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

03 Feb 2023
Reviewed by Chelene Reyes Yardumian

The latest book by Richard Hanania examines American historic and contemporary foreign policy decisions through the lens of public choice theory. When it comes to decisions about national security, often the outsized role of foreign actors, weapons manufacturers, and bureaucrats is the deciding factor. 

US grand strategy is an illusion – it doesn’t exist. This is the argument presented by the author of Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of American Grand Strategy, Richard Hanania. Public choice theory is characterised by political pressures and their impact on decision-making. These pressures include the influences of weapons manufacturers (who employ voters), national security or military bureaucrats (who propagate an increase in US military spending), and foreign governments (with whom the US has economic ties), forming the basis of US foreign policy. While a grand strategy declares what the US should do, public choice theory describes how decisions are actually made and continue to be made in the foreign policy domain.

The chapters in the book are structured thematically, allowing the readers to easily follow the concepts presented. The book starts with the grand strategy and unitary actor model, arguing that states act rationally toward achieving their intended goals. The next chapter, on public choice theory, outlines how concepts of grand strategy run contrary to rational actor models, showing that foreign policies are shaped by concentrated interests – in this case, weapons manufacturers, national security or military bureaucracy, and foreign governments. Chapters three through six deal with US involvement in wars and conflicts, US policies toward its rivals, particularly the former Soviet Union and China, the use of economic sanctions, the War on Terror, and policies toward the Middle East. In extrapolating on these cases, the chapters discuss and demonstrate how Public Choice Theory is the logical explanation for US foreign policy. For Hanania, they offer potent examples of how policy decisions in the context of historical and contemporary events often do not benefit the US in the long term.

US involvement in conflicts such as in Korea, Vietnam, First Gulf War, Afghanistan, Grenada, and Kosovo, and in operations to effect regime change such as in Libya, Syria, and Venezuela show that the US has often violated international law. In many of these cases, the outcomes demonstrate that logical strategies for carrying out operations to advance US geopolitical and economic interests were lacking. In the case of Afghanistan, the attacks of 9/11 justified a prolonged 20-year nation-building mission that culminated in America’s humiliating withdrawal and the Taliban gaining back control in 2021. Top former and current US defence officials, including Robert Gates, Michele Flournoy, General David Petraeus, and General Dan Kelly McNeill, were quoted as saying there was no long-term interagency plan for operations in Afghanistan. These wars and conflicts cost the US trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, yet they did not improve America’s position abroad.

A further critical point by Hanania is that the apportionment of US troop deployment abroad does not reflect the strategic policies of the government. Based on 2019 data, the former World War II Axis countries have the most American military troops, with 62,482 in Japan, 47,066 in Germany, and 15,411 in Italy. The Middle East, which is considered the hotbed of terrorist groups, only has 2000. Also, due to the rise of China, the 29,565 troops in South Korea could presumably be increased.

US policy towards its rivals, specifically Russia and China, provide an interesting paradox for grand strategists. Hanania calls the US approach “build then balance,” whereby Washington shares technical knowledge and engages in significant trade with these nations enabling them to prosper economically, but then exerts tremendous efforts to curtail their military capabilities. This paradox points to a lack of a grand strategy, the author argues, and policies that are influenced by special interests. These groups use corporate profits for political campaign contributions and provide employment to constituents who vote for US politicians responsible for formulating and effecting foreign policies.

Another example is the failure of economic sanctions in Syria, when the Obama administration in 2011 banned the importation of Syrian oil and prohibited Americans from investing in Syria or doing business with its government. The European Union followed this lead, destroying the Syrian economy between 2010 and 2015. This impoverished the Syrian people, who lost their source of living and were thus deprived of even basic food and medicine. However, the sanctions did not result in a regime change in Syria, with Bashar al-Assad staying in power. For Hanania, the use of economic sanctions in Libya, Cuba, and Venezuela has also proven ineffective in achieving geopolitical goals, thus demonstrating their lack of utility.

These historical and more recent international events demonstrate that US foreign policy has failed to live up to grand strategic claims. For Hanania, the explanation for this failure is best illustrated by public choice theory, where individuals and groups influence public opinion and are incentivised to shape US foreign policies to their benefit. Moreover, in their own self-interest, policymakers, such as the president and other politicians, cater to these concentrated interests because of their influence in getting officials elected and re-elected.

Hanania shows that while there appears to be an evolving grand strategy in certain situations, in his final analysis and conclusion, there is no broad, overarching US plan for achieving American interests. Instead, he makes a compelling case for a pragmatic public choice theory to explain US foreign policy by citing historical and contemporary events. He addresses and synthesises the works of scholars such as Stephen Waltz, John J. Mearsheimer, and Hans Morgenthau and theories such as realism, liberalism, and constructivism in his analysis. He skilfully examines concepts and problems such as collective action, status quo bias, self-deception, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and human psychology. For example, Hanania used the collective action problem concept to explain that individual citizens would be better off by cooperating but often fail to do so because of conflicting interests between individuals and the cost of executing an action.

Although the book is well written, its discussion of reforms would be more complete if advocacy groups were considered. Grassroots activities of numerous anti-war organisations and human rights non-governmental organisations can be coordinated, and their strengths collectively harnessed to influence public opinion and lobby US policymakers to effect changes at the local, regional, national, and international levels.

Overall, Hanania has written a book that is easy to understand and is recommended for those who are interested in learning more about US foreign policy, international law, and political psychology. It gives a comprehensive overview of historical and contemporary events, international relations concepts, economic sanctions, domestic politics, and US policies towards the Middle East, Russia, and China.

In summary, US foreign policy does not improve America’s position abroad because it is largely influenced by, and thus benefits, the concentrated interests of the few. Hanania offers ideas on how to weaken the influence of these interest groups through reforms in legislation, the media, and incentives schemes. He provides a call-to-action for the readers, particularly those whose intentions are to improve US national security and America’s position abroad, to work on reforms to have a grand strategy that involves more effective planning and execution.

This is a review of Richard Hanania, Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy (Routledge, 2021). ISBN: 9781032121796

Chelene Reyes Yardumian works for The Boeing Company in Government Security business operations. She has an MBA from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). She is also a current student at Harvard University pursuing admission to the Master of Liberal Arts in Extension Studies, in the field of International Relations.

This review is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution