Your humble blogger was watching CNN late last night after the House of Representatives passed the fiscal cliff compromise, and was struck by the
anchor's Ali Velshi's complete and total disdain for what had just transpired. He repeatedly said that this was, "an embarrassing moment for America," and that it was so frustrating because these wounds were self-inflicted. This was surprising, since CNN is ostensibly the cable news netowrk that's the least partisan and most likely to maintain the detached, sonorous perspective that can only be incubated after prolonged exposure to Wolf Blitzer.
Now I'm certainly not gonna defend what went down the past two months as the exemplar of Jeffersonian democracy or anything, but I do think some perspective is in order here. The truth is that America's political institutions engage in self-destructive behavior on a fairly regular basis. This holds even in the post-Vietnam era. In the 1970s the country nearly tore itself apart because of Watergate. In the 1980s it was Iran-Contra. In the 1990s the federal government was shut down because Republicans and Democrats couldn't agree on the budget for a spell. That was followed by the House of Representatives impeaching President Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice. In late 2000 the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling short-circuiting ballot recounts in Florida and making George W. Bush the next president using a legal logic that was so tortured that the Court said no one could ever use it again. And last year U.S. debt was downgraded -- not because of any fundamental U.S. economic weakness, but because of the U.S. political system. All of these episodes were politically self-inficted wounds -- and the United States weathered all of them pretty easily. Please bear this in mind the next time you read something about America going to hell.
[But haven't things gotten worse?--ed. Well, no, I think what's changed is that the Dems and the GOP are acting more like European parliamentary parties in a constitutional system that emphasizes the separation of powers. That's a problem, and gerrymandering is exacerbating the situation. But it's a situation that a few nonpartisan districting commissions would be able to solve.]
Now, with this dose of perspective sauce, there also needs to be a recognition that elements of the United States have shifted in an ideological direction that makes them increasingly isolated in the world. To see why, look at this Financial Times story by Hannah Kuchler on David Cameron's G8 priorities. The salient part for this conversation:
In a letter to the leaders, Mr Cameron said the world will continue to face “grave economic uncertainty” in 2013 but the rich countries must set “ambitious standards” to drive growth in their countries and across the globe.
The UK will push for action in three key areas: trade deals, including a potential EU-US trade agreement; measures to tackle tax evasion and open government; working with developing countries to fight corruption....
The British government has prioritised chasing tax evaders, with prosecutions for tax evasion up by 80 per cent and a treaty with Switzerland, its largest ever deal on tackling tax evasion. Mr Cameron wants to use the UK’s time at the top of the G8 to “galvanise collective international action”.
“We can lead the way in sharing information to tackle abuses of the system, including in developing countries, so that governments can collect taxes due to them,” he wrote in the letter. “We can work together to sign more countries up to international standards. And we can examine the case for strengthening those standards themselves.”
Now, international tax evasion has been an on-and-off G8 priority for the past 15 years, and there's actually been some progress on tax havens. I guarantee you, however, that to the House GOP caucus this will look like some back-door globalist conspiracy by the Obama administration to raise taxes or enforce collection through jackbooted G8 thugs. So anything that will require legislative approval ain't going anywhere.
[Uh, isn't this kinda nuts? Everyone knows that the G8 doesn't have any thugs, much less jackbooted ones!!--ed. Yes, and everyone knows that Agenda 21 is a nonbinding plan of action for sustainable development, but that hasn't stopped a few deluded people from freaking out about a U.N.-hatched global conspiracy.]
So some things have changed, and for the time being there will be some issues on which legislative action is likely not gonna happen. On the other hand -- much like Americans after New Years Eve parties -- the United States usually recovers from these bouts of temporary stupidity. The federal government will muddle through, and I suspect even the 113th Congress will be interested in a U.S.-E.U. trade deal.
Am I missing anything?
I have a long essay in The Spectator (U.K.) on the state of foreign policy thinking among the GOP 2012 presidential candidates. Here's me not pulling my punches:
During the 2008 US presidential election cycle, the respected journal Foreign Affairs invited the leading presidential candidates from both parties to outline their views of world politics. All of them responded with essays that, one presumes, they at least read if did not write. This year, ahead of next year’s elections, Foreign Affairs has proffered the same invitation to the leading Republican aspirants. To date, they have all refused or not responded. This parallels the trend of not talking about international affairs in their endless series of presidential debates: mentions of Afghanistan and Iraq are reported to be down 65 per cent from 2008.
One could argue that these candidates are denying Americans an opportunity to understand their thinking about international relations. Having investigated the policy platforms of the Republican field, however, I have concluded that most of them have done Americans a huge favour. The Grand Old Party candidates’ current thinking on foreign affairs is a noxious mixture of cowardice, belligerence, ignorance — and, unfortunately, political savvy.
