All Great-Power Politics Is Local

When it comes to building international power, there’s growing reason to think that foreign policy barely matters.

Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and his wife Crown Princess Mette-Marit look at an artic map of the world with the museum official Kasia Majewski at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario, Nov. 7, 2016.
Crown Prince Haakon of Norway and his wife Crown Princess Mette-Marit look at an artic map of the world with the museum official Kasia Majewski at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario, Nov. 7, 2016. LARS HAGBERG/AFP via Getty Images

Those of us who write about foreign policy and international affairs spend most of our time thinking about what states and other global actors are doing with and to each other. We debate what different interests are, criticize the strategies and priorities (or lack of each) that leaders adopt, and offer advice on what goals should be sought and how they could be achieved more effectively.

The implicit assumption behind these efforts (and the rationale for a magazine like Foreign Policy) is that these decisions matter. A lot. People like me are (mostly) convinced that if you get foreign policy right, lots of good things will come your way. Get it wrong and you’re likely to find yourself in a heap of trouble.

I’m no exception to this general tendency. If you go back and read all the columns I’ve written here over the past decade or more, or the various books and articles I’ve published since I began my career, you will find that they are mostly focused on diagnosing why states are acting toward others in different ways, determining if their policies are working or not, and exploring how they might do better. And with occasional exceptions, this focus is for most people who work in this field.

But recently I had a slightly heretical thought: What if foreign policy isn’t as important as foreign-policy mavens like me maintain? What if developments and policies inside the country are far more consequential—at least most of the time—than what its leaders do on the global stage?

Granted, a good foreign policy is better than a bad one (although determining whether a country’s foreign policy is successful or not can be tricky), and some foreign-policy blunders can be extremely costly, not least in terms of lives lost unnecessarily. In a few cases, foreign-policy malpractice can be positively disastrous and lead to a country being conquered, occupied, looted, or incorporated. So I’m not suggesting for a second that foreign policy is irrelevant.

Even so, the history of a number of major powers suggests that domestic policies were far more critical to their international standing than any of the clever stratagems, initiatives, ploys, schemes, or interventions they undertook abroad. Indeed, in some cases doing the right thing at home made it possible for the country to survive and recover after completely and disastrously mishandling its relations with others.

Consider the following examples.

The United States. How did 13 small and weak colonies, perched precariously on the Eastern Seaboard in the late 18th century, rise to become the dominant world power? Partly by staying out of trouble with others—which was a smart foreign-policy decision—and partly because the North American continent had valuable resources, navigable rivers, and a temperate climate. The original inhabitants turned out to be vulnerable to European diseases and colonial predations, which made expansion even easier. It helped that the other major powers were often at odds with each other, too. The United States also grew rapidly because it let people come there from many other countries and because its population had an unusually high birth rate during the 19th century (though it declined gradually over time).

To be sure, foreign-policy initiatives like the Louisiana Purchase and the seizure of what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California during the Mexican-American War were important steps. But by themselves, these actions would not have made the United States the dominant world power. The more critical part of the equation was the rapid industrialization of the country in the latter part of the 19th century, which gave America the world’s largest and most advanced economy by 1900 and provided the essential economic foundation for its global role ever since.

Perhaps the clearest indication of the primacy of domestic policy is America’s ability to brush off foreign-policy setbacks. Missteps before and during the Korean War cost nearly 40,000 U.S. lives, and the Vietnam War lasted longer and cost even more blood and treasure. Yet 14 years later, it was the Soviet Union that imploded. The so-called global war on terrorism (including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) has cost fewer lives but a lot more money (roughly $6 trillion and counting), yet Americans barely seem to notice. The country also suffered the world’s most dramatic terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, but the subsequent war on terrorism cost much more than the damage suffered on that day or the likely damage that al Qaeda and its ilk would have been able to do even if the United States had not gone all-out to destroy them. The past four U.S. administrations have committed any number of foreign-policy blunders (NATO enlargement, dual containment, failed interventions in Syria, Libya, Somalia, etc.), yet no serious person believes the United States should now be counted out of the world’s power equation.

Instead, perhaps the costliest mishaps in recent decades occurred at home: the financial meltdown in 2008 and the Trump’s administration’s bungled response to COVID-19. I am by no means suggesting that foreign policy is irrelevant, but these episodes remind us that, as I once wrote, “external conditions impinge on U.S. power; internal conditions generate it.”

