Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Why Governments Go Off the Rails

| Oct. 07, 2022

Even well-meaning leaders can make disastrous policy decisions.

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 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?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Why Governments Go Off the Rails.” Foreign Policy, October 7, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt