High-Cost Diplomacy

by Reihan Salam

Charles Kenny offers an amusing litany of seemingly extravagant expenditures in the course of calling for the abolition of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including the following:

The DHS also runs the U.S. Secret Service, an agency that just spent an estimated $100 million guarding a weeklong presidential trip to Africa. That would be more than the entire economic output of Tanzania during Barack Obama’s visit. The Secret Service traveled around the continent with 56 vehicles, including three trucks full of bulletproof glass. The cancellation of a planned Obama family safari at least meant there was no need for the assault team armed with high-caliber rounds against the threat of Taliban-sympathizing cheetahs.

But of course the cost of the president’s visit to Tanzania is a broader reflection of the fact that it is relatively expensive for firms in affluent countries to engage in labor-intensive endeavors in less-affluent countries, like diplomacy or (a far more extreme case) counter-insurgency operations. The harder question to answer is whether the benefits outweigh the costs. Would U.S. influence erode in East Africa if the president of the U.S. did not make occasional in-person visits to the region, or if we thinned the number of diplomatic personnel? And if U.S. influence did indeed decline in East Africa, should we care? My inclination is to think that it would and that we should, but this is definitely not a no-brainer. I would be delighted if there were some stats guru toiling away in the White House, working on identifying the lowest-cost diplomatic missions that promise the highest return. Given the limits of our knowledge, such an endeavor would probably amount to little more than voodoo. (Or perhaps we should replace the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with the U.S. Department of Voodoo Studies.)

And though Kenny’s case against security theater is well-taken, it’s not clear to me that we would yield significant dividends from a deconsolidation of DHS. Though there is a compelling case that we should never have created the agency in the first place, striking a symbolic blow against a culture of fear is not quite enough to merit the expense of yet another reorg. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.