240 Years of Foreign Policy Moods in a Democracy Which Grew Into a Superpower: What It Means for IR Theory
Summary and Keywords
In 1952, Frank L. Klingberg identified U.S. foreign policy moods since 1776 as alternating between an average of 21 years of introversion and 27 years of extroversion. The last extrovert phase had started in 1940, and it changed to introversion by 1968. By 1989, extroversion had returned. By 2016, it looks like introversion came back again. This is an excellent record of projection that calls for increased research by scholars.
In 1985, Jack Holmes related Klingberg’s moods to American Liberalism and argued that mood changes were required by tendencies of introversion and extroversion to reach extremes too far removed from the realist interests that a nation must pursue. Frank was kind enough to write the preface of my 1985 work, and we continued to meet annually at conventions to explore research possibilities through the last two decades of his life. Although he was from the liberal pre-WW II generation and I was from the realist post-WW II generation, we shared a common interest in American foreign policy moods since 1776 and the need for research by the community of scholars.
What do these moods mean? They consider one liberal democratic country while it grew from a peripheral power to a superpower over 240 years, and additional research regarding other countries would be beneficial. Given the concentration of major U.S. foreign policy assertiveness during extrovert phases as well as surprises and changes during mood transitions, moods need to be researched until they become part of the regular conversation regarding American Foreign Policy and IR theory. The evidence is strong and has been mostly developed by two authors. Klingberg deserves full credit for the original research and idea. The evidence has been expanded and placed in context by Holmes who analyzed Klingberg’s original idea as two different liberal preferences of the American people and related it to interests of nations. This liberal foreign policy variation (between introversion and extroversion) differs from the domestic policy variation (between reform liberal [often called liberal] and business liberal [often called conservative]) variation mentioned by Samuel Huntington in 1957. While individual domestic policy preferences usually stay the same, the United States as a whole varies on its introvert or extrovert foreign policy preference. Additional research on these moods is needed to enrich the literature.
Keywords: public influence, foreign policy, moods, interests, liberalism, realism, introversion, isolationism, extroversion, assertiveness, constructivism, long-term cycle theories, stages, phases, patterns, challenges, Frank Klingberg, empirical international relations theory
U.S. foreign policy moods relate to existing theories and research in ways that are difficult to separate. It starts out with an assertion that moods are those of the American people and that they set the parameters for acceptable policy based on classical liberalism. These preferences interact with the realism of the international system, leaving the American people to choose a mood of either setting an example or trying to change the nature of the system. Both of these have limits, and the result is a tension between liberal moods and realist interests. The American public loses patience with example setting after 21 years and with trying to change the system after 27 years. The first sections of this article explore moods and interests and the resultant interactions.
All of this takes place in a context that includes institutions designed to resolve issues. To be sure, most nations do not have the freedom afforded by oceans to the East and West and weaker neighbors to the North and South as does the United States. Nor have they experienced the institutional consistency of the American democracy. Constructivism needs to be considered as do other cycles that could be interacting with moods and interests. Additional research is needed and is explored.
If this pattern established by U.S. foreign policy moods is to be broken, an exploration of the patterns of development of individual mood phases is needed as are the components of realist interests.
This author believes that it is difficult to develop these related concepts in isolation of one another, although it is possible to separate them into sections where one component is emphasized. The first section, “Liberal Foreign Policy Moods,” of this article concentrates on liberal moods; the second section, “Realist Foreign Policy Interests,” emphasizes realist interests; and the third section, “Interactions of Liberal Moods and Realist Interests,” explores the interactions of moods and interests. Constructivist institutions are considered in the fourth section, “American Traditions and Constructivist Issues”; and research needs are developed in the fifth section, “What Kind of Research is Needed at the Individual, National, and International Levels?”; and relationships to other cycles in the sixth section, “Relationship to Other Cycles.” The final three sections concentrate on prospects for change. The seventh section, “Stages Within Moods: Can Understanding Promote Consistency?,” looks at stages of moods to see if steps can be taken to avoid extremes; the eighth section, “Interest Challenges Facing U.S. Foreign Policy,” concentrates on the future prospects of interests and the final section is a conclusion.
Liberal Foreign Policy Moods
U.S. Foreign Policy Moods relate to classical liberalism, which has remained the dominant belief system of the United States throughout its history (Hartz, 1955). Liberals would like to change the realist workings of the international system. Since mood only changes every 21 to 27 years, research has been more sporadic than regular. A particular challenge is to cover 240 years that has witnessed the growth of the United States from a fledgling power to a superpower. It takes realism to explain the impetus for changes from introvert to extrovert and vice versa, which occur at such regular intervals. You try introversion and take it to the extreme and then you try extroversion and take it to the extreme. Liberalism remains in control, but you cannot ignore realism. A major contribution is that long cycles and the long term are important. Institutional continuity and leading analysts point toward constructivism. In the case of moods, it might not be which IR theoretical construct is most important as it is to illustrate how they work together and reinforce one another.
