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Reviewed by:
  • The Political Economy of Grand Strategy
  • Peter Liberman
Kevin Narizny, The Political Economy of Grand Strategy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2007. 329 pp. $24.95.

In this superb book, Kevin Narizny argues that ruling political parties’ sectoral economic interests determine great-power grand strategies. Building on research on American sectionalism (pioneered by Richard F. Bensel and Peter Trubowitz) and several histories of British imperialism, Narizny widens the sectoral political-economy approach to explain a greater range of U.S. and British foreign policies over a longer span of time, from the mid-nineteenth century until the Second World War.

The theory predicts that sectors benefiting least from trade are averse to costly and assertive foreign policies and favor isolationism. At the other extreme, military officers, military industries, colonial bureaucrats, and exporters and investors dependent on sheltered markets should favor imperialist policies vis-à-vis the periphery, along with realpolitik strategies to protect the empire from other great powers. Competitive exporters to the periphery favor an interventionist policy to assure access to peripheral markets, but they oppose the costly imperial control required for preferential access. In contrast, sectors depending on commerce with other great powers favor internationalist grand strategies, which Narizny assumes would entail the promotion of international law and collective security. One wonders, however, whether this assumption is inductively derived from Anglo-American history. Narizny provides little argument to demonstrate that international institutions are indeed the best hope for great-power peace and trade.

According to Narizny, political coalitions recognize their own economic interests and know how to promote them, and they pursue compromise policies when representing multiple sectors with divergent interests. Interest aggregation is facilitated by institutions such as party primaries and conventions in the case of the United States, and by party leadership elections in the case of Great Britain. These institutions elevate leaders who are committed to pursuing the coalition’s economic interests.

Unlike realist theory, which derives state preferences from national rather than sectoral coalition interests, the political-economy approach can account for partisan disagreements and, more importantly, for changes in grand strategy corresponding to alternations in ruling political coalitions. But the central predictions of Narizny’s political-economy theory do not diverge dramatically from those of realism. Sectors and coalitions, being rational, wealth-seeking entities, are sensitive to systemic and resource constraints. In democracies, where political coalitions must obtain electoral majorities to rule, the interests of ruling coalitions and those of the nation will overlap a good deal.

As a result, Narizny’s specific predictions often have a realist ring. For example, he predicts that several factors around the turn of the century—the decline in Britain’s relative power, the shrinking opportunities for conquest, and the growing difficulty of suppressing anti-colonial resistance—would spur British Liberal Imperialists (representing [End Page 152] declining industries thirsting for protected markets) and Conservatives (representing capital invested in the colonies and military-industrial-colonial interests) to retreat from a grand strategy of imperial expansion to one of “entrenchment.”

Narizny’s most valuable contribution is his systematic testing of his hypotheses to see how well they explain U.S. and British grand strategies during the period covered by the book. He marshals convincing statistics on the foreign economic interests of the main political parties involved. Drawing on a wealth of secondary historical literatures, he then painstakingly reports how well the parties’ actual platforms and each government’s peripheral and great-power strategies match his theoretical predictions. Narizny’s command of these literatures is impressive, and he offers convincing evidence of partisan variation in foreign policy preferences and decisions. However, the policy disagreements and swings are generally limited (e.g., how many battleships should be produced rather than whether any should be produced at all), and Narizny does not go so far as to argue that political-economy incentives lead states to adopt nationally sub-optimal policies, although he might have done so in the case of Britain’s reluctant retreat from its increasingly overstretched empire.

Narizny critiques the view (advanced most recently by Mark Haas) that chalks partisan differences up to ideology. A dyed-in-the-wool materialist, Narizny views ideologies as rhetorical rationalizations for policies serving coalition...


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pp. 152-154
Launched on MUSE
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