What if foreign countries could just bribe the American president?

Here is a Washington Post look at a related issue.  I know bribing a president is illegal and it just…sounds so wrong…but what exactly does the equilibrium look like?


Here are a few points:

1. Presumably the wealthier countries would be willing to pay more for American security guarantees.

2. Countries whose wealth can be easily captured and controlled by hostile forces — oil exporters? — would be willing to pay more for protection.

3. Human rights would not matter so much for American security guarantees.

So far this is not sounding so different from the status quo.  Let’s continue:

4. A selfish president might capture income from hard-to-defend countries, not internalizing the higher costs for the U.S. taxpayer.  So American guarantees could extend too far and wide from an American perspective, although it is not obvious they will do so from a cosmopolitan perspective.

5. Presumably the president also could accept funds not to defend various nations.  So large, wealthy foreign aggressors could “buy out” the United States from defending say Georgia or Taiwan.  That sounds terrible, and perhaps it is from a cosmopolitan standpoint.  But is it contrary to the U.S. national interest?  Keep in mind if the United States becomes non-credible altogether, it would be less able to extract payments from Israel, South Korea, and other nations.  That means a bribed president may not “fold his hand” so quickly on all of these endangered small countries.  Alternatively, a bribed president may decide to let one of “the little ones” go just to prove a point to the others.

You’ll notice that #4 and #5 counteract each other.  I suspect this balance would be worse than the status quo, but that doesn’t follow a priori.

6. You could imagine an American president who allows foreign countries to fall into especially precarious situations to increase his budgetary intake from bribes.  The return to pre-emptive peace initiatives might be strongly negative.

7. An alternative perspective is that the American government already collects such bribes in the form of trade agreements, use of military bases, and so on.  The real problem is not bribery per se, but rather concentrating so many of the returns in the hands of the president.  Tariffs on American exports might go up, for instance, if the president is pocketing the bribes himself.

8. A worry is that bribes collected by a president would not lead to as much stability of policy as what might be generated by the decisions of “the foreign policy establishment.”  Perhaps commercial arrangements are intrinsically less stable than bureaucratically-generated policies.  A president’s utility function and game-theoretic behavior is probably harder to forecast than the wishes of the bureaucracy.  The resulting uncertainty would limit global trade and investment and also probably increase nuclear proliferation.  This strikes me as a major concern.

9. A related worry is that nations are so very large relative to the avaricious desires of the president.  After a small number of payments, the president might act fairly arbitrarily, as extra bribes wouldn’t matter much and the foreign policy establishment already has been cut out of the picture.  (Oddly it becomes less important if America has a truly greedy and rapacious president where the MU for money doesn’t much decline with presidential wealth.)

It is worth thinking through the dynamics on all this a little more clearly than what I am seeing so far.


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