There are times and places where instinct is important in studying international relations. U.S. Foreign Policy Moods are one such example. Frank L. Klingberg was related to persons who had been in the academic community for generations and studied American history. His graduate work was done at the University of Chicago under Quincy Wright. At a time when post-World War II international relations specialists were concentrating on meeting the realist challenges of a brave new world, Klingberg’s thinking was focused on the United States foreign policy part of the equation. His moods seemed natural to him in an intuitive sense. He considers actions such as “treaties, wars, armed expeditions, annexations, and diplomatic warnings.” Mood was judged by measures like “political platforms, election results, and contemporary writers and speakers.” (Klingberg, 1952, p. 241). When his seminal article on U.S. foreign policy moods was published in World Politics (1952), he added charts to show how moods fit with available data. Clearly such data was useful. Klingberg regularly attended conventions throughout his career and even after his retirement. His works raised several issues related to long-term thinking of the Western world. Klingberg’s U.S. Foreign Policy Mood Years are noted in Table 1.
Table 1. Klingberg’s Mood Cycle, Period of Study, 1776–2015
Era Name, Dates
National Consolidation, 1776–1823
National Expansion, 1824–70
Ascent to Great Power, 1871–1918
Struggle Against Totalitarianism, 1919–67
Global Power, 1968–2015
It perhaps is most important to know that the public has a major role in foreign policy. That role is not one of determining the specifics of issues. It is one of setting boundaries. Elites and those most knowledgeable about international affairs can make a lot of decisions and gain public support. However, elites change if the policy is outside of the parameters set by the public although elites can mitigate some problems before they reach a crisis point. U.S. foreign policy moods set these parameters.
The role of the public in four early foreign policy case studies is described by Doris Graber (1968). Thomas Bailey (1980 and earlier) in the several editions of his U.S. diplomatic history textbook makes a strong case for the importance of the public. While scholars in recent decades have done excellent analyses of public opinion (Almond, 1960; Cohen, 1973; Holsti, 1996; Levering, 1978; Page & Shapiro, 1992; and Sobel, 2001), snapshots in time are not the same as an underlying mood. Perhaps the latest example of this was the 2016 Electoral College victory of President Donald Trump as the candidate of the Republican Party whose foreign policy elite was at odds with his positions on several politico-military issues.
We know that extrovert mood phases average 27 years and introvert mood phases average 21 years. It just seems the public loses patience with example setting in fewer years than it loses patience with active participation. Individual mood phases go through stages. Klingberg (1983) divides them into stages of liberty and union where liberty signals changing viewpoints and union signals consensus. Holmes (1985, 2011) divides them into thirds where the first third is a time of correction, the second third a time where policy thinking and interests are in relative harmony and possibilities for compromise are most likely, and the final third a time of extremes. The commonality of both authors is a constantly evolving movement. While the two scholars have differences of a year or two regarding exact time of phase changes, they are in agreement on general changes.
The titles of Klingberg’s books, Cyclical Trends in American Foreign Policy Moods: The Unfolding of America’s World Role (1983) and Positive Expectations of America’s World Role: Historical Cycles of Realistic Idealism (1996), reflect his research priorities.
Liberalism needs to be considered in the context of the current U.S. position in world politics. Extroversion is a period where the United States is likely to assume new roles or commitments as it works to fulfill its dominant world power leadership role. Introversion is a time when example setting is more likely to emerge in U.S. policy. This can be a time when the United States is reluctant to assume new roles and instead emphasize slogans like “Make America Great Again,” which was used by President Reagan who was president at the end of the last introvert phase and President Trump at the start of the current introvert phase. In essence, liberalism has had to adjust, but remains dominant.
Realist Foreign Policy Interests
Holmes got into foreign policy moods toward the end of his two years of service on the politico-military section of the U.S. Army General Staff when he was asked to evaluate Klingberg’s article, which was the subject of much talk since mood seemed to be changing at the time projected some 15 years earlier. Holmes’s academic background was at the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. While he was comfortable with realist viewpoints, his specialty was U.S. foreign policy with considerable political activism at local levels. To him, this was a question of how actual foreign policy and structures of U.S. government could be influenced by U.S. foreign policy moods. That was the basis of his 1985 book. It was the start of research noted in this article.
It is well known that there is a conflict between realism and idealism in international relations. The work of Holmes concentrates on that conflict as it relates to the United States. Thus the titles of his books, The Mood/Interest Theory of American Foreign Policy (1985) and Ambivalent America: Cyclical Responses to World Trends (2011).
Together, writings by Klingberg and Holmes provide ample evidence that moods are alive and well. Their predictive record at the very least suggests that the research community should bring this research into the mainstream of international relations theory or suggest needed refinements.
Holmes (1985) summarized five U.S. interests in a general sense:
1. Freedom of Seas, Territorial Integrity.
2. Dominant Outside Power in Latin America.
3. Prevent One-Nation Dominance of Europe.
4. Prevent One-Nation Dominance of East Asia.
5. Access to and Promoting Peace in Rest of the World.
Whenever these conflict with mood, the United States must adjust over the long term. There are times and places when the United States does too much or too little in a major way. That is the impetus for a mood change.
To be sure, these interests could be a lot more specific at any given time, but the idea is to have ones that cover 240 years. In terms of worldwide trends, the United States is not the geographic center of the world. The United States must, in fact, protect its homeland, promote freedom of the seas, and work with other countries on other continents to promote its interests. It is not a heartland country. As pointed out by Dehio (1948) and others such as Thompson (1992), world sea powers as opposed to Eurasian continental powers tend to have an advantage in terms of being victorious in world confrontations. That gives the United States some advantages in terms of being able to develop its own country in the absence of pressures by immediate neighbors. It does, however, require that the United States not allow an overwhelming threat to develop on the Eurasian continent. In the nuclear age, it is clear that such a threat could come from asymmetric as well as traditional power centers. Possible nuclear, cyber, and terrorist challenges need to be addressed. Realism remains a crucial ingredient in policy making.
