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Eyeing the Fear Factor in Foreign Policy

by Nicole St.Pierre

“By examining the social customs and traditions that are unique to the United States,” Steel said, “you can ultimately understand why we have the foreign policy we do.”

Photo/Cynthia Fox

Ronald Steel is one of the few international relations professors in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences who mentions Native American struggles, slavery and Western movies when he talks about the United States’ occupation of Iraq.

As a scholar who analyzes international relations from a historical vantage point, Steel will spend the next semester as a Whitney H. Shepardson Fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, during which he’ll study foreign policy from a cultural perspective.

“When we consider domestic policy, close attention is paid to issues like a state’s historical origins, interstate relations, religion and demographics,” said Steel, who has published three books that analyze the forces governing American foreign relations since World War II.

“But these cultural issues are rarely discussed in the context of how our foreign policy has evolved through time.”

In his next project, Steel’s research will culminate in a book that identifies the various cultural, social and ideological factors that have shaped the U.S. approach to foreign policy.

“It’s a big undertaking, but I hope my work will open the door a crack and give people a different lens through which to view and analyze foreign policy,” he said. “By examining the social customs and traditions that are unique to the United States, you can ultimately understand why we have the foreign policy we do.”

Steel’s research will include talking with religious leaders about America’s origins; reading publications that shaped the U.S. identity, including Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”; and studying issues unique to the American experience, such as the present-day effects of the clash with Native Americans that marked the colonial experience in North America, the Civil War and the impact of slavery.

A paramount part of the project will involve religion’s influence on foreign policy.

“Today, religion is often used to justify the policies we pursue as a nation. Concepts aren’t ‘useful,’ they are called ‘morally right,’ ” he said. “We have a larger population of people who declare themselves to be believers than any other Western society. These beliefs influence how we behave as a nation.”

Another recurring theme in Steel’s study of American culture is fear.

“To a large extent, our society was built around fear,” said Steel, referring to the Puritans, who were consumed with a fear of damnation.

“Just look at the Salem witch trials and the idea that there was a conspiracy by the devil. This idea of a society being afraid of those outside the perimeter has stuck with us through time.”

Steel’s research of American literature and film already has shed light on the project.

By dissecting classic American movies and literature, he noticed a recurring theme: a country committed to the notion of solving, rather than adjusting to problems.

For instance, Steel draws parallels between U.S. foreign policy and Western movies such as “High Noon” � an emblematic film about a violence-ridden small town, in which a sheriff struggles to protect people from outlaws.

The people back down in the face of violence, and the sheriff is left to defend an entire community.

“There’s a shoot-out � and then there is the sheriff, the last brave man standing,” he said. In many ways the United States represents that sheriff.”

“The U.S. approach tends to be, go in and have a big fight to solve the problem, and then get what we describe as closure. But other societies don’t look for closure. Instead, they learn to manage, rather than eradicate, problems. This is a huge difference in approach,” he said.

Terrorism is a more specific example of how two cultures can define a single concept differently.

While teaching in Paris at the time of the Sept. 11 crisis, Steel gained a dual perspective. “While the United States is focused on ‘ending’ terrorism, other countries view it as a chronic problem that can be managed, similar to a disease such as arthritis or AIDS,” he said.

He remembers the days immediately following the disaster, when French newspaper headlines read: “We Are All Americans.”

“But then there was something particular about the way we responded to the events that was very American, and other countries had difficulty relating to us,” he said, pointing to the rhetoric of the Bush administration as an example.

Steel said the speeches that followed Sept. 11 touched on themes very specific to the American historical experience, using popular cultural sayings like “you’re either with us or against us,” “dead or alive” and “a struggle of good against evil.”

Piecing together details to gain a big-picture perspective is not a new concept to Steel.

A double major in English and political science as a student, he also has written about cultural icons such as Walter Lippmann and Robert Kennedy. To do their biographies justice, Steel sought to analyze the person, as he saw himself and how others saw him.

“In many ways, this is what I am trying to do with America,” he said. “To understand the forces and sentiments that framed our thinking and approach to foreign policy over time.”

Eyeing the Fear Factor in Foreign Policy

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