Saturday, September 15, 2012

Can Political Regime Theory Explain National Security?

Stephen Griffin

I’ve been puzzling over this question after completing a book on war powers.  By political regime theory, I mean a theory like Stephen Skowronek’s that locates presidencies in a special explanatory frame of reference.  Skowronek calls it “political time,” and it has to do with the relationship of each president to the reigning political coalition or regime.

The trouble is, determining what regime reigns gets more difficult as we get closer to the present.  In the deep past, the existence of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian regimes seems clear enough.  How do we tell what the current regime is?  Skowronek says the regime is constituted by the dominant coalition of what he calls “ideology and interest.”  Let’s stipulate for the moment that the last “reconstructive” presidency was Reagan’s.  This was the time when the last old regime was overthrown and a new one took power.

Now how does this relate to national security?  Consider the many recent authors who argue that national security policy has been stuck in a Cold War, big-military time warp for decades – Andrew Bacevich and Rachel Maddow come to mind and this kind of critique is clearly implicated in Mary Dudziak’s recent interesting history of War Time as well as older works such as Michael Hogan’s A Cross of Iron.  It is related to the concept of the persisting “Cold War constitutional order” I advance in Long Wars and the Constitution.  It is also implicated in many critiques of the “imperial presidency.”  While Skowronek pretty thoroughly dynamited the concept of the imperial presidency in a recent critique, at least from a political (as opposed to a rule of law) point of view, he has not engaged with the permanence of America’s general stance in national security.

Surely a political regime consists of both a reigning political coalition and the set of government institutions it inherits.  In his 2008 update of his theory, Skowronek referred to the “regime-based structure of American political history, the recurrent establishment and disintegration of relatively durable sets of commitments across broad swaths of time.”  But for national security, there has been a notable lack of disintegration.  The post-1945 national security order outlasted the New Deal regime and, in truth, has already outlasted the Reagan regime.  Although it has hit various speed bumps, it has never fallen out of political favor, especially in comparison with the sort of domestic programs that were at the heart of the New Deal and Great Society. 

How did this substantial policy commitment manage to cross the boundary line between political regimes?  Historians have shown that President Carter trod an essentially Cold War path with respect to defense policy, even prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan late in his presidency.  Many of the leading defense initiatives of the Reagan administration in fact began under Carter.  Evidently, the notion that Carter was presiding over a decaying regime does not apply to national defense.  If anything, he reinvigorated the Cold War order.  What was actually decaying was the chance that post-Vietnam, America would make meaningful changes in how it handled national security and defense policy.  So are broad areas of policy immune to the effects of regime change?  If so, what is the explanation?  It is here that Skowronek’s theory begins to show some limitations.  Although Skowronek invokes the relevance of the Constitution and the changing framework provided by government institutions, he does not well articulate their role in his theory.

To overcome this problem, I contend we need the idea of a constitutional order.  In other words, we have to bring the Constitution and the institutions created under it into the theoretical picture in a meaningful way.  A constitutional order is a reciprocal relationship among several elements: the text of the Constitution, the “supreme law of the land,” the political and policy objectives of state officials, elites and the public (Skowronek’s “ideology and interest”), and the capacities of state institutions.  Reciprocity means that as one element undergoes historical change, the other elements can change as well.  So the Constitution of course influences the capacities of state institutions.  But history shows this also works in reverse.  In fact, this reverse reciprocity is particularly relevant to the history of national security and war powers.

Another way to develop this point is that I believe Skowronek should have stuck with his original insight that the phenomenon of political time was waning as Reagan took office.  Skowronek tends to admit that Reagan’s supposed “reconstruction” was only partial in nature when he describes it directly, but he then later assimilates Reagan into the pantheon of reconstructive presidents including Lincoln and Roosevelt.  This lacks a certain amount of plausibility.  Skowronek accurately described a gradual “thickening” in the institutional order over time, making it more difficult for presidents to be truly reconstructive.  This should have also meant that the presidents operating in Reagan’s shadow had their own difficulties operating within his reconstruction and handling a complex set of state institutions.  This points toward a framework for analyzing episodes like Iran-contra and the constitutional issues that troubled the Bush II presidency that is more fruitful than Skowronek’s.

So take this as a partial manifesto.  To analyze the problems left to us by the Cold War constitutional order, we need to move away from political regime theory as it has been traditionally conceived.  Constitutional orders are in part institutional orders and are thus independent of changes in regime.  More emphasis is needed on the Constitution itself as a generator of institutional order (or tension) within a historical context.  And among the contexts we need to study further, we must deepen our understanding of the early Cold War if we are to understand the enormous legacy it has left for what always appears to be changing political times.

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