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The Foreign Policy Essay: Domestic Politics and Foreign Policy—Better Than It Looks

Stephen Krasner
Sunday, February 23, 2014, 10:00 AM

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Editor’s Note: As the United States confronts a range of challenges in the coming decades, pundits and policymakers alike fret that partisan polarization, growing isolationism among the American people, and political institutions that are not up to the task may leave us unprepared and vulnerable. However, such pessimism may be overstated and, importantly, it lacks nuance: American institutions, for all their shortcomings, are far better at handling certain types of problems than others. Stephen D. Krasner, a distinguished scholar at Stanford and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, offers us his thoughts on the strengths of the American system and on areas where its response to future foreign policy challenges is likely to be weak or insufficient.


Institutional fragmentation—a bicameral legislature, independently elected presidents, an expansive judiciary, a federal system—has always been a defining characteristic of American government. Partisan divisions, which have waxed and waned over time, are now at very high levels. There is, for instance, virtually no overlap between the voting patterns of the most conservative Democrats and the most liberal Republicans in Congress. Relative to China, American resources are declining, although this is not the case for Western Europe and Japan, the other major industrial power centers of the world. Krasner pictureInstitutional fragmentation, partisanship, and declining resources have different consequences for the two most important foreign policy challenges confronting the United States. The first is the rise of China. The second is transnational and international threats arising from relatively weak, sometimes malevolent governments and transnational terrorist organizations, and the availability of nuclear and biological weapons. The evolution of American policy toward China will be determined primarily by relative capabilities and domestic development in China. Institutional fragmentation and partisanship in the United States will not be consequential. The prospects for successfully engaging China are high. If things do go badly awry it will be because of what happens inside China, not the United States. In contrast, the ability of American leaders to successfully address the challenges posed by weak and malevolent actors will be compromised by political partisanship. Resources will not be a constraint.

China’s Rise

The Correlates of War project provides data for the Composite Index of National Capability (CINC) for the period 1816 to 2007 for all independent states. The Index, which shows the percentage of world power for each country, is derived from six variables: total population, urban population, iron and steel production, energy consumption, military personnel, and military expenditures. It thus reflects both underlying resources (such as population) and policy choices (such as military expenditures). Figures for the world’s major powers are given below:


1870 1900 1914 1939 1950 1980 2000 2007
US 10 19 21 18 28 13 14 14
UK 24 17 14 10 6 2 2 2
France 13 7 7 4 3 2 2 2
Germany 11 13 16 18 X 3 3 2
Aus-Hun 4 4 7
Russia 8 11 11 14 18 17 5 5
China 17 12 9 9 12 12 15 20
Japan 2 3 3 6 5 5 4
  The table clearly shows the rise of German power from 1870 to 1939. Germany’s share of world power increased from 11 percent in 1870, when it still trailed Britain and France, to 16 percent on the eve of the World War I, when it was the most powerful state in Europe but still trailed the United States, to 18 percent in 1939, when it was tied with the United States at the top. The conventional argument about power transitions, which posits that the rise of a new great power will lead to conflict because of disagreements over territory, spheres of influence, and international regimes, is drawn from the experience of Germany’s rise. Germany fought the first and second world wars because it wanted more territory, a sphere of influence in eastern Europe (or even all of continental Europe, with the exception of Russia), and international regimes that were more state oriented than those that had been established primarily under British initiatives in the 19th century. Germany not only failed to achieve these objectives but also destroyed Europe. While Germany’s policies reflected its capabilities, even if those policies were ultimately catastrophic, China’s have not. China has been the great underperformer in the international system. Even if the figure of 17 percent of world capability in 1870 is a little quirky, China still performed stunningly badly in the 19th century when it was quasi-colonized by the western powers (including the United States) and Japan. Even today, when China’s CINC value is considerably higher than that of the United States, China’s influence in the world and even in East Asia is less than might be expected. The almost certainty that China’s gross national product (GNP) will surpass that of the United States has focused public attention in the last decade, but if a broader set of indicators is used, China passed the United States  a decade ago. China is the most vivid example of the fact that domestic institutions, politics, and beliefs can cripple the ability of national leaders to pursue coherent and effective policies even if the underlying resource base of the state is formidable. China was overrun in the 19th century because its national institutions and norms precluded an effective response to the Western challenge. The traditional Sino-centric system was hierarchical, as opposed to the European sovereign state system in which sovereign entities were legally co-equal. China was the imperial center; all other political entities were subordinate tributary states. There were no ambassadors in the Chinese system, an institution that implied co-equal status, only episodic tribute, investiture, and other missions to and from Beijing. The imperial center in Beijing placed great emphasis on shows of deference from other political entities. When George Macartney led a British mission to China in 1793, the Chinese were desperate to have him perform the kowtow, an unambiguous sign of subordination, and when he refused to do so—bowing instead as he would to a European sovereign—the official imperial record misrepresented the encounter. The unchallenged assumption that China was at the center of the world made it much more difficult, probably impossible, for Chinese leaders to grasp the threat that was posed by the West in the 19th century. During most of the 20th century, China was convulsed by civil war, external invasion, and the grotesque policies of Mao Tse-tung. Since the 1970s, when the heavy hand of the state was relaxed and ideological fantasies were abandoned, China’s capabilities have leapt forward. Despite ideological divisions, economic challenges, and institutional fragmentation, the United States will (and has) responded coherently and effectively to the rise of China. The objective of U.S. policy is clear: to sustain contemporary regimes, especially economic regimes, by integrating rather than isolating China, and to prevent the development of an exclusionary Chinese sphere of influence in East Asia. These goals are not contested among American leaders. The policies that flow from them—supporting Chinese membership in international organizations and maintaining alliances in the western Pacific—are straightforward. If American policies fail in the medium term, it will be because domestic political pressures in China (nationalism, tensions caused by uneven regional growth, divisions within the Communist Party, demands for greater openness from a richer and more educated population, and slower economic growth because of an aging population) precipitate reckless behavior or encourage miscalculations about American willingness to maintain its commitments in the western Pacific, not because American leaders are hobbled by domestic ideological antagonisms or institutional fragmentation. Even if the isolationist wings in the Republican and Democratic parties grow stronger, economic integration, and the interests of U.S. multinational corporations and business and technological elites, make a decisive turn toward economic closure or military withdrawal unlikely. In the long term, relative capabilities will matter more. If China does not achieve a political transition to a more open and democratic polity, its economic growth will falter.   It will remain at best a middle-income country. If it does make such a transition, its levels of per capita income are more likely to reach Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) levels, and it is less likely to challenge the global rules and norms embedded in the contemporary system.

