.”

—Christopher Layne, University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs, Texas A&M University, author of The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present

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