Students and Professors Tackle “Trump’s Foreign Policy” with One-Credit Course Initiative

April 11, 2017
by Aislinn McNiece

As the SFS Centennial and the celebration of its hundred years of service to the world approaches, SFS faculty and student leadership have begun steps to refresh the SFS curriculum. Their goal is to modernize the curriculum to match the changing dynamics of foreign policy and international affairs. Professor Daniel Byman, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs, has spearheaded one of the newest curricular initiatives under this centennial transition.

Byman hopes to increase the number of one-credit courses to give students more freedom and depth in scheduling their semesters, and one of the first iterations of this one-credit course initiative is through Byman’s own class, “Trump’s Foreign Policy.” The class, which was offered to students from across majors and class years, met five times during the semester, each session with a new lecturer and topic from current events in foreign policy.

“In general, I want more classes that engage current events but do so in a way that forces students to be thinking about how their broader SFS classes interact with current events. One-credit classes are a good vehicle for that because they’re not as extensive. It’s not a class on current events that will be overtaken by events in six months. It’s a way of pushing application of the broader concepts,” says Byman.

A New Format for Engaging Current Events in Class

Professor Byman debates Trump’s Foreign Policy in a discussion section.

In this sense, Trump’s Foreign Policy seeks to explore current events in depth with experts from the SFS, without becoming an additional three-credit load on students’ schedules. The five class meetings covered “Domestic Politics” with Professor Michael Bailey of the Department of Government; “Counterterrorism” with Professor Byman of the Security Studies Program; “Asia and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)” with Professor Victor Cha, Director of the Asian Studies Program; “Migration” with Professor Katharine Donato, Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM); and “Russia” with Professor Angela Stent, Director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES).

With five topics, five lecturers, and only five course meetings, the course presents a new format for understanding foreign policy in a contemporary context. After listening to the day’s expert discuss their given topic and firing off some questions, the class breaks up into discussion groups led by professors and teaching assistants to analyze the issues at a small group level. This format allows students multiple opportunities to evaluate foreign policy decisions.

“Given the historic impact and nature of this new presidency, I felt that I could not miss out on the opportunity to study and analyze its implications from a School of Foreign Service perspective. The course came across as a unique opportunity to engage with a unique, complex, and uncertain matter that’s happening just blocks away from where we study. So far, the course’s driven and engaging approach, coupled with its array of guest lecturers, have been its most enjoyable aspects,” says junior David Alzate.

“Trump’s Foreign Policy” Relevant to SFS Mission

It was the unique nature of the most recent election, and what appeared to be an unconventional approach to foreign policy under the new administration, that inspired Byman to create this class as one of the first one-credit courses under the new initiative.

“For many people, myself included, the Trump election was a surprise. A lot of what he’s proposing is hard to get my head around, a lot of it is very new, and it’s very different from conventional thinking in the Republican party, let alone the Democratic party. And part of my hope for myself and the students was simply to have some way of conceptualizing how to think about what changes are realistic [and] which ones are not realistic. I hope they’ll be able to read the newspaper on a daily basis and have some sense of how to think about this critically,” says Byman.

And, beyond being a course teaching students how to critically engage with current events, Byman explained that modern sentiments in foreign affairs directly affects the SFS and its mission. For that reason, he believes Trump’s Foreign Policy is an important class for SFS and its students.

“The SFS was founded almost 100 years ago with a very strong and open mission of engaging the world. That’s why many students come here, and we have an administration that has raised a lot of questions about U.S. engagement with the world. Even putting Trump aside, we see this phenomena around the world. If you look at Europe, if you look at Asia, we see the rise of leaders who are very skeptical of international engagement, who are skeptical of intercultural understanding, who are skeptical of many of the values we espouse at SFS. To me this is something we have to take exceptionally seriously, but to do so requires an understanding of this presidency,” says Byman.

And so far, the course has been successful in generating an understanding of the current presidency and foreign policy in the new administration. Alzate describes it as a “once-in-an-undergraduate-lifetime experience” that “puts our theoretical frameworks to practice in analyzing current, constantly changing events.”

Challenges and Successes of the New Course

One of the biggest challenges of teaching the course, however, is the fact that its contents are constantly changing. As a class that deals almost exclusively with deep analysis of current events, and whose readings and lectures are based largely on the views and positions of the administration’s senior leadership, any change in rhetoric, policy, or leadership in the Trump administration can turn the course on its head.

“For my terrorism class, one of the readings I assigned was a chapter of the book by the National Security Adviser General Flynn, and it expressed his worldview and his views on terrorism. And then, of course, he was promptly fired right before the class. With that sort of change, it’s hard to make sure you’re finding people who reflect the views of the administration. Also, of course, you expect people in campaign mode to be saying things, and you expect them to be doing different things in governing mode. So it’s kind of hard to anticipate where they’re going to go. And since this administration campaigned against the establishment, it’s difficult to [predict],” says Byman.

Nevertheless, sophomore Jesus Rodriguez believes that this changing dynamic of foreign policy is in fact a useful teaching tool in the course.

“Because much of the content that is taught is reactionary to Trump’s actions, the class teaches you how to be agile in thinking about foreign policy decisions, their underlying causes, and the likely consequences,” says Rodriguez.

That is to say, the challenge of dealing with current events is also one of the biggest strengths of the course. In the SFS, faculty study subjects across the many component parts of foreign policy. Bringing that expertise into one classroom creates a course well positioned to foster understanding of foreign policy under a new presidential administration.

“My hope is that bringing together all these different perspectives makes it a stronger course. When you think of foreign policy in general, there are so many factors that come into it, and that ranges from domestic politics to economics to security, and understanding different parts of the world. No one knows all of that, and that’s the whole point of working in teams, of collaboration. So we have faculty who know parts of the puzzle but not all of it, and we have students who know parts of it as well. My hope is that we’re exposing one another to different personal views and different intellectual perspectives, and that on balance everything will be much stronger as a result,” says Byman.

Fusing Multiple Perspectives on Foreign Policy

Professor Victor Cha lectures on Asia and the TPP.

This exposure means that students can think more deeply about subjects that they may or may not have studied in the past, and discuss topics more thoroughly than they may in conversation with friends or family. By formalizing discussion of current foreign policy decisions among experts and students, the class is an effective and engaging learning experience.

“I care about foreign policy and current events, but even after watching all the debates I really had no idea what President Trump’s foreign policy was. That was a reason I signed up, but also because all of my other classes go in depth into theory and history, but I wanted a class that provided an open space to talk about current events. The guest professors get a lot of latitude on what they discuss, and we get to go further into contemporary topics than the news or social media can,” says freshman Zoe Abrahm.

In the future, Byman hopes to continue offering classes that expose students to the critical study of current events in the context of their core curricular studies. As he explains, there are almost always major events in international affairs, from modern global migration to the 2008 financial crisis, that could form the basis of another class similar to Trump’s Foreign Policy.   

“This sort of class really showcases what Georgetown does well. It’s an attempt to bring very serious thinking to today’s problems. If you look at the faculty, if you look at Professor Stent, Professor Cha, Professor Donato, Professor Bailey, these are amazing names and it shows the engagement our faculty had. I’m excited that there was a lot of student interest,” says Byman.