The Skeptics

Can the Foreign Policy Establishment Be Defended?

The author’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Air War College, the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

Dan Drezner, one of my mentors while at the University of Chicago, asks an excellent question on his blog at Foreign Policy: Can the foreign policy establishment be defended? Dan’s core argument is captured in these lines: “There are…many areas where the foreign policy consensus seems unsatisfying at best or catastrophic at worst. That said, it’s far from clear to me that populist foreign policy responses would necessarily be all that much better.” As Dan goes on to explain, if given the choice between a flawed elite consensus and the cacophony of voices that would fill the vacuum “if the foreign policy community was winked out of existence,” better to go with the devil you know.

On the one hand, as someone who writes and talks about international politics for a living, I have a hard time disagreeing. Of course the country is well served by having an establishment that thinks deeply about foreign affairs and provides some discipline to what could be an unruly debate. On the other hand, Dan himself concedes that the foreign policy establishment has made some “Very Big Mistakes” lately, most glaringly the Iraq War. I would side with another mentor, John Mearsheimer, in arguing that these mistakes are by no means accidental: since the end of the Cold War, if not before, the foreign policy establishment has bought into a grand strategy of global dominance that is imperial at its core. It is this grand strategy that has led the United States to fall into a familiar pattern for hegemonic powers: “overconsumption, overextension, and overoptimism,” in the words of Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald.

To go to Dan’s question, do we have any reason to believe that the United States would adopt a more restrained grand strategy, like the offshore balancing option supported by Mearsheimer, Christopher Layne, Stephen Walt, and other realists, if the public had more of a direct say in the foreign policy process? My hunch is that the answer is “yes,” for two reasons.

First, the foreign policy establishment tends to be more preoccupied than the public is with threats and opportunities in the international environment. Indeed, that is the point of having a foreign policy establishment, to think through the kinds of long-term issues that are likely to get bypassed by a “rationally ignorant” public. The problem is that the United States is relatively quite secure—it faces no competitors in its hemisphere and is insulated from threatening developments in other regions by the twin advantages of large bodies of water and nuclear weapons. This means that, if the foreign policy establishment is to be occupied, its attentions must be diverted farther afield, to threats and opportunities in distant lands. This is exactly why global dominance is such an appealing strategy for members of the foreign policy establishment: it gives them plenty to do. Ironically, the myopia that elites claim characterizes public thinking on foreign policy issues would be an asset in the grand strategy realm, as it would lead to a more restrained posture.

Second, while it is the foreign policy establishment that tends to dominate the grand strategy debate, it is the public that bears most of the costs that result. With some exceptions, it is not the members of the establishment that fight and die in foreign wars or that suffer the most from the prioritization of guns over butter. Now, one could argue that the costs of the global dominance strategy have not been severe enough thus far to generate any kind of public backlash, but the point remains that the public is likely to be more cost-conscious than the foreign policy establishment because it is the public that shoulders those costs. This consideration, too, would push in the direction of a more restrained grand strategy.

Overall, the verdict is still out on whether global dominance has a long life ahead of it or whether, as Steve Walt argues in his own post, offshore balancing is an idea whose time has come. I am confident, however, that in the event the public becomes more familiarized with the ideas underpinning retrenchment it will find that many of them come naturally enough.