Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

American foreign policy and liberalism

The NWO-funded Vidi project “American foreign policy and liberalism” challenges the idea that the United States has created and sustained a “liberal international order” since World War II. It instead explores the ways in which illiberal ideologies – such as those underpinning racial hierarchy at home or empire abroad – have influenced American foreign policy in the modern world. This has implications not just for our understanding of history, but also contemporary international politics.

2023 - 2027
Andrew Gawthorpe
NWO Vidi NWO Vidi

It is often said that the United States has acted since World War II to create and promote a “liberal international order”. Yet the historical narrative usually cited to support this is historically impoverished and unclear about the precise role of liberalism in myriad American actions which appear deeply illiberal.

In response, this project questions the idea that the American approach to international order, as well as postwar American domestic history as a whole, can be described in terms of an uncomplicated liberalism. Instead, it explores the ways in which illiberal systems of thought – such as those underpinning racial hierarchy at home or imperialism abroad – have also shaped the American approach to international order in the postwar period. The project has implications not only for our historical understanding, but also for our understanding of contemporary international order and the role of the United States in shaping it.

Subproject details

The project explores the role of modernization theory in the development of two foreign and domestic service programs: the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). The Peace Corps has long been understood as a modernizing effort in a Cold War context, and this project will further investigate VISTA’s place in this framework, from foreign and domestic policy perspectives. By analyzing the influence of ideologies such as modernization theory on policymakers’ development of these two service programs, this project will contribute to a more complete picture of the relationship between foreign and domestic policy during a pivotal post-war period, and what this means for ideas of a “liberal international order.”

The project focusses on how US views of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia influenced its strategic interpretations of the region. Being eleven million strong, dispersed across the region and sharing ethnic ties with Communist China, interpretations of the diaspora intersected with key Cold War themes in the region, such as domino theory and strategic containment. By analyzing the relation between racial perceptions and US behavior abroad, the research explores the dynamic, conflicting and often counterproductive ways through which race influenced US foreign policy during the Cold War era. The project thereby contributes to our understanding how illiberal characteristics underpinned US behavior abroad amidst the construction and establishment of the ‘liberal international order’ during the Cold War.


Andrew Gawthorpe is a scholar whose research focuses on the modern and contemporary United States. Though a historian by training, his work engages with insights from other disciplines, particularly international relations and American politics. He is currently the principal investigator on the NWO Vidi-funded project "American foreign policy and liberalism". This project challenges the notion of an American-created "liberal international order" by investigating how the American approach to international order has been shaped by illiberal ideologies, such as those underpinning racism at home or imperialism abroad. Andrew writes widely for popular media as well as academic publications and host a podcast about American politics, foreign policy and culture called America Explained. He is also a member of the Young Academy Leiden. Andrew previously held a research fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School, a teaching fellowship at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, and a civil service appointment in the British Cabinet Office.

Catherine Wood is a PhD candidate at the Leiden University Institute for History, where she is a member of the US Foreign Policy and Liberalism project. In 2023, she received her MA from the Erasmus Mundus European Politics & Society: Václav Havel Joint Master Programme after studying at Charles University, Jagiellonian University, and Leiden University. There, she was a representative on the student council and was the lead editor for European Waves, a student-run online magazine. While completing her MA, she also interned as a researcher, co-host and editorial assistant for the podcast America Explained. Her MA thesis focused on the role of the European Parliament in EU foreign policy since the Treaty of Lisbon. In 2018, she graduated with a BA in International Relations with honors from Boston University. 

Martijn van Ette is a PhD-candidate whose research is part of the NWO Vidi-funded project ‘American foreign policy and liberalism’. This project aims to challenge the conception that the US-led postwar order reflected America’s domestic liberalism by considering the influence of illiberal US features, including racism, on the development of the ‘liberal international order’. Within this project he focuses on Southeast Asia and the influence of the Chinese diaspora on America’s strategic interpretations of the region. Martijn's academic background consists of a History Bachelor at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam and an MSc in International Organisation and MA in Global Political Economy, both at Leiden University. During these studies he developed an interest in International Relations, foreign policy and the underlying social drivers that determine the latter’s expressions. 

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