A year ago your humble blogger penned a post suggesting that the United States was really, really, really super-bad at being an empire. Those who claim that the United States conducts all aspects of its foreign policy purely for profit need to cope with the fact that America really stinks at making a buck from its military actions. A year later, with respect to Afghanistan and Iraq, that assessment really hasn't changed: the United States investment in both of those countries remains a massive net loss. Even Libya doesn't seem to have panned out all that well as a money-making opportunity for Americans.
As a social scientist, however, I need to seek out potentially contradictory data points, and Matthew Brumwasser has a story in the New York Times about how one U.S. military action does seem to be yielding economic gains.... for the individual policymakers responsible for it:
So many former American officials have returned to Kosovo for business — in coal and telecommunications, or for lobbying and other lucrative government contracts — that it is hard to keep them from colliding.
They also include Wesley K. Clark, a retired Army general and the former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe who ran the bombing campaign against the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic; and Mark Tavlarides, who was legislative director at the Clinton White House’s National Security Council.
The State Department has no policy that forbids former diplomats from lobbying on behalf of nations where they served or returning to them for profit, beyond the one applying to federal employees as a whole, which prohibits senior officials from contacting agencies where they once worked for one year and bans all federal employees for life from advising on the same matters.
Kosovo is not the only nation where former officials have returned to conduct business — Iraq is another example — but it presents an extreme case, and perhaps a special ethical quandary, given the outsize American influence here. Pristina, the capital, may be the only city in the world where Bob Dole Street intersects Bill Clinton Boulevard.
Foreign policy experts say the practice of former officials’ returning for business is more common than acknowledged publicly. Privately, former officials concede the possibility of conflicts of interest and even the potential to influence American foreign policy as diplomats who traditionally made careers in public service now rotate more frequently to lucrative jobs in the private sector.
If you read the whole story, however, you'll see that the correlation between ex-policymakers profiting and U.S. corporation profiting is not a perfect one. For example, the Slovenian firm IPKO hired Ms. Albright to be a "special advisor," no doubt to advance their burgeoning interests in Kosovo.
Still, this is a data point that suggests at least some Americans can make a profit off of successful military actions. Of course, contrary to the somewhat sinister tone of the story, I'm not sure that Americans are really screwing over the Kosovars in their hunt for government contracts and assets. Indeed, paradoxically, the very surfeit of ex-policymakers in Pristina means there's real competition among them for prime investments in Kosovo -- which means better terms for the Kosovars.
So yeah, I still think Americans are awful at empire-building.
What do you think?
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.