The ‘Boomerang Effect’: How Foreign Policy Changes Domestic Policy

The late Chalmers Johnson, the great analyst of the American empire, warned that if Americans didn’t give up the empire, they would come to live under it.

We’ve had many reasons to take his warning seriously; indeed, several important thinkers have furnished sound theoretical and empirical evidence for the proposition. Now come two scholars who advance our understanding of how an interventionist foreign policy eventually comes home. If libertarians needed further grounds for acknowledging that a distinctive libertarian foreign policy exists, here it is.

Christopher Coyne, an economics professor at George Mason University, and Abigail Hall, a Ph.D. candidate in economics there, have an important paper in the Fall 2014 issue of the Independent Review: “Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control.”

Their thesis is at once bold and well-defended: “Coercive government actions that target another country often act like a boomerang, turning around and knocking down freedoms and liberties in the ‘throwing’ nation.” This happens when the size and scope of government increases as a result of foreign intervention.

Advocates of foreign intervention – whether conservative or progressive – seem to believe that foreign and domestic policies can be isolated from each other and that illiberal methods used in foreign lands, such as bombing and military occupation, need not disturb domestic policy. In other words, freedom at home is consistent with empire abroad.

Coyne and Hall demonstrate that this is no more than wishful thinking that is contradicted by experience, both past and present; they present theoretical and empirical grounds for their conclusion that foreign policy is likely to have malign effects on domestic policy. After presenting their theoretical justification, they examine two contemporary examples of how methods perfected during foreign interventions were later applied inside the United States: surveillance and the militarization of the police. Of course the result in both cases has been a diminution of Americans’ freedom. The imperial chickens came home to roost, as Johnson warned they would.

Domestically, a government may be constrained by the people’s tacit ideology and their consequent interpretation of the country’s constitution. That ideology and interpretation may prohibit politicians from exercising social control to the extent they might prefer. That government’s conduct abroad, however, may face far weaker constraints. Under the right conditions – conditions such as those the U.S. government now finds itself in – the government may be in a position to exercise severe control over a foreign society, engaging in surveillance and repression as the armed forces take on the functions of police while maintaining their military posture as well.

Criticism of intervention abroad is often aimed at what the policy inflicts on foreign populations. “Often overlooked, however, is that a government’s projection of power beyond its borders can also impose significant costs on domestic citizens due to changes in the character of government-produced social control at home,” Coyne and Hall write.

They identify four “channels” through which “advancements in state-produced social control abroad may boomerang back to the intervening country.” First, an interventionist foreign policy tends to build up power in the central government. To the extent that the dispersion of power – “federalism” – limits centralized authority and protects zones of freedom, centralization is obviously a danger for liberty. They quote Bruce Porter, who wrote that “a government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights.”

“As this shift occurs,” Coyne and Hall add, “one result is that the political periphery becomes dependent on and subservient to the political center, which weakens the checks created by dispersed political decision making.”

The second way the boomerang effect operates is to put a premium on the skills required for social control. The interventionist state, the authors write, will need people willing and able to “implement the directives of the intervening government on an often unwilling foreign populace and the willingness to use various suppression techniques – monitoring, curfews, segregation, bribery, censorship, suppression, imprisonment, violence, and so on – to control those who are resistant to either foreign governments or their goals.” People who lack those skills or the enthusiasm for exercising them will be weeded out. As a result, intervention “shapes the human capital of those involved in intervention.”

In the third, related, channel, people with skills appropriate to social control will come home to find prominent positions in both the government and private sectors. In either realm such people are apt to lobby for or help transform public policy in the direction of greater control. “Specialists in state-produced social control are able to suggest and implement new techniques and organizational forms of state social control on the domestic population based on their experiences of doing the same to distant populations,” Coyne and Hall write. Their skills complement the other forces driving the centralization of power and the transfer of social-control techniques from foreign societies to the domestic scene.