Realism continues to require attention to the geography of traditional nation states. The United States needs to remain a powerful force on the high seas in order to keep power balances from getting out of hand in Europe and East Asia to the extent that neither region is dominated by one nation. The temptation might be to let Europe and East Asia settle into balances of their own making. However, that is a dangerous gamble. Russia and China are not democracies. They are exercising power in a realist manner. Although current prospects look good, Germany, Japan, India, and Indonesia have not remained democracies for more than 100 years as has the United States. Some U.S. involvement will remain essential. In Latin America, the U.S. interest is to remain the dominant outside power. No outside power is an immediate threat, but it is clear that the United States will act if this is threatened, and there are tensions in the region.
Other regions of the world are important to the United States. The Middle East leads this list for a number of converging reasons. Oil resources and religion are important issues as is the U.S. relationship to Israel. So are tensions with asymmetric groups. As a whole, the majority of the region needs to remain open to the United States. The fragmentation of Africa gives the United States enough room to maneuver, but it also gives room to other powers such as China. It is obvious that each region has important realist dynamics and United States preferences are restrained by realism over the long term.
Interactions of Liberal Moods and Realist Interests
U.S. liberal moods and realist interests basically are in conflict. The international system operates in a realist manner due to the absence of a consensus on values. Liberal moods vary from introvert example setting to extrovert initiatives, both designed to change the nature of the realist system. Over the long term, interests force American policy to average out near the middle of introvert example setting and extrovert initiatives. The fact that moods can lead to too much or too little American involvement can make American policy difficult for persons or countries to understand or predict. It needs to be emphasized that patterns or situations resulting from moods or interests can only vary so far. Thus, example setting and active involvement are restricted over the long term although not always the short term.
American liberalism is strong enough for the United States to have a constant desire to promote human rights and advance American economic strength. While challenges related to human rights and the economy vary over time, they do not follow regular foreign policy mood variations. Rather, economic activity and human rights are promoted whenever feasible, but generally not at the expense of politico-military moods, which are emphasized in this article.
Possibly the most important question regarding U.S. foreign policy mood theory is whether it can be proven. In one sense it can. That sense is its uncanny ability to project major changes in the international politico-military policy of the U.S. democracy when it has been a small, medium, large, and superpower. There is no guarantee that this will continue, but it has survived from 1776 to 2017. That is a long time, especially since the theory has been known since 1952.
In another sense, it cannot be proven. Liberalism, realism, and constructivism remain powerful concepts in international relations theory. Scholars have done a lot of sophisticated analysis making impressive use of data and computing power. The subjects and analyses are impressive, but need consolidation. Given different methodologies and time frames covered, this will be a difficult challenge.
Difference in evidence presented stem from differences in worldview. Klingberg is looking toward progressive liberal trends culminating in greater peace. Realism is recognized as an important force that must be respected. Holmes thinks realism is a central part of international relations and notes that liberal U.S. moods need to be part of the equation. Both of them look toward long-term trends. Klingberg’s evidence concentrates on long-term world progression and relative degrees of American attention to international as opposed to domestic issues. Holmes looks more toward American interaction with world politico-military trends. These views are not in competition as much as they are reflective of the divide between realism and idealism. U.S. foreign policy moods can be related to both constructs.
One major question is what lessons the United States learns and relearns as a result of putting long-term moods and interests on the back burner in favor of the immediate.
One of these lessons is the dangers of getting boxed in by immediate questions. If, in fact, moods lead to extremes before changing direction, how can such extremes be avoided in the future? A recognition that time is limited might suggest caution during the last third of any phase. That can be modified if a quick victory is at hand, but the potential for bitterness and stalemate in the coming phase is ever present. Given the vast amounts of U.S. government resources devoted to studying other countries, it suggests that increased study of American trends would be in order. To be sure, the U.S. government foreign policy bureaucracy studying American thinking regarding the foreign policy it is charged with executing has its limits. However, research could be supported in the tradition of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Interactions between moods and interests suggest that the United States needs an enhanced view of its long-term politico-military interests. This would include a calculus of the ways in which shifting politico-military moods can harm and support interests.
Klingberg’s constant attention to the good intentions and results of American thinking and actions suggests that the U.S. foreign policy analysts could give greater consideration to underlying moods. How different are long-term and short-term views?
To be sure, the United States has a less pure version of liberalism than before its role as a superpower with hegemonic tendencies. That is a consequence of its several interactions throughout the world. However, the basic tendencies of a country believing in a liberal international order remain. As long as progress is being made in that direction, the United States will tolerate some deviation. However, when confronted with an obvious long-term deviation involving multiple countries such as after the Napoleonic Wars in in 1815 and continuing past 1823, after WW I in 1919, and after unipolar and multipolar failures to resolve specific security issues by 2015, the liberal tendencies will demand a turn in the direction of the example setting mode of a liberal order, even if it requires a major change. In other words, liberalism can be patient, but only so patient.
American Traditions and Constructivist Issues
Unless directed to the contrary by the president, American governmental institutions as a whole are inclined to continue existing policies simply because they can get deadlocked. In this sense, the agencies are unlikely to make major policy deviations because they are checked and balanced. Even within the bureaucracy, checks and balances can exist due to differing agency viewpoints and constituencies. So in this sense, agencies are likely to follow constructivist patterns of interaction in international relations.
