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.


Buyers Remorse

March 21, 2009

I don’t normally write about American domestic politics, but I wrote this back in January and needed a place to put it.  So, here you go:

We all know the feeling.  Whether it’s a new car, a home, a computer or a TV, you agonize over the decision for weeks, weighing all the relevant factors, balancing the costs and benefits and convincing yourself that only the right one will do and that anything else will be a disaster.  And then, in a moment of steely determination fueled by soaring anticipation, you make your choice and slap down your credit card (or sign your mortgage) and beam proudly like a new parent.

        For a few days, or maybe even a few weeks, the golden relationship with your newest possession goes well.  You marvel at the clarity of the plasma screen, pontificate knowingly about the importance of torque or wax lyrical on the virtues of a proper garden.  For a while, life is beautiful and all is right in the world. 

And then, it happens.  You wake up one morning, beset by the sinking realization that things are not automatically and irrevocably better.  Somehow, the best decision you’ve ever made, the one you strained and sweated over, the one you just knew was going to make a difference, doesn’t seem to have done much of anything at all.  It’s not that you made the wrong decision; it’s simply that it your choice, for all your effort and anticipation, doesn’t seem to matter.  Your job is still a never-ending stream of drudgery, your co-workers banal and annoying.  The weather is still shit, most of the time, which matter less because you don’t magically have any new vacation days with which to enjoy it.  Your spouse is still numbingly shrill or shockingly dull (and truth be told, just a little too fond of dessert).  Your kids, don’t even start thinking about the kids……

Sound familiar?  Of course it does.  We’ve all done it, made one of those important commercial choices which appear to contain within themselves the seeds of happiness, success, contentment, bliss, only to belatedly discover that while, sure, we have a nice, shiny new toy, it’s only the cherry on a dogshit sundae.  Everything we were implicitly hoping would be swept away by that one magical decision, all the other troubles which we determinedly pushed out of the frontal lobe, the better to listen to salesman’s pitch, are still with us, clamoring all the more to be dealt with after their temporary exile.  Welcome to post-election America, 2008.

I should clarify that I am not opposed to an Obama presidency.  I did not vote for John McCain and, although I refuse to countenance much of the rabid criticism of the last eight years, I am also not a fan of much of what George Bush has managed or intended.  What I am opposed to is the atmosphere of ill-considered optimism (dare I say, messianic fervor?) that surrounds his elevation to leader of the free world.  From London to Cape Town, Mumbai to Madrid, the world appears to believe that Obama’s electoral victory somehow fundamentally alters the nature of American, and by extension world, politics.  This, despite however much it might be desired, will not happen.

The Obamamania that has swept the world in the last six months is as much a reaction to disillusionment with the Bush Administration as it is a reflection of Obama’s character or ideals.  This is a natural result of a campaign based upon the vacuous notion of Change.  Everyone, citizens of the U.S. and the world alike, seem willing, even eager, to imbue Obama with their own hopes and desires.  One need only look at the conflicting identities donned interchangeably by the President-elect to see that his path forward will be fraught with difficulty and disappointment.  To white Americans, he is post-racial, a President who can finally lay to rest uncomfortable allegations of racism and discrimination and demonstrate the ideal at the heart of the American reality.  To black Americans, he is also a harbinger of a new era in U.S. politics.  However, he is one who heralds not the end of racial identity in politics, but the long-sought reversal of the traditional racial divisions, providing compensation for decades of underrepresentation and marginalization.  Both groups voted for Obama in large numbers because of the color of his skin, but with differing underlying rationales that are mutually incompatible.

To the traditional Democractic base of blue-collar union workers, Obama speaks stirringly about the need to protect American jobs and reinvigorate American industry, all the while maintaining an implicit social contract with the common worker.  To the white-collar middle-class, he insists upon economic policies which will return them to a post-meltdown era of prosperity and stability, with access to cheap foreign goods and a competitive educational system.  He says nothing about the impossibility of balancing the demands of unions (especially the powerful teachers unions) against the requirements of globalized capital and labor markets.

If recent policy decisions and proposals and the firestorm of criticism and dissent they have produced are any indication, the balancing act that will be required for the next four years may be more than even this president can handle.  Better men have been broken by less.  Unfortunately, there’s a nearly ironclad no-return policy on politicians, especially presidential ones.