At center stage in the twentieth century and among the world’s most heavily debated issues, U.S. foreign policy has been explored by a multitude of writers from sociology, politics and history. But what of economics? Or, as Coyne, an assistant professor of economics at George Mason University, puts it: “what’s economics got to do with it?” Everything, he says.
A uniquely innovative and fresh approach to the world of political economy, After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy explores U.S. efforts to export liberal democratic institutions through military intervention and reconstruction “at gunpoint.” The main question the book tries to answer is this: Is military occupation and “forced” reconstruction the proper way to achieve the ends the United States has set out to achieve? This question is important, not only to assist with the struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also because Coyne thinks that these countries will not be the last to experience U.S.-led “liberation efforts.” Throughout the rest of the book, Coyne answers this question in the negative and gives us his reasons. And, unlike the huge stockpile of literature, newspaper articles and media reports that claim to do the same thing, Coyne goes further to actually provide us a with a workable solution.
The book points out the irony associated with the practice of using forcible means to impose institutions that promote freedom. There is obviously something wrong with this picture. Chapter One provides us with statistics to make the case that the United States has failed more often than it has succeeded in its reconstruction efforts. Coyne uses various economic theories to describe the actions of the actors involved in the process of reconstruction. All individuals, he asserts, have preferences and constraints, and the latter place limits on their opportunities. Reconstruction efforts aim to change these preferences and opportunities, but the argument put forward (mainly in the first four chapters) is that, although the goal is very much decided upon, how to achieve this goal is not known.
Coyne uses several microeconomic theories (such as game theory and the Coase theorem) to argue that there are an enormous number of factors that are not considered while undertaking reconstruction efforts, and that even if these factors were taken into account, knowledge pertaining to them is not immediately or easily available. Furthermore, there are few workable solutions to the question of how this knowledge can be attained and used in the proper manner.
He splits these factors into two categories: indigenous and exogenous mechanisms. Indigenous mechanisms such as “complementary informal institutions” (what Coyne calls the “art of association,” social capital, civil society and liberally oriented beliefs, ideas and values among the local people) must be the foundation of formally reconstructed institutions if the latter are to be self-sustaining. Following this is his discussion of “nested games” to solve the “meta-game” of the country’s being occupied. These, once more, rely on the culture and values of the society being occupied, something that the occupiers are mostly unaware of or unable to grasp completely. There is much evidence provided to support his claim that such informal institutions cannot possibly be taken out of the equation, though they usually are. However, the tasks of influencing and molding the values, norms and expectations of the population require knowledge that the occupiers do not have and can never completely acquire, given the complexity of their nature and their variance from country to country. The matter is further complicated through exogenous factors, such as the gap between the “know what” and “know how” of those shaping the reconstruction efforts, and the complicated political decision-making processes that accompany such efforts.
Coyne shows us both sides of the picture. The aforementioned indigenous factors can most certainly lead to “coordination towards good conjectures,” but only if they are of a certain kind. In Chapters Five to Six, Coyne explores how the indigenous and exogenous factors faced during the reconstruction of Japan and West Germany led to a shift from conflict to coordination, whereas those in Haiti and Somalia did exactly the opposite and proved to exacerbate already volatile situations. He also asserts that the situations in Japan and West Germany were unique and cannot be used as models for other interventions. In Chapter Seven, he explores how these factors have influenced the military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; the picture is both grim and realistic. The obvious complexities of the variables involved in the reconstruction process are starkly visible against the backdrop of the many failures of such efforts to export democracy by force. The question remains, what is to be done?
The final chapter of the book tries to answer this question by comparing alternatives to reconstruction. The first is brute force and the colonization of conflicted and war-torn states by the United States — another way of using what Coyne calls “illiberal means to achieve liberal ends.” The second is peacekeeping. Coyne smartly points out the various complications that would result from taking either of these paths.
The solution then, according to Coyne, is simple: unilaterally lowering trade barriers with countries all over the world to zero and engaging in non-intervention. This is expected to produce two favorable outcomes: material wealth for the countries and exposure to Western institutions and belief systems without any force whatsoever. The economic benefits of free trade have been proven already, and the cultural benefits are more likely to stick because they will be accepted voluntarily. If this approach were taken, the reputation of the United States would improve immensely and its own national security would be better guaranteed. This argument is combined with the practical view that there is no “quick fix” to the problem. The book ends with a call to Western policy makers to adopt at least some shift in their approach that “one size fits all.” The institutions that evolve from this approach might not fit all the requirements of the Western liberal institutions and values that are seen as relevant to all cultures. This, I believe, is probably one of the most important assertions of this book.
In sum, After War is a must-read for foreign-policy officials and for those involved in the world of economics, politics and development. Coyne’s valuable and practical insights, as he points out, provide perhaps the only option that has a chance of succeeding where others have mostly (and repeatedly) failed.