While the military is most likely to follow realist tendencies, these are most likely to be checked and balanced by other agencies. The regular agencies thus have enough diversity to satisfy the needs of American policy except in times of major change. During such times, agencies or viewpoints losing out in the short term nevertheless can help make for gradual change. Congress is most likely to be liberal in the context of world events as are their constituents. In the long term, the liberal mood will win out until its introvert or extrovert tendencies result in situations that suggest the opposite direction is needed.
Where do economics fit into this equation? Throughout its history, the United States has always wanted to make a profit unless it is viewed as hurting the country. Thus it is misleading to attribute too much American foreign policy to economics as opposed to politico-military considerations.
What about human rights issues? The United States has been a promoter of human rights throughout its history at the same time that it has been a promoter of economic liberalism. One cannot ignore the tension between economic benefit and support of human rights. The United States would, of course, prefer to avoid having to make a choice.
In a world seemingly headed toward globalism, existing international institutions are a powerful force. Constructivist viewpoints and interactions create a sense of progress in a number of areas. It is not easy to undo what has been done and what works. However, this is a slow process and the nation-state and its ultimate sovereignty have been with us since 1648. Increased international mobility of experts and the possibilities of modern technology should be making a movement toward globalism more likely than previously. However, matters like this rarely are as easy as they seem. The Internet has created a way for millions of people to read and view just what they want to read and view just when they want to do so. So in a free country, it is all too easy for citizens to be familiar with their view and dismissive of the views of others.
To some extent, cyclical theories fit together, but important differences remain. Most of these cycles relate to the Caucasian-centered world, which arguably is in decline relative to other parts of the world, but not ready to be replaced by globalism. Cycles most likely indicate a constant progression of ideas in a liberal sense or a rise and fall in a realist sense. This then points toward either idealism or realism. Progressivism points toward liberal idealism while rise and fall points toward realism. If constructivism becomes part of this conversation, it points toward some interdependence that makes it difficult to undo or undermine some current arrangements. For example, the 2007 start of the Great Recession evolved in a much less consequential way than the1929 start of the Great Depression. An opposite trend is asymmetric warfare waged by groups that have not consolidated into nation-states. The opposite pressures of globalism and asymmetry are likely to contribute to the continuation of the nation-state.
What Kind of Research Is Needed at the Individual, National, and International Levels?
It seems to this author that if a core group of scholars spent long-term time and effort analyzing U.S. foreign policy mood theory, the results would be valuable. Several questions arise. How much of the U.S. foreign policy mood fluctuation is due to liberalism and how much might be due to individuals and events? Do democracies follow one another? Is there a way for scholars and leaders to track foreign policy mood as opposed to opinion?
In terms of interests, it seems like the tendency toward specialization has left the United States without an overall grand strategy that can be fit into geographic regions. Such fitting in was a lot less challenging during bipolar and possible unipolar balances of the 70 years since World War II. Even in this environment some of the most intense moments involved geographic interests that related to nearby big powers. Now that there is more talk of countries going off on their own, it is time to refine the concept of interests. While interests of the United States have included a relatively consistent set of economic and human rights issues, it could be important to revisit how these relate to politico-military interests. For example, might economic and human rights policy vary according to their own pattern?
The conflict between moods and interests and potential for relatively extreme actions during times of transition needs to be addressed with additional research. For example, what are the ways actions and reactions can be minimized at the end of each mood phase?
Finally the executive and legislative interactions in U.S. government could benefit from better understanding. In practice, constitutional powers give the president his strongest role during extroversion and Congress its strongest role during introversion. Part of this also involves the bureaucracy that is a permanent force managed by presidential appointees and legislative authorizations and appropriations. In an era of daily activity with a 24-hour news cycle where citizens can chose what they want to hear, constructivism might be more important than previously. Research is needed relating constructivism to public choice of news sources.
It can be argued that liberalism represents the preference of the American public, realism represents a necessity for survival, and constructivism represents established patterns that are a starting point for change. Each of them is important to foreign policy mood theory. Liberalism has an introvert and extrovert side that alternate in being dominant in U.S. international politico-military policy. The necessity of realism forces this change. Constructivism can help keep the change within manageable bounds because of established patterns. If mood theory could be used to help analyze how these three major IR theories work together, the results could be revealing.
There are powerful constraints on foreign policy mood research. One is that that the American people demand quick and provable answers. There is a strong desire for results and proof at least before the next election if not sooner. Scholars have a different set of constraints. The supply of scholars exceeds the demand for them in professional positions. Those in the academic community must face the challenge of gaining tenure in seven years, which is at most a third of one introvert or extrovert phase. It can become essential to be affirmed by a group of peers who research in your area or to spend enough time teaching or contributing to campus activities that can necessitate a narrow research agenda.
Even if these obstacles are overcome, one has to face the reality that Americans believe that quick solutions are possible and believe history can and should evidence continual improvement. These beliefs have proven to be important to the United States over time. However, if foreign policy moods were to gain general recognition, it indeed is possible that Americans would rebel against being so predictable, and mood changes would become less regular or end. This might, in turn, make U.S. policy much easier to understand by all involved.
