On taxes, or abortion, or immigration, or the Second Amendment, or environmental degradation, or any of a hundred other high-voltage issues, Republicans and Democrats in Washington seem capable of disagreeing thoroughly and broadly, or even comprehensively. At times it seems like there is no detail too small to argue about.
It’s not that way on foreign policy. Sure, there are heated partisan debates about Benghazi, or Hillary Clinton’s use of email, or whether Donald Trump is lying in saying he opposed the Iraq War. But there is little debate on the substance of foreign policy itself. Even on smaller issues like the regime change war in Libya, there is little contentious debate.
And this says nothing about the broader questions of grand strategy: What countries should the United States be willing to go to war over? What sort of problems do nuclear proliferation, terrorism, or China’s military modernization pose? Should the United States pull in its horns, cut the defense budget, and start far fewer wars, or should it tear up the Iran deal, bomb Syria, and dramatically expand military spending?
On these questions, the foreign policy departments of Brookings and AEI–or really every think tank except for Cato–find little to disagree on. Isn’t that strange? Why would it be the case?
Those are the questions Ben Friedman and I take up in a paper to be published in an issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly later this year. The short version is as follows:
After demonstrating the lack of debate about grand strategy in Washington, we argue that the consensus strategy, primacy, serves the interests of U.S. political leaders, meaning there is little demand for arguments questioning it. Aspiring foreign policy hands would be poorly served professionally if they specialized in a product that their buyers–policymakers–did not want. Accordingly, think tankers and other members of the foreign policy community adopt what we call an “operational mindset”: scholars specialize in relative minutiae, giving support and the veneer of scholarly credibility to whatever foreign policy ideas the policymaker may have, without questioning the objectives themselves.
Rather than a “marketplace of ideas” in which policymakers peruse various policy shops for ideas, the role of the ideas people is mostly to lend scholarly credibility to, and possibly help implement, policymakers’ existing preferences. And policymakers’ existing preferences almost always equate to primacy, partly resulting from the normal bias toward activism among politicians, partly from ignorance, partly from social and other pressures, and partly from the fact that their own incentives point to an expansive grand strategy. In short, there are few restraints and many inducements facing policymakers when it comes to foreign policy.
If this is correct, consider then the incentives facing the think tanker, or the pundit, or the aspiring columnist or bureaucrat. There is little preexisting constituency for restraint in Washington, but many interests it would harm. This means it’s costly even to start asking hard questions of primacy. In the public, primacy is less popular and restraint is more popular, but the crucial variable among the public is salience. Foreign policy concerns rarely determine the outcomes of elections and as a consequence, public opinion presents no powerful obstacle to primacy and no great incentive to support restraint.
It’s for this reason that the foreign policy community adopts an operational mindset, proposing different ways to take a hill without questioning whether it’s the right hill in the first place, or, more realistically, better ways to occupy Iraq/expand NATO/coddle our friends without questioning whether they are good ideas in the first place. True debates about strategy are very rare in Washington.
What restraint-minded scholars need to work toward is a day where some shock causes policymakers to go looking for other ideas on grand strategy. As they look at their bookshelves, the better the arguments for restraint are formed, hopefully the more likely it is they will be adopted.
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