In other cases, the skills acquired through coercive foreign interventions are implicit, meaning they shape the person’s view of government-produced social control.… [O]ne cannot help but be shaped by the organizational context within which one is embedded. In this scenario, activities that previously would have been thought of as unacceptable, extreme, or outright repugnant become normalized and natural. The way things were done abroad becomes standard operating procedure for how government activities are carried out. Domestic citizens begin to be treated as foreign populations were treated. Whether the skills accumulated through coercive foreign interventions are explicit or implicit, the result is that advances in state-produced social control developed abroad are imported back to the intervening country.

The last channel is the one through which physical capital, like social capital, changes under the influence of interventionist policies: “Technological innovations allow governments to utilize lower-cost methods of social control with a greater reach not only over foreign populations, but also over domestic citizens. Examples of such methods include but are not limited to surveillance and monitoring technologies, hardware and equipment for maintaining control of citizens, and weapons for killing enemies.”

Interventionist policies will require particular kinds of equipment and technologies, especially those that permit more efficient social control. Where there is (tax-financed) demand, there will be supply provided by the industrial side of the military-industrial complex.

In sum,

Together, the latter three channels cumulatively reinforce the initial centralization associated with coercive foreign intervention. The political center’s power is reinforced by the inflow of human and physical capital conducive to state-produced social control. The change in administrative dynamics leads to a shifting mentality whereby the expanded scope of activities undertaken by the center becomes standardized and normalized.

Coyne and Hall caution that none of these effects are automatic or instantaneous. Many factors can determine how and how fast the transformation of domestic policy may occur. Moreover, the changes are not necessarily irreversible, although they are likely to be costly and difficult to reverse. “The theory of the boomerang effect is one of stickiness and not necessarily of permanence,” Coyne and Hall write.

As I noted above, they apply these lessons to domestic surveillance, which they trace back to the US occupation of the Philippines and the repression of the Filipino rebellion after the Spanish-American War, and the militarization of local police departments, which they trace back to the US government’s conduct in World War II and the Vietnam War.

Coyne and Hall have performed a welcome service for all who value liberty and therefore distrust the state. Read their excellent work and deepen your knowledge of how foreign intervention threatens freedom at home.

Reprinted with permission from the Future of Freedom Foundation.

  • Walter Cole

    The article is excellent, excellent.

    Looking at things from outside America, where I happen to live, I ask myself if this Boomerang Effect is a good or a bad thing. Some would say that it is a sign of natural justice (Poetic Justice). The correct answer would be most certainly that anytime our foreign policy changes our domestic policy, it is a bad thing, a very bad thing. It is all so sad, but my fellow Americans will get out their flags and support the pathological liars running our government, again and again. Do they really deserve the continuous degradation of their society? America has become a nation of public beggars, borrowing trillions of dollars to fight its illegal and immoral wars, wars which directly add to our already unpayable national debt, the decline of the middle class and creation of more poor, the collapse of our physical infrastructure, a continued non-existing healthcare system for millions of citizens, our diminishing education, our increasing incarceration of citizens, while having one of the worst crime rates in the entire world, our loss of human and constitutional rights, etc upon nauseating etc. But they, the citizens of that strange country will continue to wave their flags and bomb brown peoples, support dictatorships, break up governments…and the boomerang effect will demand its rightful place in American society. We cannot fight it, all wars by all countries, act to take away their citizens rights, and the good news is that sometimes those rights are restored, that too is true – this war against ISIS is going to be a very long war, we are being told, which means we will lose more and more rights for a longer and longer time. So, although it makes the people out there who don´t like America very happy to see it happen to America, it really makes no difference who is right – poetic justice just is, like gravity, it is natural law.

    We are a sick and confused people, creating an even sicker society. When will the madness end?

  • Mojo

    USA social economic system is based on capitalism, USG social political system based on capitalis and one can not exist without the other. In reality such combination creates the breathing ground for state militarism, or fascism or militarization of the nation, USG is part of the process by bein at war all the time for last 60 years. Beside that the retthoric of USG being a democratic social institution is no longer there nor is functioning as such, many people, politicians or otherwise been warning Americans about the matters, hence one after another been silenced by USG getting into a new war. President Rosevelt was one of them.

  • Mojo

    Creation: USG social political system based on militarism.

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