In terms of the deficit on research regarding U.S. foreign policy moods, it is most likely at the individual and national levels. In a world of over seven billion people, many of whom can be exposed to and read only what they or sometimes their dictatorial leader want to be researched or heard, there needs to be an understanding of others and their viewpoints. If people believe that they know the only true way, the bifurcation present in the American political system in 2016 might include growing attraction to quick solutions in democracies. Such an environment might make authoritarianism attractive, but that is dangerous and anything but a long-term solution. Rather it is important to research possibilities for improving the working of democracies.
At a time when citizens of a democracy have a growing knowledge of what they want and why, it remains important to have an understanding of what others want and why. It is all too easy to dismiss political leaders as persons who tell people what they want to hear and then do whatever the leaders want. Interest groups and selective information compound the problem. The key to prevailing in this kind of environment can be careful listening and division of powers. What are examples of this working? Why did they happen?
Perhaps one of the most important questions about national governments is how to create institutions that can absorb participation as argued by Samuel Huntington (1968). That is not easy, but it is something that needs to be done to include in the context of post-modern societies.
Research on national governmental impacts on international relations is needed. This has, of course, been done, and it appears that democratic dyads are less likely to engage in international conflict although the issues involved are complex (Rasler & Thompson, 2005). Such research issues can be described as works in progress.
The biggest question remains why are U.S. foreign policy moods such an important consideration? Why could it not be any one of several other considerations? Such arguments could, of course, be made in terms of the various approaches to IR theory. There are, nevertheless, several reasons for U.S. foreign policy moods to be at or at least near the center. First the United States has a long-standing Constitution that has survived some 218 years with only a few modifications. The United States has been a small, medium, large, and superpower. It was able to grow with smaller population countries to the North and South and oceans to the East and West. That gave it a lot of leeway to express itself and develop its foreign policy preferences. More so than most countries, the United States has provided for democracy, individual initiative, and economic freedom. It provides rich opportunities for research. To be sure, the United States has had its problems, but it provides a robust opportunity for the research scholar.
Again, the question is why has this opportunity not been taken advantage of by a regular community of scholars? As previously noted, long-term trends do not become obvious until a number of years have passed, and with changes only once every 27 and 21 years, it becomes very hard to make a research career out of this unless research is a secondary part of one’s career. On top of that, it is easy to find some event that seemingly does not fit a pattern. One also needs knowledge of a lot of subjects since various disciplines are involved. Once the United States became a superpower with hegemonic tendencies, the additional problem of the potential for mistakes grew since dominant powers have always had a difficult time and the world has grown more complex.
The complexity of issues facing the United States at the international level is marked. For example, Mearsheimer (2014), Nau (2013), Nye (2014), and Stephens (2014) raise a variety of views worthy of serious consideration.
Does all of this then restrict the possibility for research? Again, no, but it suggests a more specific division of issues. These could be divided into three categories. One would be relationships to other cycles, a second one would be research into the stages of mood phases as opportunities for leadership, and a final one would be relationships to various regions of the world.
Relationship to Other Cycles
One of the most important issues regarding any cyclical theory is if it can be fit with other cycles. Exploring how other cycles relate to U.S. foreign policy moods is a suggestive exercise. Pollins and Schweller (1999) explore this issue and see a general relationship. This author has explored this issue at length, and the results are summarized in Holmes (2011).
Americans are inclined to look at the immediate past and future. To build a case for longer-term considerations, looking at relationships in general is quite worthy of consideration, although the range of years covered often differ from those covered by U.S. foreign policy moods. Putting too many variables together can lead to a major reduction in the number of years covered. Another obvious consideration is how often data changes. It is difficult to look at data on less than an annual basis. Data that changes by the year is challenging to compare to U.S. Foreign Policy Mood phases that change only every 21 to 27 years.
In terms of politico-military trends, the most important of these are system wars that often establish dominant powers for up to 100 years, which comprise about two introvert/extrovert mood cycles. Other wars and war causalities are important as well. Studies that are particularly valuable include Singer and Small (1972), Small and Singer (1982), Levy (1983), Goldstein (1988), Thompson (1988), Levy and Thompson (2010), and Sarkees and Wayman (2010). For the vast majority of the time the United States has been a nation-state, the dominant power has been the United Kingdom. After that, it has been the United States itself. Most indications point toward the United States remaining in a dominant position during coming decades. After that, the world could return to a more Asian-centric arrangement. During the last five centuries, Europe and North America have been dominant, and naval powers have prevailed over land powers in system wars. Dehio (1948) and Modelski and Thompson (1988) have done some especially important work in this regard. This includes hegemonic sea power concentration and U.S. proportion of global sea power. The percentage of the U.S. budget spent on the navy is a solid indicator (Holmes, 2011). Mahan (1890) and Sprout and Sprout (1967) describe the growth of U.S. sea power prior to WW II. As power gets spread throughout the world, it might be more difficult for the United States to go in its preferred direction. It is clear that realist thinking will remain important as witnessed by the assertion of Russian power in the Middle East in the absence of U.S. willingness to follow through on its warnings in Syria. Cyber warfare points in the same direction regarding the importance of realism. One of the most worrisome trends is the pattern of a general system war every 100 years or so. These are rarely expected, but how to avoid such a war needs serious consideration. Actions of major powers are especially important.
