Chicken and the Egg

May 13, 2009

Stephen Walt has a compelling new article up on his Foreign Policy blog here.  In it, he discusses the various explanations for why the U.S. spends so much more than everyone else on defense, and is much more deeply involved in more parts of the world than any other nation.

Walt covers all the traditional IR bases here, including hegemonic stability theory, liberal internationalism and realist/structuralist balance of power theory.  All offer plausible explanations and, as Walt points out, all are probably at least partly responsible for the imbalance between the U.S. and everyone else in international relations.

But then he adds another factor which I admit I had not considered.  Walt posits that one of the hidden reasons for the history of activist U.S. interventionism (including the miltary kind) is that there are a host of powerful institutional interests in the U.S. that encourage that type of behavior.  He provides a laundry-list of such institutions, including the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Association, various think-tanks like Brookings and AEI, and even some elite policy schools like Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy School at Harvard. 

While he is careful to point out that each of these institutions has their own agenda and policy prescriptions, the fact is that the vast majority of policy-makers, pundits and IR thinkers in the U.S. have a basically activist (i.e. anti-isolationist) approach.  They don’t agree on what should be done, but they all agree that something must be done.  There are comparitively few institutions (like the Cato Institute) that take a consistently minimalist or isolationist approach.  Thus, regardless of the specific policy proposals, the momentum is usually towards more action rather than less.

Walt effectively turns the role of foreign policy community on it’s head.  It’s not that all of these institutions exist because we have an activist foreign policy; it’s that we have an activist foreign policy as a result of the existence of these institutions.

As always, I’m sure that their are valid and convincing arguments against this theory, but the basic cognitive dissonance of it appeals to me.  Someone with a better grasp of structuralism or functionalism theory should take a close look at this idea.