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Why Governments Go Off the Rails

Even well-meaning leaders can make disastrous policy decisions.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng visit Berkeley Modular, on September 23, 2022 in Northfleet, England.
Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng visit Berkeley Modular, on September 23, 2022 in Northfleet, England.
Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng visit Berkeley Modular, on September 23, 2022 in Northfleet, England. WPA Pool/Getty Images

Let’s be honest: There is something morbidly fascinating about trainwrecks. They are destructive and often deadly, yet it’s hard not to watch. For the same reason, watching a major public policy initiative crash and burn is perversely fascinating and all the more so when the people in charge ought to have known better.

The most obvious recent example, of course, is British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous rollout of a new economic plan. Others with a greater understanding of economics have already dissected the numerous flaws in their initial proposal; suffice it to say, markets reacted instantly and delivered a crushing verdict. A potential collapse of the British bond market forced the Bank of England to intervene in ways that undercut the Truss-Kwarteng initiative, and a revolt within the ruling Conservative Party (fueled by polls showing a dramatic surge of support for Labour) forced Truss to back down and fed speculation that Kwarteng would be looking for a new job sooner rather than later. From Truss’s perspective, it is the worst of all possible worlds: Not only were her proposals dead on arrival, but her credibility as a tough-minded leader who could stand up to pressure was damaged as well. Not since New Coke has the world seen such an inept debut.

But Truss’s woes are hardly the only—or even the most significant—example of a major policy trainwreck. Consider the following episodes from recent history.

Let’s be honest: There is something morbidly fascinating about trainwrecks. They are destructive and often deadly, yet it’s hard not to watch. For the same reason, watching a major public policy initiative crash and burn is perversely fascinating and all the more so when the people in charge ought to have known better.

The most obvious recent example, of course, is British Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng’s disastrous rollout of a new economic plan. Others with a greater understanding of economics have already dissected the numerous flaws in their initial proposal; suffice it to say, markets reacted instantly and delivered a crushing verdict. A potential collapse of the British bond market forced the Bank of England to intervene in ways that undercut the Truss-Kwarteng initiative, and a revolt within the ruling Conservative Party (fueled by polls showing a dramatic surge of support for Labour) forced Truss to back down and fed speculation that Kwarteng would be looking for a new job sooner rather than later. From Truss’s perspective, it is the worst of all possible worlds: Not only were her proposals dead on arrival, but her credibility as a tough-minded leader who could stand up to pressure was damaged as well. Not since New Coke has the world seen such an inept debut.

But Truss’s woes are hardly the only—or even the most significant—example of a major policy trainwreck. Consider the following episodes from recent history.

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. By virtually any measure, the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 stands as one of the greatest blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The rationale for the war turned out to be false (i.e., Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction); the war didn’t pay for itself the way that its advocates promised; Iraqis didn’t greet U.S. troops as liberators but instead organized potent insurgencies; the postwar occupation didn’t produce a shiny new liberal democracy; and the war didn’t trigger a wave of democratic transitions elsewhere in the greater Middle East. Instead, it cost the United States several trillion dollars and the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers, along with a far greater number of Iraqi civilians. The war and occupation ultimately spawned the Islamic State, whose brief but bloody reign spread increased violence and refugee flows throughout the region and beyond. The whole mess also enhanced Iranian influence, which is not quite what the Bush administration intended. George W. Bush may have been an inexperienced lightweight who was in way over his head, but his foreign-policy team was a knowledgeable group with impeccable establishment credentials and a lot of government experience. How could these supposedly smart people have done something this stupid?

Xi Jinping’s “zero-COVID” policy. Whatever one believes about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, China’s initial response made the policies of many of the world’s democracies look inept by comparison. But Beijing’s handling of the pandemic has looked worse and worse with the passage of time. China was unable to develop effective mRNA vaccines and refused to obtain them from the West, even after supplies were available. Even worse, Chinese President Xi Jinping has persisted with his draconian “zero-COVID” lockdowns despite the mounting economic costs. All countries have suffered during the pandemic, but the costs to China today are largely self-inflicted. Why would a smart and experienced set of policymakers do something so self-damaging?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The longer Russia’s war in Ukraine goes on, the dumber President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade appears. It is not just his decision to go to war in the first place but also the ham-fisted way that Russia has fought the war and the utterly tone-deaf manner by which it has tried to defend its actions. Instead of focusing laser-like on Russia’s security concerns (i.e., its long-standing fear of open-ended NATO expansion and especially the U.S. effort to turn Ukraine into a Western bulwark on the Russian border), Putin and his cronies mixed that message with a bunch of dubious claims about the “natural unity” of the Russian and Ukrainian peoples, thereby reinforcing the impression that all he really wanted was to re-create the old Soviet/Russian empire. Even if that was his aim, why broadcast it? As I’ve noted before, the decision to launch an illegal war also wrongly assumed that Ukraine would not mount an effective resistance and that NATO would not respond vigorously, and committing war crimes and other atrocities just reinforced both tendencies. Even after its initial miscalculations were revealed, Russia’s government has failed to devise an effective strategy or put a fighting force in the field that can accomplish its reduced objectives.