In terms of looking at U.S. thinking, the generational thinking of American leaders is a useful starting point. In particular, the birth generation of presidents is important. Strauss and Howe (1991, 1997) have done impressive work in this regard. The last four American presidents have been Baby Boomers or just a year outside in the case of President Obama. The seven before that were from the G.I. or Greatest Generation leaving no president who was of the Silent Generation (1925–1942). If a less assertive president from Generation X takes office, there could be some important consequences. In short, assertive generations have controlled the American presidency since 1960, and if this changes, the U.S. move toward introversion could be strengthened.
One important part of the U.S. system of checks and balances is the relative power of the president as opposed to the Congress. Presidential styles of operation, challenges presented, and degree of consensus are important (Holmes & Elder, 1989). During times of extroversion, presidential power is well suited to prevail; Congress mostly goes along with presidential powers given public mood. When it is time for introversion, Congress is well suited to exercise its powers. An international crisis or consensus on politico-military action can bring almost all Americans together. In the absence of such a crisis or consensus, Congress can exercise some very important powers. Valuable studies of the congressional role over the long term include Schlesinger, Jr., (1972) and Henehan (2000). Presidential leadership is explored in Nuestadt (1960), Barber (1977), Buchanan (1978), Kane (1981), Simonton (1981), Murray and Blessing (1983), and King and Ragsdale (1988).
Other elements of consensus relate to Schlesinger liberal (reform liberal)\conservative (business liberal) eras (Schlesinger, Sr., 1939, 1949; and Schlesinger, Jr., 1986) and the strength of the president’s party in Congress (Holmes, 2011).
The importance of international economic long cycles fits into the picture of introversion or extroversion. A weaker economy does not make it easy to fight a war, although a recovery effort can be stimulated by a war. Americans have not been comfortable in fighting a war for economic reasons unless there is a threat to survival. Nevertheless, a healthy international economy can make a war more likely as can the rising economy of an adversary. The most important part of the likelihood of war is long-term as opposed to short-term trends. Ernst Mandel’s Neo-Marxist interpretation of the Kondratieff long cycle (cited in Berry, 1991, pp. 61–63) and the Batra (1987) monetary growth and commodity price change data by decade are of special importance (Holmes, 2011). Studying the data of Kondratief, Kuznets, Goldstein, Van Duijn, and Elliott (all cited in Berry, 1991; see also references to and works by these authors in the bibliography) as well as other economic data provides important challenges. In the current age of weapons of mass destruction, one cannot ignore the possibility that a war can be lost by almost all involved.
While this author has researched cycles for decades, he has not found cycles that project trends as well as American foreign policy moods (Holmes, 2011). That is not because of methodological problems on the part of his peers as much as it is due to the fact that most models do not combine as many strands of IR theory and do not concentrate on the current major power that is the United States. Should that major power change, these conditions could change.
Even in the context of other cycles, U.S. foreign policy mood cycles are a strong contender because it has ties to each of the three models most used in international relations and relates to U.S. trends. The moods themselves are a product of idealism as is evident from the writings of Frank L. Klingberg. To be sure, he recognizes the importance of realism, but he emphasizes positive changes. Realizing politico-military interests and understanding their conflict with moods is the centerpiece of the analysis of Holmes. Where he differs from most realist analysts is that he recognizes that in a democratic country, the importance of the people can be decisive. They do not demand that each and every decision follow their viewpoints, but they do know when an establishment has strayed from their mood. At that point, they will demand and expect a change in the views or composition of the elite so that it is more attuned to popular beliefs.
It is frequently noted that academic research and the needs of the decision-making process differ more than they should. U.S. foreign policy moods cannot close this gap, but they have the potential to make a contribution. This author remembers going to panels on future trends of American strategic thinking in early 2016. In accordance with the general thinking at the time, the possibility of a Trump presidency was not taken seriously. 2017 panels reflected the new reality. The complexities of the 2016 election and the workings of the Electoral College are recognized, but public concern about the direction of the United States is the kind of consideration that can change mood. Research is needed on strategies to promote greater understanding of overall issues and relationships. Haass (2014) raises several important domestic and international issues.
Stages Within Moods: Can Understanding Promote Consistency?
Dividing 21 and 27 year moods into stages provides suggestions as to how to avoid extremes as well as opportunities for research. If you look at these as related to interests, moods are in concert with interests the most during the middle third or stage of each mood phase. The beginning thirds involve adjusting for the extremes of the last third of the previous mood. The end thirds tend toward extremes of the current mood. Under these circumstances, the question becomes how can a steadier policy be promoted?
Analysis of U.S. wars suggests some interesting possibilities. Wars during the first stage of an extrovert phase typically feature the U.S. doing well and making gains as in the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, World War II, and First Iraq War. Second-stage extrovert wars are strong candidates for stalemate as in the War of 1812 and Korean War. Most often, these are settled by returning to conditions resembling those at the start of the conflict. Wars holding over from the second stage or starting in the third stage can lead to bitterness such as the Civil War, World War I, Vietnam, and the current Middle East conflicts. The case for and circumstances of each conflict is different, but patterns remain suggestive. Research would promote understanding of war dynamics and post-war settlements.
In order to unpack the possibilities of a steadier and less moody U.S. foreign policy, it is worthwhile to review stages of U.S. foreign policy moods in Tables 2–7. These consider the degree to which first-stage events modify extremes of the previous mood phase, second-stage events are most in sync with interests, and third-stage events represent extremes relative to interests. These patterns need to be considered in view of the challenges of making instant policy changes. For example, Table 7 regarding U.S. war casualties follows the general pattern except when events such as the Vietnam War carry over into an introvert phase.
