Snyder: Myths of empire
Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I even say who wrote them. If you have more recent summaries to add to this collection, send them my way I guess. Sorry for the ads; they cover the costs of keeping this online.
Snyder. 1991. Myths of empire: Domestic politics and international ambition. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Key Y: Imperialism
Key X: Coalition behavior (logrolling) and ideology
[most of what's below if just taken from the handout, with reformatting]
Politicians often justify expansionism with three arguments that Snyder calls "myths":
- Domino Theory ï¿½ Cumulative gains: One loss will lead to many losses and conquests will always increase power.
- Offensive Advantage: in military interaction the first to strike has a large advantage.
- Paper Tigers and Bandwagons: adversaries are easily defeated with threats and states will bandwagon rather than balance (is the later really a myth?)
Not only are these three ideas false, but the expected value of further expansion actually turns negative at some point, for two reasons:
- expansion causes self-encirclement/balancing
- valuable conquests disappear (i.e. what's left, Clipperton?) and administrative costs rise as territory grows
The puzzle: if these three arguments really are myths, then why do so many decision-makers cling to them? Why don't they recognize the two problems listed above?
Before presenting his own explanation of this puzzle, Snyder summarizes the answers given by other schools of thought (from handout):
- Realist Explanation: Expansionism may be costly, but non-expansionism can be even more costly in some situations. However, Snyder notes that this contradicts one of the core tenets of realism, that aggressive behavior is punished through balancing. In addition, he claims that the error of over-expansion is more common than the error of under-expansion (I'd like to see the test for that assertion!). The existence of risk acceptant leaders does not explain why this error is so common because defensive options are usually seen as the most risky by expansionists.
- Cognitive Explanation: These hold that politicians reduce lessons to schematic, ossified maxims that persist in the face of disconfirming evidence, thus leaders that experience success using expansionists strategies, may continue to do so even when they no longer work . Snyder thinks this explanation is weak because history clearly shows that over-expansion fails and the lessons of history are chosen rather than produced.
- Domestic Political Explanations: 1) Over-expansion hurts society as a whole but benefits can be concentrated in the hands of a few. The more state power is concentrated in their hands, the more a state will pursue self-defeating aggression. 2) Expansion is used to defuse domestic turmoil because elites benefit from nationalism. The problem for these explanations is explaining how narrow interests gain control of the state and why the leaders of the state will pursue policies that ultimately hurt them.
Snyder's explanation of this puzzle: a different domestic political explanation:
Coalition Logrolling and Coalition Ideology:
Snyder claims that the myths of empire arise out of coalitions of interests that logroll (trade) various policy choices and use a nationalist/expansionist ideology to justify these policies. In other words, narrow interests gain power by joining logrolling coalitions, trading favors so that each group get what it wants; expansionism becomes a choice that all members of the coalition support even if it is not their first preference. In order to ensure the stability of the coalition powerful myths of expansion get generated that come to have a life of their own.
Two nice features of the Coalition Logrolling and Ideology explanation:
- The extent to which they develop depends on domestic institutions. Democracies tend to diffuse rather than concentrate the power of interests (as compared to autocracies).
- It predicts why different states facing the same external conditions choose different strategies.