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Freshman Seminars

Viewing foreign policy through chief diplomats' eyes

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- The voices of America's chief diplomats, from the end of the Revolutionary War through the post-Cold War era, are guiding students through the development of U.S. foreign policy in a new freshman seminar.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, and William Burke-White, a lecturer of public and international affairs, developed ''So You Want to be Secretary of State: How U.S. Secretaries of State View the World'' to introduce students to American foreign policy through the writings of those who have served in the office.

freshman seminar

Woodrow Wilson School Dean Anne-Marie Slaughter (left) and lecturer William Burke-White (right) are guiding freshmen through the development of American foreign policy.

The course readings include works by Jefferson and James Madison, the first and fifth secretaries of state; early Cold War statesmen such as George Marshall, Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles; and more recent secretaries such as Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright. Students will write a final paper comparing two secretaries of state and analyzing their thinking and policy decisions.

''This seminar has given me the opportunity to both get acquainted with how U.S. secretaries of state perceive the world and to compare their approach with that of the politicians of Turkey, my home country,'' said freshman Omer Ziyal. ''The seminar is also a very good and intense introduction to American history.''

For students, the accounts of past secretaries of state offer sometimes surprising insights and provide a foundation for analyzing America's current role in the world.

During a session midway through the semester, they discussed selections from ''Present at the Creation'' by Acheson, who served under President Truman. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning work, Acheson recounts the experiences of working with other international diplomats during the time of post-World War II reconstruction of Europe, the formation of the United Nations and NATO and the first years of the Cold War.

In recalling his dealings with Soviet diplomats, Acheson cast them as rigid, difficult negotiators -- a stark contrast to the collegial ''old boy network'' he had formed with his other European counterparts, Slaughter noted.

''I was amazed by the personal politics that were guiding these gigantic decisions,'' freshman Savannah Sachs commented.

At home, however, Acheson emphasized that the development of American foreign policy must remain free from partisan wrangling. ''I think he was right, and I'm disappointed that didn't develop -- that there isn't a nonpartisan foreign policy,'' freshman Sarah Zaslow said. ''I feel like now it is very partisan and there are a lot of special interest groups directing it.''

Slaughter responded: ''There was a remarkable period of bipartisan foreign policy, but it was driven by an awareness of a common threat that was very strong. It may be true that this period, which for many in my generation was a formative period, was the exception rather than the rule because of the Soviet threat. There are many people who today think the United States faces a threat of equal magnitude that requires an equally bipartisan response, but we're not seeing it.''

Slaughter, one of the world's leading international affairs scholars, and Burke-White, an expert on international law, take a collaborative approach to teaching the course, which is the Frank Richardson '61 Freshman Seminar in Public Policy.

''Bill and I have written and worked together for many years, so we know each other's relative areas of expertise and teaching styles,'' said Slaughter, who taught a policy workshop on international criminal justice and the Congo with Burke-White last fall. ''We play off each other very nicely, figuring out a lesson plan in advance but often just handing off to one another as the discussion dictates.''

From more than 100 applicants, the instructors chose 16 freshmen from a mix of geographic backgrounds who have a wide range of academic interests -- including some who plan to major in computer science and the creative arts, in addition to those hoping to study in the Wilson School.

''It is a pleasure to teach them,'' Slaughter said. ''We had so many strong applications; we chose a group deliberately designed to complement one another in terms of their backgrounds and perspectives. That has proved to be the case; the discussions are both lively and diverse.''

''This great diversity means that our discussions are always rich, and we like to draw on the different backgrounds and experiences of the class whenever possible,'' Burke-White added. ''Even though we are introducing a lot of new material, they quickly engage with the core issues, and we learn something from them in every class as well.''