The following tables provide an overview, which in combination with the cited and bibliography sources, help suggest patterns.1
Table 2. National Consolodation Era Six-part Mood Cycle With Politico-Military Events
First Stage (2)
War of Independence (1775–83), securing support from Europe
Second Stage (3)
Weak diplomacy, weak federation, Constitutional Convention (1787)
Third Stage (1)
Jay Treaty (1794–95), Washington’s Farewell Address (1796)
First Stage (5)
Undeclared naval war (1798–1800), Louisiana Purchase (1803)
Second Stage (4)
Embargo Act (1807), War of 1812 (1812–15)
Third Stage (6)
Adams-Onis Treaty (1819), Monroe Doctrine (1823)
Table 3. National Expansion Era Six-part Mood Cycle With Politico-Military Events
First Stage (2)
Delegates arrive after Latin American Conference (1825)
Second Stage (3)
Claims against France (1835), Texas Revolution (1836)
Third Stage (1)
Rejection of Texas annexation
First Stage (5)
Annexation of Texas (1845), Mexican-American War (1846–48), Oregon Treaty (1846)
Second Stage (4)
Impasse over Foreign Policy and National Future
Third Stage (6)
Civil War (1861–65), Intervention in Mexico (1865), purchase of Alaska (1867)
Table 4. Ascent to Great Power Era Six-part Mood Cycle With Politico-Military Events
First Stage (2)
Treaty of Washington (1871)
Second Stage (3)
Geneva Convention Treaty ratified, establishment of the American Red Cross (1882)
Third Stage (1)
Naval modernization, Mahan’s sea power work (1890)
First Stage (5)
Venezuela boundary (1895), Spanish-American War (1898)
Second Stage (4)
Panamanian revolution (1903), Roosevelt Corollary (1904), Treaty of Portsmouth (1905), U.S. Navy world tour (1907–09)
Third Stage (6)
U.S. Involvement in WW I (1917–18)
Table 5. Struggle Against Totalitarianism Era Six-part Mood Cycle With Politico-Military Events
First Stage (2)
Rejection of the League of Nations and Versailles Treaties (1919–20), Washington treaties regarding East Asia (1921–22)
Second Stage (3)
Great Depression (starting in 1929), Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1931)
Third Stage (1)
Neutrality Acts (1935, 1936, 1937, 1939), Rise of Germany and Japan
First Stage (5)
World War II (1941–45), emergency post-war responses (1947–48)
Second Stage (4)
Formation of NATO (1949), Korean War (1950–53), Hungary and Suez crises (1956), Sputnik (1957)
Third Stage (6)
Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), American Combat Troops in Vietnam (1965)
Table 6. Global Power Six-Part Mood Cycle With Politico-Military Events, 1968–2015
First Stage (2)
Tet Offensive (1968), Nixon’s visit to China (1972)
Second Stage (3)
Fall of Saigon (1975), Camp David Accords (1975), Iran Hostage Crisis (1979)
Third Stage (1)
Grenada (1983), Strategic Defense Initiative (1983), Soviet Summits (1985–88), Iran-Contra Scandal (1986)
First Stage (5)
Fall of Berlin Wall (1989), First Iraq War (1991), Soviet Union Dissolved (1991), Bosnia (1993)
Second Stage (4)
Kosovo (1999), September 11 and Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003)
Third Stage (6)
Confronting asymmetric actors and global economic challenges. Continuing Iraq and Afghanistan Conflicts. Difficulties of multilateralism.
First Stage (5)
Second Stage (4)
Third Stage (6)
First Stage (2)
Second Stage (3)
Third Stage (1)
(*) From July 1816–July 2008, there were 112 extrovert years and 82 introvert years.
(**) 36,944 of the deaths were in Vietnam, and 37,231 of the deaths were in wars that began in extrovert years.
Source: Sarkees & Wayman, Resort to War, 1816–2007, 2010. Table is from Holmes (2011).
Policy makers in general and presidents in particular face the biggest challenges at the end of a phase if their goal is to avoid extremes and at least do some preparation for coming change. The start of a new mood phase requires adjustments away from the extremes of the previous mood phase. Since foreign policy often involves long lead times and difficulties when making changes to less assertive policies, first-stage introvert presidents face difficult challenges. First-stage extrovert presidents can take advantage of pent-up energy from less action during the previous introvert phase. Third- or final-stage presidents can the face challenge of avoiding extremes. Since presidents have more leeway in extrovert phases, it is easier for them to go to extremes then rather than in introvert phases when a president might need to challenge the congressional ability to say no to politico-military needs. Middle stages provide an opportunity to try to set a steady policy course, but any U.S. president can face difficulties in trying to adjust the policies of a liberal thinking public to the realities of an interest-driven world. The research challenge is to explore the dynamics in different stages.
If the goal is a steadier U.S. policy, the best prospects for ending mood extremes might be for U.S. foreign policy moods to become known to the point that efforts to avoid extremes are made. In the end, the political realism of the author must conclude that liberal moods are most likely to win out over interests and that the two and one-half century Mood/Interest pattern is likely to continue. The United States will just have to accept the consequences unless it makes some basic policy changes. This is the value of studying major events according to mood stage.
It is important to note that this analysis could well be done in terms of Klingberg’s first-stage liberty and second-stage union division of each introvert and extrovert mood. In such a case, leaders in the liberty stage have more ability to set policy and the union stage becomes one of avoiding extremes.