The end result is that Russia’s economy has been badly damaged, and a combination of brain drain (exacerbated by current efforts to expand the army) and reduced access to Western technology will weaken it even more over time. NATO is more unified and has added two new members. Russia’s military limitations have been exposed for all to see, and China must be having second thoughts about its value as an informal ally. Putin’s reputation as a canny strategist who chose his objectives shrewdly and played a weak hand well has been shredded, and both liberals and hard-line nationalists in Russia are unhappy with him. When your options are narrowing to the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, it’s a sign you’ve screwed up big time. The risk of escalation warns us against excessive schadenfreude, but we can still wonder how Moscow could make so many serious mistakes.

What accounts for these remarkable (“What could they have been thinking?”) policy errors? There’s no shortage of possible explanations—the vanity of individual leaders, wishful thinking, the inherent uncertainty that surrounds many policy domains, domestic political pressures, reliance on outmoded ideas, etc.—and each of these pathologies may have played a role in the above episodes (or in similar cases, such as the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the July crisis of 1914, or Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward).

But for me, the most obvious and compelling explanation is an old one: What seems to have occurred in all these cases is a leader’s reliance on a small, closed circle of advisors who either all think alike or who are reluctant to disagree for fear of being punished or excluded from the inner circle. As Walter Lippmann once warned: “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

In the case of Iraq, for example, the decision to invade was driven by a relatively small group of neoconservatives inside and outside the U.S. government, who succeeded in convincing Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a mortal threat, would be easy to topple, and that doing so would trigger a wave of favorable developments elsewhere in the Middle East (and possibly beyond). Dissenting voices within the government (such as Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki and Secretary of State Colin Powell) were ignored or denigrated, as were skeptics outside official circles. A deceptive public relations campaign built public support for the war; Congress, influential think tanks, and the press fell into line; and the United States walked open-eyed into a costly debacle.

Similarly, Truss and Kwarteng were ideologically committed to a trickle-down economic program whose merits were dubious at best and which was wholly unsuited to Britain’s current economic situation. Not only did they openly reject the expertise of mainstream economic institutions, but they failed to submit a budget score with their plan for tax cuts for the wealthy and big new spending proposals and went so far as to sack Tom Scholar, the most senior civil servant in the Treasury, the week before their plans were announced. Scornful of orthodox thinking and convinced they had unique insights into the proper way to fix Britain’s economic woes, they walked open-eyed over a cliff.

Putin seems to have done something rather similar. Although reliable information about his reasoning is scarce, and we don’t know exactly what advice Putin received either before or after the war began, he appears to have increasingly isolated himself (in part due to fears of COVID-19), relying on a shrinking circle of like-minded advisors. His past successes in Syria, Georgia, Crimea, and elsewhere—not to mention Russia’s broad recovery from the nadir of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency—probably reinforced his own sense of infallibility and gave him an exaggerated sense of what Russia could do despite its economic handicaps.

Russia’s military effort also seems to be suffering from a classic bureaucratic problem: The people at the top don’t have accurate information because their subordinates fear being punished and therefore won’t question decisions, deliver bad news, or admit their own failures. This problem isn’t unique to autocracies (though it tends to be worse in such systems), and it can be overcome, but Russia’s inability to adapt its strategy, mobilize assets effectively, and adjust its war aims to battlefield realities has been striking. Not only did Putin exaggerate what his military could do at the start of the war, but he seems to have repeated that error ever since. Because no one thinks Putin is stupid, these repeated missteps suggest he is either not getting accurate information or refusing to accept bad news when he gets it—or some combination of the two.

Is there an antidote to this problem? Sadly, no. No form of government is wholly protected against a policy trainwreck, and no preventive measure is completely foolproof. The obvious antidote to groupthink is to include contrasting views within the decision-making group (e.g., a “team of rivals” or some form of “multiple advocacy”), but there is still no guarantee that dissenting voices will get a fair hearing and keep whoever is in charge from making a catastrophic mistake. Some of U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s advisors warned him not to escalate the war in Vietnam in 1965, but he went ahead anyway.

The real value of more diverse decision-making teams and more open political systems is not that they never make mistakes but rather that they make it more likely that policy blunders will be corrected once it is clear they aren’t working. (Truss’s decision to adjust her plans slightly once her blunder was apparent illustrates this feature nicely, though one could argue that she still hasn’t moved as far as she should.) Because all humans are fallible, governments of every possible stripe will make mistakes, and sometimes they will be real doozies. But political systems that encourage the free flow of information and that are open to new ideas are more likely to identify when a blunder has been made and are better equipped to formulate an alternative—which is why I still worry about some of the enduring orthodoxies of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, its tendency to attack and marginalize those who question its decisions, and its inability to learn from past mistakes.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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