The Achilles heel of the foreign policy smart set

Here's an open secret -- most American foreign policy observers loathe domestic politics.  To those who seek to define and distill the national interest, the notion that factions or parties can get in the way of the common good is very, very frustrating.  This is why, whenever gridlock breaks out in Washington, there is a spasm of caterwauling from prominent foreign policy thinkers that Something.  Must.  Be  Done. 

This leads to some silly memes, like claims that a third party will break the logjam.  It won't -- a glance at Duverger's Law and you know that the first-past-the-post electoral system in this country means that a two-party system is the only stable long-term equilibrium.  A third party in the United States could only achieve electoral viability in one of two ways:  either supplanting one of the existing parties, or focusing on success in a particular region.  Since neither of these outcomes has occurred since the Civil War, I'm not holding my breath. 

Gridlock frustration also leads to proposals of Grand Diagnoses and Remedies for Fixing the System.  Fareed Zakaria goes down this road, offering a diagnosis of why partisanship has been rising in the United States and then links to Mickey Edwards' essay in The Atlantic of how to fix things.  Zakaria, riffing off of Edwards, lists four reasons why partisanship is so high: 

1)  Redistricting has created safe seats so that for most House members, their only concern is a challenge from the right for Republicans and the left for Democrats....

2) Party primaries have been taken over by small groups of activists who push even popular senators to extreme positions.

3) Changes in Congressional rules have also made it far more difficult to enact large, compromise legislation.

4) Political polarization has also been fueled by a new media, which is also narrowcast.

These sound compelling, except that A) none of them really explain increased polarization in the Senate; and B) only the fourth trend is in any way recent (the rest of these phenomenas can be traced back to the 1970's).   

The real problem with Congress is that any proposed institutional reform to correct the problems would require either a dilution of legislative power or a dilution of the minority's power to obstruct.  Neither minority nor majority parties in Congress will be interested in moves like that unless and until we're in a crisis that made 2008 look like a ripple in the pond. 

If you are looking to this humble blogger for ways out of this current problem... um... look elsewhere.  My training is in international relations, and I've found that people with that kind of training tend to prefer policy reforms that provide political leeway and insulation to the executive branch.  These measures are appealing because they tend to minimize the number of stupid interactions with galactically stupid members of Congress.  Over the long-term, however, even a stupid Congress still serves as a valuable check on executive branch authority. 

I'm as frustrated as the next foreign policy observer when it comes to the current policy paralysis.  I know my own kind, however, and we suffer from the flawed belief that there was a halcyon era of bipartisanship in the foreign policy days of yore.  Be very, very wary when a foreign policy pundit gives advice about how to reform the American system of government.  Most of the time they are relying on decades-old Introduction to American Government arguments that are either obsolecent or incentive incompatible. 

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Daniel W. Drezner

Why restoration ain't gonna work

Despite Fareed Zakaria's best efforts, it seems that foreign policy commentators can't stop offering advice on American grand strategy. 

Richard Haass provides the latest salvo in Time.  After arguing that no other great power can offer a serious revisionist challenge to the current system, concluding, "Today's great powers are not all that great."  With that set-up, he proposes a grand strategy of "Restoration": 

The U.S. would continue to carry out an active foreign policy—to create international arrangements to manage the challenges inherent in globalization, to invigorate alliances and partnerships, to deal with the threats posed by an aggressive North Korea, a nuclear-armed Iran and a failing Pakistan.

But under a doctrine of restoration, there would be fewer wars of choice—armed interventions when either the interests at stake are less than vital or when there are alternative policies that appear viable. Recent wars of choice include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the current Libyan intervention. There would, however, continue to be wars of necessity, which involve vital interests when no alternatives to using military force exist. Modern wars of necessity include the first Iraq war and Afghanistan after 9/11....

Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable, leaving the U.S. vulnerable either to market forces that could impose higher interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns.

Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.'s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions. The goal should be to reduce the deficit by some $300 billion per year until the budget is balanced but for interest payments on the debt.

Adopting a doctrine of restoration for several years would help the U.S. shore up the economic foundations of its power.

Over at Democracy Arsenal, Jacob Stokes thinks restoration (or some variant of it) sounds peachy: 

[Hasss' argument is] derivative of what journalist Peter Beinart called a “solvency doctrine” back in 2009. He wrote, “No matter what grand visions Obama may harbor to remake the world, the central mission of his foreign policy--at least at first--will be to get it out of the red.” None of these plans or explanations is perfect, of course, but taken together, they seem to me good starting points for what a grand strategy for the U.S. should look like, namely a focus on tending to the sources of American power rather than on making more commitments that draw on it.

Color me skeptical.  It's not that I don't like the ideas behind Haass' argument -- they're sympatico with a welter of realpolitik-friendly strategies that have been promulgated at regular intervals

There are two currently insurmountable political problems with Haass' strategy, however.  The first is that it is ridiculously hard for the U.S. government to draw down military commitments -- particularly if the U.S. military doesn't want to do it.  It's worth remembering that Barack Obama entered office with a worldview that closely matched Haass' restoration idea -- and yet, in the end, he expanded U.S. operations in Afghanistan and attacked Libya to boot.  The U.S. military strongly supported the former, while Obama's foreign policy advisors jump-started the latter.  [So, you're saying that if a powerful executive-branch foreign-policy actor favors the use of military statecraft, it's gonna happen?--ed.  Um... yeah, I guess I am.]

The second is that a restoration strategy is really a focus on domestic policy.  And, as I noted in the pages of Foreign Affairs:

The most significant challenge to Obama's grand strategy is likely to emerge at home rather than abroad. Viable grand strategies need to rest on a wellspring of domestic support. The biggest problem with Obama's new grand strategy is its troublesome domestic politics....

By focusing on renewing the United States' domestic strength, the Obama administration has introduced more partisan politics into the equation. There is still some truth to the aphorism that politics stops at the water's edge. But if the administration argues that the key to U.S. foreign policy is the domestic economy, then it increases the likelihood of domestic discord. Based on the tenor of the debates about the rising levels of U.S. debt, the possibility that the president can hammer out a grand bargain over fiscal and tax policies is looking increasingly remote.

I wrote that a few months ago, and of course as the debtopocalypse approaches, I'm sure things will improve in our domestic political discour--- HA HA HA HA HA HA HA... I'm sorry, I couldn't finish that sentence, I was crying bitter tears laughing too hard. 

Restoration won't be happening anytime during this session of Congress... or perhaps ever.  The real problem in today's political climate is devising a grand strategy that is sustainable both domestically and internationally.  I'm reluctantly coming around to Peter Trubowitz and Charles Kupchan's conclusion that the bipartisan political foundations for a viable grand strategy are badly eroded.