Clients and Interests

Some of the conversation around Egypt seems like a good opportunity to point out that there’s something very problematic about the discourse of “national interest.”

People generally understand that the domestic politics of a large liberal democracy reflect a contending set of interests in which the controlling coalition need have no relationship to the true interests of the nation. America’s agriculture policy, for example, reflects the interests of ranchers, corn, soybean, and cotton farmers rather than vegetable growers or food consumers. But this same thing happens in foreign policy.

For example, one thing you tended to see during the Cold War was that the US and the USSR both cruised around the developing world basically trying to line up as many client states as possible. These countries, being poor, were almost always net economic drains on their superpower sponsor. In essence, the Soviet and American governments were competing to bribe local political elites. In this context, Egypt becoming a country whose elites were on the Soviet dole was a “win” for Communism whereas its decision to switch and start accepting American bribes was a win for liberal democracy.

This kind of thinking can sometimes reflect an accurate assessment of what’s good for the country. But it’s also redolent with interest group capture. When the USA assembles a large coalition of allies that is, among other things, a large coalition of customers for American defense contractors. What’s more, the allies then often need defending, both in terms of military bases and general expeditionary capabilities. So we have a controlling domestic political coalition that’s defined our “interests” in the Middle East as consisting of collecting a large and diversified portfolio of local allied regimes who we then directly and indirectly subsidize. But the proposition that this reflects the real interests of the American population is contestable. The connection to real interests is that the price of gasoline is very important to the welfare of the average American household, and that Middle Eastern politics are important to the price of gasoline. But I’m not sure Middle Eastern politics really are all that important to the price of gasoline over the long run and I’m quite certain that the past 30 years worth of American policy in the region don’t represent a cost-effective way of coping with the economic risks of oil price instability.