New Book: Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy

Today marks the release of my book, Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy. Here it is on Amazon and Google Books.


Tyler has already given it a very enthusiastic endorsement in which he says he hopes the book revolutionizes the field of international relations. That would be very nice, but I think a more realistic ambition is to provide a framework to intelligent non-experts for thinking about American foreign policy. Academic fields rarely take fundamental criticisms well, for obvious reasons. It’s off to a great start, already at #9 on Amazon for Kindle books in political science as of this writing.

Ever since I started studying IR, I had a gnawing feeling that something about the whole enterprise was off. As I read more history, and also in other fields like economics, anthropology and psychology, I came to the conclusion that the ways in which we talk about international relations and foreign policy are simply wrong. The whole reason that IR is its own subfield in political science is because of the “unitary actor model,” or the assumption that you can talk about a nation like you talk about an individual, with motivations, goals, and strategies. No one believes this in a literal sense, but it’s considered “close enough” for the sake of trying to understand the world. And although many IR scholars do look at things like psychology and state-specific factors to explain foreign policy, they generally don’t take the critique of the unitary actor model far enough. The more I studied the specifics of American foreign policy the more it looked irrational on a system-wide level and unconnected to any reasonable goals, which further made me skeptical of the assumptions of the field.

That’s pretty abstract, so let’s make it concrete. Think about the most consequential foreign policy decision of the last half century. Why did America invade Iraq in 2003? People say things like it was for oil, or Israel, or neo-conservative ideology. Some still take the original WMDs justification seriously (here’s me arguing with Garett Jones). As I explain in the book, my theory is more like “Bush felt angry, had an instinct that expanding the war on terror was good politics, and had appointed people like Feith and Wolfowitz who already had a target in mind and told him it was going to be easy. So they just invaded and didn’t care about the consequences, because it’s not like any of them had to live in Iraq or anything. Plus they all got nice jobs afterwards anyway.” For more context, see my previous article on neo-cons as willing dupes of Ahmed Chalabi.

For both the major post-9/11 wars – Afghanistan and Iraq – it is clear from the historical record that the Bush administration had no idea what would come after regime change. The neo-con faction wanted to install Chalabi in Iraq, but Bush sort of dithered and then rejected that view, and ended up just letting State Department types get to work writing a constitution with gender quotas and building something called “civil society.” The political system selects for people who think in terms of short-term political goals, not long-term grand strategy. When the war started going badly and there weren’t even WMDs, it was too embarrassing to admit how dumb the whole thing was and the 2004 election was coming up soon so they all started talking about how American freedom depended on democratizing Muslim countries. It’s often thought that putting yourself in the shoes of others helps build empathy, but when I studied the Bush administration in particular, my experience was pretty much the opposite, and I remain taken aback by the extent to which they didn’t seem to feel any moral responsibility to think too much about the consequences of their actions, at least for anything besides electoral politics.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to top American officials. Putting aside the decision to go to war, how did the US end up taking on an expansive nation building mission in Iraq? Seems like Bush didn’t make that decision until two months after the invasion, and it was all based on one meeting that led him to tear up the established plan for a quick handover and go in a completely different direction. As I write in my book,

Having been alarmed by reports that a new Iraqi government would be appointed by May 15, only two months after the invasion, [Paul Bremer] had a one-on-one meeting with President Bush on May 8 where he tried to disabuse him of “this reckless fantasy—what some in the administration were calling ‘early transfer’ of power—animated in part by their aversion to ‘nation-building.’” Bremer called for giving Iraq “a free press, trade unions, political parties, professional organizations.” The president agreed, telling his cabinet right afterward, “I don’t know whether we need this meeting after all. Jerry and I have just had it.” Zalmay Khalilzad (2016: ch. 16), who was working on forming the new Iraqi government at the time… writes that he does not remember a single meeting to discuss the disbanding of the Iraqi Army, perhaps the most consequential decision made in the immediate aftermath of the removal of Saddam Hussein. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley told Khalilzad that around that time he stopped conducting Deputy Committee meetings on Iraq as Bremer would handle all important decisions in Baghdad.

They were equally clueless on Afghanistan:

According to Robert Gates (2014:336), Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011, “I came to realize that in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, having decided to replace the regime, when it came to ‘with what?,’ the American government had no idea what would follow.” Dov Zakheim (2013:3), a foreign policy adviser to President Bush and Under Secretary of Defense, later wrote that “the U.S. government did not engage, anywhere in any of its various departments and agencies, in extensive planning for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. There was no time, and not much incentive, to do so.”

The main argument of the book is everything is like this, including sanctions policy, dealing with the rise of China, and where the US stations military forces abroad. On the last point, here’s a figure from the book.

Where American forces are stationed abroad in 1951, 1986, 2019.


Notice how similar each map looks. As of late 2019, putting aside Afghanistan, the foreign states hosting the most American troops were, in order, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and Italy. In other words, the US was still occupying the Axis Powers and in position to fight another Korean War. Rather than adjust grand strategy to take into account new realities, the dominant force has been inertia. The middle of the twentieth century brought America into certain countries, and it just stayed there and later invented reasons why doing so made sense. These justifications have been pushed by think tankers, the national security bureaucracy, and activists and intellectuals, many of them auditioning for roles in the state apparatus or funded by weapons manufacturers or foreign governments.

The aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union provides another example of how the system works. The entire justification for the formation of NATO was to deter a Soviet attack. The Soviet Union stopped existing, and NATO still expanded, with the main justification coming to have something to do with democracy promotion (Turkey and other countries supposedly moving in a non-democratic direction hasn’t led to them being kicked out, surprisingly enough). Whenever the US is occupying a stable country like Germany, the foreign policy establishment says we can’t leave because look how we have maintained peace. When things are falling apart, as was happening in Afghanistan, the narrative becomes that a country is too unstable. And then you throw in a line about how leaving some country that doesn’t matter to American security or well being would be a “gift to Putin” or something. Basically, whenever the US stations forces abroad, commits to defending a country, or declares another nation an enemy, a consensus develops that whatever we happen to be doing right now must never change.

This is because there are special interests – mainly foreign governments, the national security bureaucracy, and weapons manufacturers – who shape the discussion. National security journalism depends on government actors for access, and concentrated interests promote and fund ideas that advocate for a more aggressive posture abroad. This helps explain why foreign policy analysis in the US is often so bad; the marketplace of ideas is tilted towards those who benefit from the status quo.

Everyone understands this in other areas of government. If there were “postal experts” funded by the post office and their contractors that always said we need more money spent on the mail, they would be brushed aside as self-interested actors lobbying for themselves. In 2010, the Boston Globe published a story showing that between 2004 and 2008, 80 percent of three- and four-star generals who retired went to work as defense executives or consultants. Clear conflicts of interest, even corruption and obvious self-dealing, that would never be tolerated in other areas are considered unremarkable in the world of national security because Americans have the idea that unlike other kinds of government employees, generals and CIA analysts are very serious people with deep thoughts about history and geopolitics. Bursting that bubble, or bringing the national security establishment down to earth and making people just as cynical about it as they are about the rest of government, is one of the motivations of the book.

Below is a brief summary of the chapters.

Ch. 1. American Grand Strategy and the Unitary Actor Model

Argues that the field of IR and talk of “grand strategy” rest on the unitary actor model, in which it is useful to treat the state as a rational actor in the same way economists start with the individual. Reviewing the work of some of the most influential IR scholars, I show that the theoretical basis for this view has always been extremely weak, and contradicts how we think about “rationality” in fields like economics and psychology.

Ch. 2. The Public Choice Model of Foreign Policy

Given that the unitary actor model doesn’t work, I present a public choice model of foreign policy as the alternative. Basically, instead of speaking of a “grand strategy,” we should talk about things like ideology, interest groups, and public opinion. In other words, foreign policy should be studied like domestic policy, and there isn’t much about international relations that requires its own subfield within political science. The next few chapters show how in various policy domains, the public choice perspective is better than a theory of grand strategy for understanding US behavior.

Ch. 3. The Rogue Superpower

Here I argue that the idea that the US is the enforcer of a “liberal world order” makes little sense, as there is no other country that more consistently and brazenly violates the most important rules of international law. Another idea, that the US tries to maintain primacy, similarly doesn’t really capture what American foreign policy actually does. These “grand strategies” are post hoc justifications for maintaining the status quo.

Ch. 4. Build, then Balance: The United States and Its Rivals

This chapter discusses how the US responded to the rise of the Soviet Union (1917-1933) and China (1990-2016). I argue that instead of the US following a grand strategy, a government dominated by concentrated interests allowed them to get their way on the question of engagement. American businesses traded with both countries, and the US government either did little to stop them from doing so, or in the case of China, actually facilitated these efforts. The nature of the relationship with the Soviet Union was then overtaken by geopolitical events, so I stop the story with US recognition of the regime in 1933. As for China, the newfound shift to a more hawkish stance represents the need for a new enemy, although we’re not going to stop trading with them either because again, not even the war mongering has any kind of internal consistency to it.

Ch. 5. American Sanctions: Ineffective, Immoral, and Politically Convenient

The US sanctions regime is not designed to accomplish anything geopolitically. Rather, it makes more sense as a political tool. This chapter is based on an earlier report I did for the Cato Institute.

Ch. 6. The War on Terror from the Public Choice Perspective

I trace what the US was doing in the war on terror between September 2001 and the end of the Obama presidency. Major decisions, like whether to invade Iraq, or to stay in Afghanistan across two decades, can better be explained by politics than American grand strategy. This is a “hard case” for my theory. American leaders after 9/11 spent more time on Iraq and Afghanistan than any other foreign policy issue. If they had nothing resembling a “grand strategy” in those conflicts, we probably shouldn’t expect to find it anywhere.

Ch. 7. Conclusion: Understanding and Changing American Foreign Policy

In the arguments put forth in this book, dominant American ideas about foreign policy are mostly downstream of the interests of concentrated groups. Therefore, I suggest that those who want to change US behavior abroad should seek to shape the incentive structures that politicians and government officials face, rather than simply focusing on ideas.

As I said before, I wrote this book while I was still considering an academic career. So if you read it, you will notice it is a lot less colorful than most of my other writing, and has many more citations than are necessary. Another way in which this is an academic book is that it is unaffordable. Amazon lists the hardcover at $160, though you can find a Kindle version for the odd price of $37.69.

This is the academic book racket, where they jack up the price and then just sell it to a few libraries. As I’ve become famous enough now to write thing that publishers expect to actually be able to sell at normal prices, my future books will be priced reasonably. There are of course ways to get pirated books for free, and although this is illegal and I would never encourage you to break the law, if you go that route you might feel morally obliged to pay me whatever you think my efforts are worth through this newsletter.

I wish everyone a Happy New Year. Going to take a few days off, and look forward to being back to work next week.