Here’s Why No One Ever Likes American Foreign Policy

Why does our basing policy make no sense? WHY! CREDIT: Shutterstock
Why does our basing policy make no sense? WHY! CREDIT: Shutterstock

Rule #1 of foreign policy punditry: never be happy. Observers of world politics much prefer to complain about what’s going wrong than celebrate what’s going right (with some exceptions).

That’s not just because international relations writers are a gaggle of negative nabobs. There really is something for everyone to dislike about American’s global stance. A neat new essay helps us understand why.

You probably haven’t heard the term “kludgeocracy” before. Coined by Johns Hopkins professor Steven Teles, it refers to the idea that the U.S. isn’t governed by an ideologically coherent political system. Instead, a series of temporary political workarounds (“kludges”) that weren’t ideal, elegant solutions to a problem but made sense at the time combined to form incoherent and unwieldy patchwork of laws. A crappy, bureaucratic Voltron, essentially.


Teles had domestic policy in mind when he came up with the idea of kludgeocracy: think of how a series of individual tax bills added up to create, entirely unplanned, the most complicated tax code in the developed world (a few more examples here). But while Teles’ new National Affairs essay on kludgeocracy keeps the domestic focus, it shouts out the Department of Defense as the heart of the “kludge industry,” private sector groups that leech off of America’s patchwork policy quilt:

While institutional change is likely to come incrementally, if at all, a more direct, near-term strategy is an attack on the kludge industry, given that it both lives off of and helps create demand for policy complexity. The best place to start could be the Department of Defense: The growth of the private military over the last few decades has been explosive, and congressional efforts at deficit reduction have put the Pentagon’s budget on the chopping block. Increasing the salaries of high-level federal workers throughout the government and reducing caps on their numbers could also go hand in hand with drastically cutting the amounts that agencies can spend on consultants and contractors.

Teles is right that defense contractors benefit from kludginess. But the influence of kludgeocracy on foreign policy goes deeper, right down to the heart of American foreign policy.

Take an easy case, military basing. Even the Defense Department thinks we have way too outposts — about one out of every five, according to Army Secretary John McHugh, could easily be shuttered. But America’s kludgey system is getting in the way.

Teles blames the Constitution for our kludge problem. The founding document allows for a ton of “veto points,” like the filibuster, that give individual lawmakers the power to stymie legislation unless their specific demands are met. Congresspeople like keeping military bases in their districts open and being seen as “pro-military,” so the legislators who can negotiate base expansions and veto closures do so. U.S. basing policy — the backbone of America’s global military presence — is “dependent on who was the most senior person at the table,” in the words of Acting Deputy Defense Under-Secretary for Installations John Conger. Because many individual Congresspeople have been the “most senior” person at the table at different points in time, America’s basing structure isn’t rationally designed, but rather a mish-mash birthed by a bunch of individual compromises.

Classic kludgeocracy.

But even with respect to foreign and defense policy issues that aren’t as obviously open to kludginess, kludgeocracy is a useful way to think about the history of American foreign policy. A series of quick-fix plans, designed to solve individual problems, have added up to a complicated, often-contradictory overall strategic picture. Arguably, foreign policy is nothing but kludges.


Take our pre-revolution Egypt policy. Providing massive amounts of military aid to Egypt was a good Carter Administration kludge for the Israeli-Egyptian conflict in 1979. Stepping up democracy promotion funding, including in Egypt, was a core feature of President Bush’s plan to combat radicalization in the Middle East. But put them together, and you had a situation where the U.S. was simultaneously propping up Hosni Mubarak’s military regime and undermining it. America didn’t have an overall plan for how to deal with Egypt, just a series of kludgey fixes for individual problems the country poses that might not make sense in tandem.

Because presidents have different foreign policy ideologies, they add different sorts of kludges to the mix, each confusing the overall strategy. Eisenhower’s support for the Shah of Iran locked Carter, who abhorred the Shah’s penchant for torturing dissidents, into supporting the dictator. It seemed like a bread-and-butter “national interests over values” policy, but Carter then started using America’s leverage to pressure the Shah on human rights (Henry Kissinger blamed the Shah’s collapse on this plan). We ended up with an Iran policy that wasn’t purely realist or purely liberal, but a strange blend that owed more to the priorities of particular Presidents than a strategic design.

There are two important takeaways here. First, the kludgey nature of American foreign policy means that the idea of American “grand strategy” is an absurd fiction. The United States doesn’t have an overarching plan for the world. Sure, it has some general things that it’d like to see happen — yay free trade and democracy, boo authoritarianism and terrorism, and so on. But ultimately, discreet decisions by Presidents and lawmakers shape policy far more than any one overarching vision for what America’s goals should be or how to accomplish them.

Second, kludgeocracy’s ideological incoherence means that observers of international politics, who tend to have well-defined ideological worldviews, will always find something to dislike. Because so many folks with such diverse political priorities end up making U.S. foreign policy, no one ideology will ever come to fully dominate American foreign policy. So everyone will always, fairly, be able to find something to hate.

Secretly, the pundits are smiling.