Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Outsourcing Foreign Policy – The Reality and the Challenge

One Nation Under Contract:
The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy
By Allison Stanger
Yale University Press, 2009

Allison Stanger, the author of One Nation Under Contract, is a progressive and an optimist. In her new book she paints a shocking picture of escalating private-contractor control over the U.S. foreign policy and homeland security. But she believes that good government can reassert itself over the outsourcing process.

What is more, Stanger posits that the globalization of communications and economics creates the potential for an “empire of the willing,” which can leverage the public-private partnership in exciting new ways. This won’t be a radical break with the past “but instead a step forward in a progression initiated long ago.” It will be a globalization of an enlightened self-interest, pointing to the philanthropy of Bill Gates, the work of Greg Mortensen (author of Three Cups of Tea) in Afghanistan, the Clinton Global Initiative, and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines as trailblazers.

The “empire of the willing” inspired by its ideals – “economic freedom, equality of opportunity, and sustainability” – is no utopian notion, writes Stanger. She points to the sweep of human history that has pushed forward the “expansion of identity and empathy from local to ever more encompassing structures.” Once common and accepted, she points out that second-class rights for minorities and women, slavery, and child sweatshop labor are now widely regarded as moral transgressions and illegal.

Obstructing this new progressive empire is an outsourcing system that has recklessly shifted control of inherently government functions to private contractors and where government has been hollowed out. The empires subjects -- its willing are -- range from “the governments of liberal democracies to beleaguered individuals in distant lands,”

Although many may view skeptically the possibility that this empire of the willing could become the dominant force in global affairs, this critical examination of foreign policy outsourcing is likely to rally echoes of support and indignation among most readers. Whether one is an optimist or pessimist, democratic socialist or ardent capitalist, progressive or conservative, Stanger’s careful presentation and clear writing is bound to appeal. In addition, her big-picture thinking about the potential and pitfalls of private-public partnerships – and their essential, unavoidable role in a globalized world – is certain to provoke rethinking among all but the most dogmatic, ideological of readers.

Her central conclusion about the outsourcing boom in foreign policy and homeland security is that the private contractors who swindle, abuse, pilfer, and pervade government are not the fundamental problem. Rather, government is where the problem begins and where it must end.

Don’t scapegoat the contractors, she cautions. “The problem is the loss of good government. If the contractors in Iraq seem wildly expensive, it is not because corporate greed has dictated outcomes but because government’s aspirations there have been far too ambitious and its controls too few.” Typical of her precise formulations, Stanger writes, “Business can be hired to solve problems, but there are some problems that only government can solve, since business absent good government will always sacrifice sustainability to short-term gain.”

What’s needed, writes Stanger, is a national discussion about which functions of government should never be outsourced and on the proper ends of government. Once that theoretical base and its accompanying ground rules are established, then the public-private partnership can be a tremendous multiplier force that serves the public good. “Government cannot lead if it refuses to take responsibility for what it has been called into being to do,” she argues, while summarizing the history of the right-wing ideological forces, the downsizing/reinventing government trends, and political cronyism that have diffused the core functions of government over the past several decades.

Yet it has been the past decade when the trend became a crisis in foreign policy. “Contract spending more than doubled during President Bush’s time in office,” she observes. By 2007 “the federal government was spending more than 40 cents of every discretionary dollar on contracts with private companies.” Noting that privatization is not the creation of any single administration, Stanger goes on to say that the “Bush administration took us into uncharted territory with its laizzez-faire outsourcing practices.”

Proper attention must be given to the question of “how government should optimally collaborate with the private sector to advance its international interests” and how to set us on a course toward “strategic outsourcing with appropriate oversight.”

Although published by an academic press and benefiting from careful scholarship and extensive referencing, One Nation Under Contract is largely free of the type of academic jargon and labored arguments that burden the academic press. Stanger often comes right to the point with straightforward, hard-hitting language, such as: “In this new world, the private sector increasingly handles the everyday business of government,” leaving no doubt how serious the outsourcing crisis is.

Stanger says that government outsourcing and private contracting “have combined to replace big government with a staggeringly large shadow government.” Just how large is this shadow government?

Stanger uses the example of Lockheed Martin to give readers a sense of the monstrous scale of the shadow government that now fills the spaces left by the “hollowing out of government.” Lockheed, the largest federal contractor, the top DOD contractor (and a leading contractor for Homeland Security, intelligence, and Energy) “gets more federal money each year than the Departments of Justice or Energy.”

The book’s conclusion lays out a list of recommendations designed to ensure that government becomes the controlling party to the public-private partnership. These recommendations include calls for more transparency in contracting, more oversight and accountability, and an end to no-bid contracts. Yet Stanger, much to her credit, doesn’t stop with proposed bureaucratic reforms but goes right to the rotten core of federal government outsourcing, namely the security budgets. “American power must be demilitarized,” Stanger concludes, arguing that, among other things, “the empire of the willing’s vitality is compromised by ill-conceived wars.”

One Nation Under Contract has some weaknesses. Like many researchers and analysts, Stanger apparently came to the issue of outsourcing in the wake of DOD/contractor abuses and excesses in Iraq and thus is strongest when looking at Pentagon practices. Unfortunately, the brand new world of outsourcing intelligence is all but ignored in the book, and her chapter on outsourcing in the newly created Department of Homeland Security is the weakest in the book. It’s a new area for her and it shows in the absence of original analysis and over-reliance on secondary sources.

There have other books that expose and lament the privatization of the military, but in One Nation Under Contract Stanger gives the reader more than scandal and abuse. She convincing argues that the consolidating public-private partnership in government and global affairs has transcended the liberal international/realism dynamic that frames traditional foreign policy discussions.

While presenting us with a dismal picture of current governance, she leaves us with a path forward. Whether good government can prevail over private contractors is not known. Most would probably say doubtful. But without the hope that the voters and their representatives can reclaim government from the outsourcers and mercenaries, we will truly be living in a nation defined and directed not by its citizens but by its contracts.

Graphic: Illustration from CACI, major defense, intelligence, and homeland security contractor.

Funds are running low. With no foundation grants or institutional support, Tom Barry and the TransBorder Project of the Center for International Policy count on individual financial support to continue this investigative, analytical, and advocacy work. 

Go to the CIP online donation page, and write TransBorder Fellowship in comment section when making your donation. Or mail a check to CIP, noting this project. Thank you!

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