The Soviet Union. But it’s not just the United States. The Soviet Union did not possess America’s geopolitical advantages (e.g., the United States has no major powers nearby, whereas Russia has many), and its vast land, poor infrastructure, and forbidding climate have been formidable barriers to growth. But its biggest problems were largely internal and especially the embrace of Marxism-Leninism after the 1917 revolution. The United States and its allies won the Cold War for many reasons, but their rival’s sclerotic and inefficient state-controlled economy surely made it easier.

China. Home to nearly a fifth of the world’s population, China punched below its weight and suffered at the hands of other powers for much of the past two centuries largely because of domestic disarray and a related failure to keep pace with Europe’s technological advances. After 1949, its power and influence were further limited by capricious and destructive polices like the so-called Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. As late as 1978, China’s per capita income was well under $200 per year (in current dollars); the comparable figure for the United States in 1978 was roughly $10,500. But the country took off after Mao Zedong died and China embraced Deng Xiaoping’s “Four Modernizations”; today, its per capita income is 65 times higher (~$10,200) than it was 42 years ago, and it is now the world’s second-most powerful country. Most importantly, these achievements are due primarily to internal reforms within China and the energy of the Chinese people themselves—and not to any particularly clever foreign-policy coup.

One can multiply examples almost endlessly. Germany committed horrific blunders and historical crimes during the first half of the 20th century and ended up occupied and divided after World War II. Yet despite these major foreign-policy catastrophes, its internal strengths allowed it to keep coming back, and today it is the most influential country in Europe. Japan rose to the ranks of major powers following the Meiji Restoration in the mid-19th century, and like Germany, it recovered rapidly after its costly defeat in World War II. Adopting a more sensible foreign policy helped in both of these cases, but neither country would have recovered as quickly without the domestic strengths they already possessed.

On the other side of the ledger, the unhappy experiences of Argentina and Venezuela also remind us how once prosperous societies can be brought low not because of foreign interference, a foolish war, or some other foreign-policy mishap but largely because of domestic political blunders. Argentina’s per capital income was 10th in the world in 1913, and Venezuela was once the richest country in Latin America. Today, Argentina’s per capita income is roughly a third that of Spain, and Venezuela is essentially a failed state. Foreign policy may have played some role in these states’ misfortunes, but incompetent governments and misguided domestic policies are the primary cause.

To reiterate: Foreign policy is not irrelevant, and mistakes in that realm can have serious and often tragic human consequences. But as the current pandemic is reminding us daily, so can misguided or incompetent actions taken at home. For major powers—typically those with large populations, substantial territory, high levels of education, diverse internal markets, etc.—what leaders choose to do at home will matter more in the long run than what they choose to do abroad. For these states, at least, foreign-policy mistakes are rarely so consequential that the fate of the nation is lost forever and especially if a robust set of domestic institutions is still there to help the country rebound.

This argument carries some obvious implications for the next U.S. administration. First, as Sino-American rivalry heats up, winning (or at least not losing) will require more than tariffs, restrictions on Chinese students and high-tech firms, and bombastic speeches. It will also require preserving or regaining the lead in critical areas like artificial intelligence and 5G technology, which in turn means leveraging and incentivizing the impressive innovative capacity of U.S. firms and research institutions.

Second, the deep polarization that is hamstringing Americans at home and abroad must be addressed. I place blame for the problem primarily on the Republican Party, which has embraced extremism and waged relentless partisan warfare since the days of Newt Gingrich and doubled down on this strategy under Donald Trump. There are political initiatives that could temper this tendency—such as the widespread adoption of ranked-choice voting—and begin to pull more politicians back to the middle ground where effective bipartisan deals can be made.

Third, we are currently in an era when unemployment is high, interest rates are low, and working outdoors is safer than working inside a building. If ever there were moment to be modernizing America’s frayed domestic infrastructure, this is it. Trump promised to do that as president, but he seems to have forgotten all about it. The next president (to include Trump if he somehow manages to keep himself in office) would do well to make that promise a reality.

The next president will also need to fix some of what is still broken in U.S. foreign policy, like the growing sense of pity, confusion, and anger with which other nations now regard the United States (and especially Trump himself). But in the long run, whether Americans can get their own house in order will make a lot more of a difference to the country’s future than most of the foreign-policy issues that I (and all the other foreign-policy mavens out there) will be writing about in the months ahead.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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