Washington’s dysfunctional politics hamper foreign policy

A dysfunctional federal government produces a dysfunctional foreign policy.
Tuesday 13/11/2018
President Donald Trump stands amongst the headstones during an American Commemoration Ceremony at Suresnes American Cemetery near Paris, on November 11. (AP)
President Donald Trump stands amongst the headstones during an American Commemoration Ceremony at Suresnes American Cemetery near Paris, on November 11. (AP)

The United States is becoming a politically dysfunctional country, a trend that the November 6 midterm elections will accelerate. I am referring to the federal government in Washington; many local and municipal governments run smoothly.

I am not saying that the government is falling apart. The oft-derided bureaucracy does a great job of keeping the lights on. I am referring to the federal government as a policy-making body that sets a national agenda, addresses pressing problems and watches the horizon for challenges.

Washington no longer does any of these things. Some of these tasks can be conducted by state and local governments; California, for example, has pledged to abide by the Paris climate accord that the Trump administration withdrew from.

However, in foreign policy, Washington has full constitutional responsibility, which means that a dysfunctional federal government produces a dysfunctional foreign policy, one devoid of strategic vision, inconsistent, contradictory and subject to radical change after every US election cycle.

Compounding the problem of a dysfunctional political system is the current dysfunctional administration, one whose senior officials spend many of their waking hours reacting to the president’s erratic comments and behaviour.

On November 6, Democrats won control of the US House of Representatives, meaning that US President Donald Trump will face a divided legislature. Much has been written about how the Democratic House will increase pressure on Vladimir Putin’s Russia, curtail arms sales to Saudi Arabia and limit the president’s ability to take military action against Iran.

It is also widely assumed that Democrats will undertake extensive corruption investigations of Trump and other administration officials. Significant administration energy over the next two years will be devoted to legal battles, not to running the country.

The problem runs even deeper. The United States has no coherent strategic vision about the world and is not prepared to respond to strategic surprises. Casimir Yost, former director of the Strategic Futures Group at the US National Intelligence Council, said: “The United States is experiencing a steady erosion of its pre-eminent global position [and] the Trump administration has further eroded America’s position in the world by withdrawing from previously concluded agreements and by confronting our allies on trade and other issues. Today, all elements of US power are contested.”

“Trump himself seems to be driving decisions with strategic implications from the top down,” Yost said, “and too frequently without adequate staffing or appreciation of the unanticipated consequences of these decisions.”

The administration has shown an almost complete disregard for expertise. Shockingly, Trump still has not appointed ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan, among other countries.

Yost wrote “Grand Strategy and Strategic Surprise,” a report distributed to a limited audience on November 7 by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

Yost argues that the Trump administration is not prepared for “multiple, significant and competing challenges” it will face on the world stage, many of which will appear as surprises because “senior officials struggle to stay on top of current issues and current bureaucratic battles, leaving little time for anticipation of what may be coming down the pike.”

Divided government will intensify political battles and divert more attention from global challenges. Over the next two years, Democrats in Congress will do all they can to ensure that Trump does not win re-election in 2020. The prospects for consensus on any issues — domestic or foreign — are slim.

Even if Trump is defeated in 2020, strategic coherence will not necessarily improve. Trump was the fourth president in a row — following Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — who arrived with minimal foreign policy expertise and who campaigned on a domestic agenda. All four were elected because they vowed to “change Washington” — in Trump’s parlance, “drain the swamp.”

The result? “Over this period,” Yost said, “the United States has seen a dramatic decline in its global influence and reputation from the heady days following the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 to May 2017 when German Chancellor Angela Merkel opined that Europe could no longer rely on the United States.”

The United States has become so politically polarised that candidates for higher office focus on catering to their political base, however narrow, rather than pondering a coherent grand strategy for the country.

Yost’s conclusion is disturbing: “The United States has become a geostrategic variable itself — an uncertain force on the world scene, a power that appears hesitant to lead or cooperate.”

No improvement is in sight. In fact, the November 6 election outcome will worsen the trend.

The United States remains the world’s most powerful country, overwhelmingly so in military terms, but the days are over when America can assume that its resilience will make up for dysfunction. “Quite simply,” Yost said, “the US must take the burdens of global leadership more seriously or go the way of past great powers.”