Weak and Malevolent States   

The dangers that might emanate from weak and malevolent actors with weapons of mass destruction are harder to address, and efforts to do so will be hobbled by partisan division in the United States. Attacks from weak and malevolent states present one of the most difficult policy challenges, in part because they are “black swans”: low probability events that are highly consequential and impossible to predict. The most successful outcome is that a black swan does not appear, an outcome that brings no political reward. Nuclear and biological weapons make it possible for individuals or groups with limited resources to kill tens of thousands of people, or maybe even more. Such attacks could emanate from any place in the world, including the United States itself. Creating and maintaining a world of well governed democratic states with effective policing and intelligence capabilities would be the best way to minimize the chances of such an attack, but that is not the world we live in today.  In many areas of the world, as the connection between 9/11 and Afghanistan vividly illustrated, domestic political authorities may be incapable or uninterested in addressing transnational threats. There is no single template that can eliminate the risk of attacks emanating from badly governed or malevolent political entities. The most likely path to success is trial and error. But in a highly partisan political environment, trial and error can be costly because initiatives that falter or do not bring any obvious benefit will be condemned by the political opposition. Given the domestic costs of trial-and-error policies in a highly partisan environment, one likely response is excessive caution. U.S. policies in the Middle East over the last several years offer some illustrations. The explanation by Obama administration officials for the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and several of his colleagues in Benghazi, Libya was pilloried by Republicans, who accused the administration of misrepresentation and hiding information about the involvement of Islamic terrorist organizations. Given that Washington is the place from which all facts almost certainly emerge, my own view (which is not informed by any privileged information) is that while Obama administration officials may not have had an entirely accurate understanding of what went on when Susan Rice spoke on the Sunday news programs, it is unlikely that there was willful misrepresentation, and recent reports seem to support this view. The political costs to the Obama administration of conscious, deliberate misrepresentation would have been higher than the benefits. The likely consequence of this incident is that State Department officials will be even more cautious about engaging with actors in dangerous places. This means that these officials will be even more isolated in highly fortified embassies and will therefore be less able to help guide policy in dangerous regions of the world—which are often the regions where U.S. policy needs the most guidance from knowledgeable officials. The most positive response to Ambassador Stevens’s death would have been something along the lines of: “Ambassador Christopher Stevens was a seasoned diplomat with an excellent knowledge of Libya who was willing to put his life at risk in the service of his country. We understand that if our Foreign Service officers are to perform their tasks in the most effective way possible, they cannot be fully safe.” Sadly, the level of partisanship in Washington has made it impossible for any official, Democrat or Republican, to make such a statement. U.S. policy toward Syria offers another example of the tendency to choose excessive caution over trial and error, driven at least in part by high levels of partisanship. The optimal policy for the United States would have been to identify and support those groups within the Syrian opposition that offered the best chance of producing an outcome in which the fighting ended or was contained, the Asad regime was replaced, basic human rights were protected, transnational terrorist threats were addressed, and relations with Israel did not worsen. Of course, the chances of identifying such a group were never very high and failure would have been the most likely outcome. But given the partisan divide in Washington, a strategy of investing resources in a policy that would most likely fail would have been political suicide. In a less partisan environment, political leaders might have been willing to risk acting more decisively. The probability of a good outcome would have been higher, even if never very high. An effective policy to deal with weak, failing, and malevolent states will have to recognize that the goals that are most often articulated by American political leaders and championed by the American electorate—democracy, a true market economy, comprehensive human rights, rule of law—are not attainable in many parts of the world. The best that can be hoped for is a better functioning limited-access or exclusive order, one that provides enough security to support sustained economic growth and does not trample the physical integrity rights of its people. In some places even these goals might be too ambitious, and U.S. policy should instead focus on containing transnational or international threats to core American security interests. Achieving even these more modest goals will require more knowledge about local environments than U.S. policymakers often have as well as an acceptance of the fact that many initiatives might fail. Given its relative position in the world, the United States has punched at or above its weight despite institutional fragmentation and partisan divides. Historically, many major U.S. foreign policy decisions have been highly contested at home, including the Spanish-American War, America’s entry into the first and second world wars, support for the League of Nations, the Vietnam War, and the 2003 war in Iraq. In some of these cases (though not all) the country and the world would probably have been better off if the presidents charged with responding to those events had had more freedom to act quickly and decisively. Nevertheless, while the American sausage factory is often messy, the products have, on the whole, been very impressive.


Stephen D. Krasner is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute and a professor of political science at Stanford University. This paper was originally written for the Hoover Institution working group on American Foreign Policy and Grand Strategy.

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