- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Debates about many foreign policy issues persist because it is hard to know what the right course of action is and reasonable people can reach different conclusions about them. But there is a special category of foreign policy where almost everyone agrees the existing policy is wrong-headed yet almost everyone also believes the policy is impossible to change.
I’m sure FP readers have their own favorites in this category, but I thought I’d start the conversation with three nominees of my own.
1.) Farm Subsidies and Agricultural Trade Barriers.
Like other industrial countries, the United States subsidizes a host of agricultural products and erects various trade barriers against foreign imports. This happens because the farm lobby is defending the narrow interests of the farm sector and many democratic systems give small groups (in this case farmers or agribusiness) disproportionate influence. (It’s the usual story: A small group reaps the benefits of this policy while the costs are dispersed across the whole population). This policy makes food more expensive, encourages farmers to grow the wrong crops, squanders energy, and hinders economic development in poorer countries, thereby contributing to political instability. These policies also make it much harder to negotiate multilateral trade deals that would raise prosperity world-wide. So although nearly every detached observer thinks the policy is wrong, they also know that the political power of farm interests (both here and abroad) makes it excruciatingly difficult to change course.
2.) The Cuba Embargo.
We all know the old line that insanity consists of doing something over and over again but expecting different results. By that standard the U.S. embargo on Cuba is demented. If an embargo was going to topple Castro’s regime, it would be long gone. The current embargo has been in place for nearly five decades, persisting even after the Soviet Union had collapsed and when it is clear that an old and feeble Fidel poses no threat. Hardly anyone thinks it is the right policy anymore (if it ever was), but it remains in place because a small number of well-organized and politically active Cuban-Americans care about the issue and the rest of the country doesn’t care enough to override their preferences. Because Florida is a swing state and its politicians remain sensitive to the Cuban-American lobby, a policy that has probably helped Castro stay in power remains in effect. Maybe this policy will finally change under Obama (or when Fidel dies), but don’t bet on it.
3.) The “War on Drugs.”
This one is a bit more controversial, in the sense that there is still a genuine debate on some of these issues. But there seems to be a growing consensus that the “war on drugs” (which we’ve been waging far longer than the “war on terrorism”) is both ill-conceived and poorly executed. In the United States, as in many other countries, our anti-drug policies focus primarily on the supply-side: we go after growers, traffickers, dealers and users. And the United States is especially quick to incarcerate anyone who possesses narcotics, even for relatively minor offenses. The results are almost certainly worse than the problem itself: our policy helps enrich drug lords and make it possible for them to destabilize whole governments, as they are now doing in Mexico and Afghanistan. Criminalizing narcotics possession has created a burgeoning prison population that is expensive to maintain and whose long-term incarceration produces a host of other social ills. (For a depressing analysis of some of them, see sociologist Bruce Western’s Punishment and Equality in America). As The Economist recently argued, “the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.” Reasonable people still disagree on what a better approach might be, but decriminalizing narcotics possession and focusing on education and treatment programs would cost less and probably leave us no worse off in terms of addiction and its consequences. But a politician who seriously proposed such a course of action would almost certainly face a firestorm of criticism, so the current failed policy is likely to continue more-or-less unchanged.
There are some other enduring policy initiatives I think are equally misguided (such as missile defense) but the consensus against them is not as clear-cut. On these three, however, I think most well-informed individuals know the policy is wrong yet unlikely to change.
So three questions for readers.
First, am I right to say that most experts agree that these three policies are both wrong and resistant to revision?
Second, are there any other prominent examples of similar follies: misguided foreign policies that almost everyone thinks should be changed but won’t be?
And third, if a lot of stupid policies persist even when it is obvious they make little sense, what does that say about the capacity of democratic systems to learn from their mistakes?
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