When Foreign Policy Comes Home: The Boomerang Effect

Release Date
July 24, 2017


Economics Government

The skills and technologies the US government develops to control foreign populations can boomerang back and be used against Americans. For the full interview click here.

    1. Foreign Policy Explained, Ep. 4: The Boomerang Effect (video): Prof. Abby Hall describes the boomerang effect in more detail. 
    2. Foreign Policy Explained, Ep. 3: Torture & Police Brutality in America by the Government (video): Prof. Abby Hall explains how the use of torture in foreign conflict has crept into criminal justice back home. 
    3. After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy (video): Prof. Chris Coyne lends an economist’s eye to the subject of foreign policy, specifically post-conflict reconstruction. 

Dave Rubin: Quickly, let’s boomerang back to foreign policy, and then we’re going to move onto something else. I say boomerang, and you know why, because you talk about the boomerang theory. Can you explain what this is?
Abby Hall: The theory is looking at the relationship between foreign intervention and domestic policy consequences. One thing with foreign intervention is that people tend to try to put foreign policy and domestic policy into two completely different spheres, so foreign policy is just that. It’s over there. No consequences domestically whatsoever. What we argue though is that you really can’t make that distinction, and in fact, foreign intervention can and does have a very real impact domestically. For those people who are concerned with issues of scale and scope of government, or people who are interested in issues of civil liberties, foreign intervention is something we really need to be paying attention to. What we call our framework is the boomerang effect, so explaining how it is that foreign intervention serves as a testing ground for new types of social control techniques and how those techniques ultimately wind up back in the US.
Dave Rubin: Yeah, so can you give me an example? Is there like an example from the Iraq War that maybe would play out for us?
Abby Hall: The war on terror, more broadly speaking, is a pretty good example of how some of these policies have wound up being used in the US. In the book, we talk about a few different examples, so surveillance is one of them. We talk about domestic police militarization and that’s connection to foreign intervention. Talk about the use of drones domestically in the United States and that foreign connection. There are a lot of different examples.
Dave Rubin: In the cases like that, like something like drones and something like surveillance, basically the argument is that we test this stuff out across the world and then we bring it home and use it against ourselves here. Is that test run, is that just the government’s way of we start hearing these words and it’s about protection or something and that slowly we then just acquiesce to it happening right here?
Abby Hall: Yeah. It’s not necessarily one of those we are doing this explicitly abroad to try to do it at home, but one thing that we can see in the US is that if you look at a spectrum of functioning governments, whether you like it or not, US government relatively well constrained, relatively well functioning compared to what else is out there. However, if you take the US, and other governments too for that matter, outside of their own geographic boundaries, their constraints are much weaker or altogether absent. There are lots of US interventions, for example, including things like the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which are done without approval of the UN, and yet, there are no sanctions for that.
You go out, you are facing, you being government, facing weaker or absent constraints, and so you can maybe try things and do things that would not fly domestically, but that doesn’t mean that those things don’t wind up showing up back at home. One way is through what we call human capital, so just the skills that people possess. In order to be successful in a foreign intervention, whatever your role is, you have to either possess or develop particular skills and characteristics. When you finish with that foreign intervention, the individuals who were involved, they don’t suddenly forget that knowledge. They bring it back with them.
This relates to the administrative dynamics of the organizations in which these individuals operate, whether that’s a public enterprise or a private enterprise. They may be well known for a particular skill or it may just be the attitudes that have been cultivated as a result of these foreign interventions that they then bring back with them and implement into these organizations.
Physical capital, so the kinds of technologies that are developed. Drones is a prime example. Drones are developed for use abroad, been used for a really long time, but extensively throughout the war on terror. People come back from these interventions, they see the potential use for this technology that they have become very accustomed to, and then push to have them used domestically.