The Duck of Minerva

Asshole Theory of US Foreign Policy: A Primer

12 March 2019

This is a guest post from Paul Poast, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.

Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.That was Churchill’s summary of US foreign policy. After US President Trump’s call for “huge” monetary payments by allies hosting US troops, it seems the US is again pursuing “other possibilities.” Just as complaints about  “free-riding” allies are a regular occurrence, the US poorly treating its allies is not new.

Many have lamented “American hubris”, but US foreign policy too often goes a step further. The US can be “annoying and detestable”; a.k.a. an asshole. Indeed, one could say “being an asshole” is a core tenet of US foreign policy.

Like Trump’s proposed policy, the US “being an asshole” usually involves exploiting an ally’s security concerns in order to gain economically. Its leveraged “issue-linkage.” Consider just a few examples from the past 100 years:

In what way do these actions and actions like them mean the US is pursuing “an asshole foreign policy”? Philosopher Aaron James literally wrote the book on assholes.  For James, an asshole “in interpersonal or cooperative relations” has three traits:

  • Allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
  • Does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement;
  • Is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.

Being an asshole is different than simply taking a kid’s lunch money or making him do your homework (that’s a Biff Tannen bully).

It’s also different than taking the lunch money and then punching the kid in the stomach: “adding insult to injury” just for the sake of “adding insult to injury” (that’s just Cobra Kai sadistic).

Also, don’t confuse it with just being arrogant (as Derek can tell us all about).

Instead, being an asshole is better thought of as demanding that someone do something simply because you know that they have no other choice (think, the Bill Lumbergh school of management).[

In other words, being an asshole relates to how you treat subordinates: assholes take advantage of those with less power simply because they can. Moreover, assholes believe there will be no consequences for their actions.

Applying James’ idea to foreign policy and international relations, an “asshole foreign policy” pertains to how a country relates to allies and trade partners with whom it has a “power asymmetry”. An asshole foreign policy is coercive hegemony, with the additions that (1) you don’t have to be a hegemon to behave this way, and (2) the state is seeking to gain additional benefit simply because, well, it can (not necessarily for the purpose of upholding the system that is to its benefit). An asshole foreign policy is not just coercive, it’s exploitive. It’s “why settle for a military base, when I can ALSO force you to pay for the base”. Not to go too deep, but one could say that it’s a form of “ontological security”: a state engaging in demonstrations of superiority as a means of reaffirming the state’s unique identity.  Absent such demonstrations, the state would just be “normal”.

Because an “asshole foreign policy” pertains to relations with allies and “junior partners”, it is not the same as “a realist foreign policy”.  A realist foreign policy is about security competition among states. Under such competition, strategic rivals will likely disrespect one another and seek advantages through relative gains. Going back on your word against a strategic rival is just standard power politics. So is seeking primacy, whereby a state aims to prevent the rise of competitive rivals. An “asshole foreign policy” goes a step further: you can take excessive advantage of partners because you believe it will not compromise your security or harm your ability to maximize wealth.

A few years ago, Thomas Wells usefully laid down the components of a Theory of `Asshole’ Nationalism in IR. He distinguished “partial assholes” (those nations that are assholes in a certain issue area, but not an asshole all the time and in every domain), from “half-assed assholes” (those nations who can’t quite pull off the “not caring” or do not have the clout to pull it off), from “complete assholes” (nations that take across-the-board ruthless and systematic advantage of cooperative norms).

It’s likely a stretch to say that the US is a “complete asshole”.  But there is little doubt that throughout its history the US has exhibited “asshole like tendencies” in its foreign policy.  The essence of an “asshole theory of US foreign policy” is to not be surprised when the US treats its allies and trade partners with contempt.

How does an “asshole theory of US foreign policy” square with, say, the post-World War II US led efforts to create the United Nations and other institutions of the so-called “Liberal International Order”?  Well, in true asshole fashion, it might have been done to entrench US dominance while making people think it’s not all that bad (and while some good has come from the order, there was definitely bad).

Yes, the apparent foreign policy motto of the Trump Administration, when applied to relations with allies, perfectly embodies an “asshole US foreign policy”. But as the above examples illustrate, the Trump administration is not unique in this regard. American assholery is a product of the long held belief that America is “indispensable” and “exceptional”.  This belief, in turn, feeds an attitude that America can do what it wants “because we’ve got the bomb, that’s why”.