Interest Challenges Facing U.S. Foreign Policy
U.S. power has steadily grown throughout its history. It arguably has now reached a peak. If so, U.S. power must be even more carefully crafted. Researching some of the ways this can be done in the coming half century will provide scholars an opportunity to make some suggestions that are outside the normal box of agency and political thinking. Richard Haass (2017) raises thoughtful points in this direction. One important issue is avoiding any chance of a system war, which can come unexpectedly every100 years or so; a 100 years from the last system war coincides with the introvert/extrovert cycle that has just started. A second issue is how to control asymmetric forces that seem to resist the nation-state and pose a threat to territorial integrity. What models of participation can be devised to absorb more citizen participation? A third issue that comes to mind is how to expose people to greater diversity of opinion at the same time one encourages acceptance of the results of a political process. At a time when one can choose to become an informed citizen by reading only what one wants to read, how does any democratic leader have the needed opportunities to govern in the long-term interest? The possible interaction of these forces needs to be understood.
In a large and diverse world, experts often focus on certain regions of the world. It is instructive to look at these in terms of interests. In terms of the issues raised below, it is entirely possible that research can suggest ways for new thinking. There seems to be a tendency for some of these points to just be assumed when, in fact, research from the point of view of a dominant power can be useful.
Territorial integrity and freedom of the seas have been important U.S. interests throughout its history. Current territorial integrity challenges range all the way from deterring nuclear conflict to preventing asymmetric threats. One cannot ignore environmental threats of economic meltdown resulting from problems with modern interrelationships. Freedom of the seas remains very important to the United States. How can these be put into a coherent set of policy perspectives?
The U.S. interest in the Western Hemisphere is to preserve U.S. dominance vis-à-vis outside powers. That does not preclude the development of powers such as Mexico and Brazil as long as they do not enlist powers outside of the hemisphere to challenge the United States. How can these relationships be managed in a manner that will work in the long term?
Europe is projected to decline in relative power in the next century. It remains a U.S. interest to avoid domination by one nation or hostile coalition of countries. Challenges to the European Union at a minimum suggest that this grouping is an unlikely force to challenge the United States in the near term. The recent maneuverings of Russia suggest that United States involvement and NATO remain needed. What is the best configuration?
Asia is growing rapidly, and the United States pivot to Asia is a start on the path to continuing to prevent one nation or hostile coalition dominance in the region. East Asia is especially important, but South Asia and Southeast Asia are growing parts of the balance. Japan, China, Indonesia, and India are especially important given economic power and growth potential. China is widely considered to be the country most likely to grow in power in coming decades. Other countries are an integral part of the equation. The growing economic power of the region allows more expenditure on security and has all too much potential for getting out of hand. Future Asian power configurations will be a key to maintaining general peace.
The U.S. interest in the Middle East is important for any number of reasons to include historic ties to Israel and the region’s energy potential. In recent years, the challenges of governing the various groupings in each nation-state have become painfully obvious. So have the problems of a diminishing U.S. role that has given Russia an opportunity to fill a power vacuum in Syria and added to a refugee glut that has met with resistance in receiving countries. This is a region in flux that needs a sophisticated U.S. policy. The U.S. interest in the area is hard to pinpoint since it is somewhere between the most important tier of interests and those in Africa where the United States is mostly interested in maintaining access to the region. This ambiguity is dangerous and needs to be stabilized.
Africa is an area of U.S. interest, but its relative balkanization means that the United States is interested in retaining access to the area, but has limited power to do more than contributing to needs for fast action.
U.S. foreign policy moods have an impressive record of pointing toward the future that has worked for two-thirds of a century since the original Klingberg publication in 1952. While moods have been mentioned a reasonable number of times, it now is time to subject them to rigorous analysis by at least a core group of scholars. One of the reasons that they might have continued so long is that they can be related to three of the primary groups of theories in international relations. There clearly is a liberal link in the moods themselves, they can be fit with interests in a realist viewpoint, and constructivist trends can be identified.
The moods have the potential of bringing the academic and U.S. policy-making communities closer together if they agree on the need to research the long term and consider how to bring the approaches related to U.S. foreign policy moods together in some joint or combined studies. Such studies have the potential to promote greater understanding of what the United States is trying to do and why. Minimizing rocky transitions like that between the Obama and Trump administrations would be advisable. While there is a clear danger of overemphasizing recent events, unexpected patterns at least suggest that analysis of American diplomacy and consistency poses a challenge worthy of investigation.
Perhaps the most important advantage of studying U.S. foreign policy moods is that if moods become a generally accepted approach, it is likely that the American public would rebel against being so predictable. Looking at the longer term might well help highlight the need to plan ahead and possibly identify dangers of forces that could, in time, lead to wars and possibly even a system war. That alone would be a major contribution to world peace.
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(1.) Notes on the tables: The coding for each phase is based on Holmes (1985 and 2011). The most extremely extroverted phase is the third sub-phase of the extrovert period, making it 6 out of 6. The most extremely introverted phase is the third sub-phase of the introvert period, making it 1 out of 6. The moderate sub-phases, when moods and interests are in the most harmony, occur in the second sub-phases, making them 3 and 4. That leaves the first sub-phases to be coded 2 and 5, since at the beginning of the phase, mood and interests are not yet aligned.