Sunday, November 07, 2010

Why the US Sucks at Foreign Affairs

I’m sure that the title of this post seems inflammatory at first glance, and I suppose in some ways it is.  However, I spent a lot of time in politics classes as an undergrad, and while this doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, I think one of my professors made a very good case as to why the US is, in fact, not very good at managing foreign affairs.  The notes that prompted this post are actually the same as those that led to my earlier post on isolationism and come courtesy of Professor Allen Lynch and his class Domestic Politics and US Foreign Policy.

During one lecture, Prof. Lynch pointed out that, all in all, democracies are not set up well for foreign affairs.  Alexander de Tocqueville discussed this first in his famous work ­­­Democracy in America, when he argued that conducting foreign affairs requires a specific set of virtues that democracies inherently lack.  These are: speed of decision making, secrecy of decision making (to allow for flexibility in negotiations) and tactical flexibility (the ability to shift positions rapidly as circumstances change and compromise is needed).  Now, you can argue that Congress is good at a number of things, but these three are probably not on that list.

In fact, recognition of these weaknesses is clear in the way government is run and has been run since the birth of the nation.  The Founding Fathers, when dividing up the powers of government, were mainly focused on ensuring that power did not reside solely in central government or in a specific branch of it.  For instance, they accorded Congress with, among others, the following abilities: regulating foreign trade and commerce, issuing letters of marque (clearly not a duty that is important today), initiating war, and raising and supporting armies.  This meant that the executive branch could not send the country to war.  However, the Founding Fathers also recognized the issues that this division of power would cause in negotiating international affairs, as committees do not possess the necessary traits for such duties.  They responded to this problem by having a very minimal foreign policy, a move which, to quote directly from my notes, “eased tension between the requirements of diplomacy and the structure of democracy”. 

Avoiding the problem like that does not, however, solve it, and more attempts have been made to do so over the past two hundred years or so.  Perhaps the most striking of these is the existence of “fast track” authority, where Congress agrees not to exercise its Constitutional rights and instead votes the president the authority to negotiate trade agreements, reserving only the ability to vote yes or no on the resulting agreement.  This prevents the deadlock that can occur when multilateral agreements are debated in a committee, but is still a cumbersome workaround.

This problem is one that faces all democracies, not just the United States, but is made worse by another interesting trait of American history.  In foreign affairs, Americans demonstrate a strong tendency to focus on negatives and threats, to such a degree that, when the threat disappears, all cohesive foreign policy goes with it.  This could be seen at the end of World War I with the failure of the League of Nations, and was also demonstrated clearly at the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

In fact, focus on successful foreign affairs is often so low that presidents have lost reelection campaigns based on their accomplishments in this area.  After George Bush Sr. oversaw the fall of the Soviet Union, this achievement of his presidency at least partially led him to his defeat by Bill Clinton, as no real “need” was seen for effective foreign management, particularly in contrast to Clinton’s focus on the economy. (It’s the economy, stupid).  In broader terms, American politicians do not receive any positive benefit (political capital) from managing foreign affairs well but can lose a great deal of influence or political capital if they make a mistake.  Because of this, focusing on foreign affairs has no real benefit to most politicians, which results in it being pushed further to the background than the inherent characteristics of a democratic system already demand.

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