Incentives in Foreign Policy
By David Henderson
One of the issues I emphasized in my speech last night, “The Economic, Moral, and Constitutional Case for a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy,” was the role of incentives. Here’s part of what I said:
Now consider the incentive problem. Neither the President nor Congress has the incentive to make good decisions. That’s why it’s best for governments to focus simply on defending their own country against foreign attack. Even here, the government might mess up because the government officials don’t have the right incentives, but this may be a worthwhile risk if your country is being attacked. But if your country isn’t being attacked, it’s not worth the risk.
There is a good chance that, had it not been for the harshness of the Versailles Treaty, Adolf Hitler would never have come to power. In turn, had Clemenceau not sought vengeance on Germany and had Wilson not been so ineffective, the Treaty would have been less harsh. Which means that Clemenceau, by pursuing his own personal agenda, regardless of the costs imposed on millions of Europeans–French, German, British, and otherwise–helped cause World War II, a war in which over 60 million lives were lost. Clemenceau intervened and caused huge problems, partly because he didn’t understand what he was doing and partly because he didn’t care about the consequences–he had the wrong incentives.
Indeed, Zac Gochenour and I have documented, in “War and Presidential Greatness,” Independent Review, Spring 2013, the strong positive relation between the percent of his country’s population a U.S. president loses in war and historians’ ranking of that president’s greatness. This gives presidents an obvious incentive to go to war.
It’s an incentive about which at least two presidents stated clearly their awareness and we lead with quotes about or from those two presidents. The first is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on John F. Kennedy:
War, he observed, made it easier for a president to achieve greatness.
The second is Theodore Roosevelt:
If there is not war, you don’t get the great general; if there is not the great
occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of
peace, no one would know his name now.
One incentive I did not mention in my talk last night, but should have, is the incentive of the foreign policy establishment to push for war. Leon Hadar had a good piece on that yesterday, titled “Why This Town Loves Going to War.” An excerpt:
Following in Leibovich’s footsteps, though, perhaps we should apply his main thesis to the debate over foreign policy and national security. What drives political players in Washington today has less to do with the partisan fights between Republicans and Democrats, or the ideological struggles between conservatives and liberals, and more to do with the personal and institutional interests of the powerful men and women who rule this city. These are the people who use their position to advance their own interests, to gain fame and make money.
Ask yourself why there is this continual effort by the Beltway insiders and journalists to elevate foreign policy and national security to the top of the agenda. Could it be because they believe a “player” in Washington has a better chance of drawing public and media attention, of gaining recognition, and of accumulating power when he or she is dealing with matters of war and peace as opposed to, say, the makeup of the next budget?
That reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague a few years ago. This colleague’s specialty is the Middle East. I ran into him and asked him how things were going. “Great,” he said, “the Middle East is in turmoil.”