Guest Post: Rick Perry’s Foreign Policy

Editor’s Note: Today YSPR has the privilege of hosting a guest post by Jim Pavlik. Jim is a graduate student in international relations at the University of Indianapolis. His previous research includes a critical examination of Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics (sans zombies). Jim is currently working on a thesis that will situate recent developments in Mexico into a broader IR framework. Below are his thoughts about Rick Perry’s recent foreign policy gaffes statements.

Over the course of his campaign Texas governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry has twice had those who follow America’s foreign policy on edge. Once back in August he suggested that America use drones to help monitor the border. Then just a few days ago at a town hall meeting he claimed that as president he would deploy troops in Mexico to help fight the cartels.

Many found these statements to be unsettling either because they indicated a return to a Bush-era hard line foreign policy stance. Others found them disconcerting because they seemed to indicate that (1) drones have been active on the US-Mexican border since 2004 and (2) we’ve already been training Mexican troops to fight the cartels and are using contractors (i.e., mercenaries) in Mexico already. In other words, Perry doesn’t know what’s going on in his own backyard and is feigning interest in it because he knows doing so helps him score political points.

It’s one thing to think of Perry’s statement in partisan or ideological terms, but that’s something we can act on at the voting booth. As political scientists, it’s more productive to try and explain Perry’s policy proposal through theory.

Kenneth Waltz proposed an international system that is analytically distinct from the various domestic systems within it. In parsing the implications of this distinction he notes that different policy proposals derive from the anarchic character of the international system and the hierarchic structure of the domestic. To him, the distinction was hard, even if it wasn’t clear. Borderline cases like 1920s China, should be considered one or the other, or not considered at all.

But he was writing in 1979, before the end of the cold war, before the collapse of Somalia and other states, before, that is, the concept of the “failed state” had truly entered into the academic discourse.

More recent theorists (Posen and Jervis, among others) have proposed that certain states should be viewed as “fragmented” and that the political universe inside their juridical borders can been conceptualized as anarchic. Domestically this means that the state and the fragmented territories should develop along the lines that international theories predict: Think security dilemmas, balances of power, relative gains, inter- and independence, and even identity distinctions.

As Anthony Vinci notes, “the state and the armed group are determined by empirical, not juridical sovereignty.” Thus if a power views a group within another state as a threat to its own domestic security it will act accordingly. “Sovereignty” is a convention and can be violated if required to preserve the state—although not without consequences which is why the Obama administration used caution with respect to its drones in Mexican airspace.

Vinci adds:

It is increasingly common for states to intrude upon the sovereignty of failed states, thereby demonstrating the lack of a state’s effective control over territory. In particular, state militaries interact in domestic anarchy as if it were international, as for example happened in U.S. ‘‘snatch and grab’’ operations in Somalia. Other states also invade at will—not in order to attack the ‘‘state,’’ but to attack specific armed groups. This is, for instance, what happened in ‘‘Africa’s World War’’ in the DRC, when Uganda and Rwanda (amongst other states) invaded the DRC to attack the Interahamwe and other militias.

Vinci published his paper in 2008. We need only think back to the killing of Osama bin Laden in sovereign Pakistan without their knowledge for additional evidence.

For the moment Perry is talking about working with the Mexican government, but if the threat from the cartels grows and the Mexican state continues to be ineffective in its response, a certain strand of political theorizing predicts that unauthorized, armed US action is likely if not virtually guaranteed.

Whether it will be more effective than Blackjack Pershing’s laughably poor pursuit of Pancho Villa is less certain, and that presents the possibility that such actions would, in the long run, be worse: maintaining and perhaps strengthening the cartels and alienating friendly officials in the Mexican government. In fact, US action in Mexico could potentially trigger a nationalist backlash which would increase support for the cartels both from the Mexican populous and corrupt officials in the government. Another reason why Obama has been doing secretly what Perry was saying out loud.

Thus from at least one reasoning, it is possible that Perry might rationally believe what he says, but shouldn’t act on it not because it’s “wrong” in some universalist moral sense, but because the chance of failure is prohibitively high.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Rick Perry’s Foreign Policy

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