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Changing Circumstances, Changing U.S. Foreign Policy
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will understand how relations between countries change over time in response to both domestic and international pressures. Students will be able to identify and discuss the factors that contribute to U.S. foreign policy toward the country they have chosen for their case study.

Grade level
Grades 11-12



NCSS standards

Time estimate
Two to three class periods

  • Part 1: Form groups, choose cases, and answer preliminary questions
  • Part 2: Library and Internet research
  • Part 3: Presentation of cases based on questions in Parts 1 and 2

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

Lesson Plan

Part 1

Emphasis is placed on the post-1945 period in order to help students understand that U.S. policy is based on many different factors. At some times and in some places it has been shaped by particular events, such as the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In other instances, it is based on philosophical principles such as tolerance, freedom, or equal rights.

  • You may want to introduce related terminology and concepts before beginning this activity, including the following:

    • Realism or realpolitik -- a view that, when applied to world politics, assumes that nations preserve their vital interests (such as their security) by whatever means they have (often juxtaposed with idealism).

    • Idealism or political ideology -- the belief that it is possible to construct an international political system based on mutual cooperation between all nations based on their common interests. Idealism assumes a world in which all nations interact politically, economically, and socially based on a common good.

    • Bipolar system -- in politics, an international political system that is dominated by two main powers. For example, during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union made up the bipolar system.

    • Unipolar system -- an international political system that has only one major power. Since the end of the Cold War, it is sometimes argued that the United States makes up the unipolar system.

    • Multipolar system (multipolarity) -- an international system in which more than two states of roughly equal power dominate the political system.

  • Assign students to small working groups and have each group choose one country from the list provided. You can shorten the list or add additional countries if you have fewer or more groups in order to avoid overlap.

Saudi Arabia

  • Have students begin the activity by brainstorming preliminary answers to the following questions:

    • Where in the Middle East is the country you chose? What countries are its immediate neighbors?

    • How long has this country been an independent nation?

    • What type of government exists in this country?

    • How would you characterize U.S. policy toward this country?

    • Why might the United States have formulated the policy you described?

    • To the best of your knowledge, has the United States ever had a military presence in this country?

    • Do we sell this country arms?

    • How concerned would U.S. leaders be if this country's government fell or changed?

    • Can you think of circumstances in which the United States might send troops to this country?

    • Do you believe that U.S. policy toward this country has remained the same or changed over the past 100 years? If it has changed, what influenced the change?

Part 2

  • Have each group do library and Internet research to further explore the country they have chosen and the U.S. relations with that country since 1945. Some resources with which they may begin are listed in the Resources section.

  • The following questions should guide their research:

    • Between 1945 and today, what have U.S. relations been like with this country? Has the United States changed its position towards this country since 1945?

    • Prepare a list of important events that took place between the United States and the country since 1945.

    • What do the events tell you about the overall U.S. foreign policy toward the country? Go to the Department of State Web site (link and URL in Resources section) and click on "Country Information" under Department of State Publications and More. There you can read a U.S. perspective on the history and politics of the country.

    • Was the country you chose important to the United States during the Cold War? Did this country have better relations during the Cold War with the United States or the Soviet Union? How did this affect U.S. relations with the country? What evidence do you have for your answer?

    • Is the country you chose a regional power? How would you define its power? Is it economic, military, or something else?

    • Make a prediction about U.S. foreign policy with this country over the next 10 years. What factors can you think of that might shape that policy? Does the United States engage in trade with that country? Does the country possess an important strategic location or important natural resources?

Part 3

  • Students will find they have a lot of interesting information to share with fellow classmates. Each group should prepare a five-minute presentation that addresses the questions they researched (perhaps using maps, charts, PowerPoint slides, or another presentational style). Be sure the students also verify through research the information from their preliminary brainstorm list and include it in the report.

  • You may want to wrap up this activity by having each student write a short summary of U.S. foreign policy toward the country they chose to study. This time, students should work alone, using the information gathered by their group. This is the student's chance to include things that may not have been included in the group or class presentation that he or she thinks are important to mention.


  • How well did the student present key ideas and concepts related to U.S. relations with country?

  • How well can the student articulate factors involved in shaping U.S. foreign policy with country?

  • How well can the student chart changes in U.S. policy with the country over time and recognize and explain connections related to U.S. policy in the region?

  • How well did the student work with his or her peer group to research country chosen?


Core Resources:

Global Connections Essays:

Internet Resources:

Related Video:

Print Resources:

  • Gerges, Fawaz A. America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests?
    Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

  • Rubin, Barry M. Paved with Good Intentions: The American Experience and Iran.
    Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Related Activities:

Extension activities

Have students trace U.S. foreign policy beginning with the time of the hostage crisis in Iran. Note changes and shifts in U.S. policy. Students should discuss some of the possible reasons for the shifts (e.g., changing circumstances, ineffective policies, changes in leadership, etc.).

NCSS standards


  • Interpret patterns of behavior reflecting values and attitudes that contribute to or pose obstacles to cross-cultural understanding.

Time, continuity, and change

  • Apply key concepts such as time, chronology, causality, change, conflict, and complexity to explain, analyze, and show connections among patterns of historical change and continuity.

  • Apply ideas, theories, and modes of historical inquiry to analyze historical and contemporary developments and to inform and evaluate actions concerning public policy issues.

Production, distribution, and consumption

  • Distinguish between the domestic and global economic systems, and explain how the two interact.

Power, authority, and governance

  • Analyze and explain ideas and mechanisms to meet needs and wants of citizens, regulate territory, manage conflict, establish order and security, and balance competing conceptions of a just society.

  • Analyze and evaluate conditions, actions, and motivations that contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among nations.

Global connections

  • Explain conditions and motivations that contribute to conflict, cooperation, and interdependence among groups, societies, and nations.

For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

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