Read the whole thing. Two additional thoughts.
1) The Spectator left a few things on the cutting-room floow because of space constraints. For example, the essay fails to mention Jon Hunstman. In my original essay, he did get mentioned in a foootnote after I had slammed the field for the umpteenth time, explaining:
To be fair, former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has demonstrated a superior command of foreign policy issues. He's also polling so badly that he failed to qualify for CNN's October 18 debate. Tim Pawlenty was another candidate who bothered to address the Council on Foreign Relations on global matters; he withdrew from the race in August of this year.
The other thing that got excised was my point that foreign policy and national security used to be a very important compnent of presidential elections:
[A]s an international relations specialist, I find the state of the state of the GOP foreign policy debate to be utterly depressing, but as a political scientist, I'm unsurprised. Still, as an American citizen, this state of affairs is disconcerting on multiple levels. We are not that far removed from elections in which foreign affairs and national security were the crucial issues in a campaign. Gerald Ford sabotaged his 1976 campaign when he insisted that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Both Michael Dukakis and John Kerry doomed their campaigns by appearing weak and vacillating on national security.
2) I haven't overtly talked about my own personal political beliefs since the blog moved to FP, but this seems to be an appropriate time to bring it up
and then never speak of it again. When I've published essays like this before, I find liberals write "even conservative Dan Drezner..." while conservatives often deploy terms like "academic elitist" or "RINO."
In my case, at this point in time, I believe that last appellation to be entirely fair and accurate. I'm not a Democrat, and I don't think I've become more liberal over time. That said, three things have affected my political loyalties over the past few years. First, I've become more uncertain about various dimensions of GOP ideology over time. It's simply impossible for me to look at the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis and not ponder the myriad ways in which my party has made some categorical errors in judgment. So I'm a bigger fan of the politics of doubt during an era when doubt has been banished in political discourse.
Second, the GOP has undeniably shifted further to the right over the past few years, and while I'm sympathetic to some of these shifts, most of it looks like a mutated version of "cargo cult science" directed at either Ludwig Von Mises or the U.S. Constitution (which, of course, is sacred and inviolate, unless conservatives want to amend it). Sorry, I'm not embracing outdated concepts like the gold standard or repealing the 16th Amendment. Not happening.
Third, David Frum wrote something in New York Magazine that touches on the issues I just discussed, but also articlates something that has been nagging at me for a few years now:
The conservative shift to ever more extreme, ever more fantasy-based ideology has ominous real-world consequences for American society. The American system of government can’t work if the two sides wage all-out war upon each other: House, Senate, president, each has the power to thwart the others. In prior generations, the system evolved norms and habits to prevent this kind of stonewalling. For example: Theoretically, the party that holds the Senate could refuse to confirm any Cabinet nominees of a president of the other party. Yet until recently, this just “wasn’t done.” In fact, quite a lot of things that theoretically could be done just “weren’t done.” Now old inhibitions have given way. Things that weren’t done suddenly are done.
Also, things that weren't said are now being said. Or, to be more precise, things that use to be said but ignored are now being taken seroiusly by the GOP's leading lights. Newt Gingrich endorses the notion that Obama has a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" worldview. Mitt Romney claims Obama has been apologizing around the world and no longer believes in American exceptionalism. Herman Cain is [Remember your mercy rule!!--ed.].... Herman Cain. There's good, solid partisanship -- a vital necessity in this country -- and then there's unadulterated horses**t. Too much of the GOP's rhetoric on Obama reads like the latter to me.
So for those reasons, I really am a Republican in Name Only at this point. And I say this for the GOP's benefit. The next time someone writes, "even the Republican Dan Drezner has said...." GOP partisans should feel perfectly entitled to link to this post and call me a RINO. Because it's true.
As it turns out, that was the appropriate tack, because my lackluster effort to process the speech matched the Obama administration's lackluster effort to incorporate foreign policy into the speech (FP's Josh Rogin has expertly parsed the little foreign policy content there was). As predicted, there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of international relations content in the SOTU, despite Heather Hurlburt's best efforts to argue otherwise.
Politico's Laura Rozen noted "the seeming downgrading of foreign policy emphasis in the speech," and The Spectator's Alex Massie observed "Foreign policy received very little, even perfunctory, attention." [UPDATE: oooh, Jeffrey Laurenti has data]:
[Obama] devoted just 14 percent of his speech to international concerns – a far cry from George Bush, who regularly devoted half his State of the Union addresses to foreign policy and national security themes (and fully 88 percent of the infamous “axis of evil” address in 2002, which laid out the road map for war in the Middle East).
What attention was paid to foreign economic policy was desultory when it wasn't firmly wedged in Fantasyland.
In fact, let's deconstruct that entire section of the speech -- it won't take that long:
[W]e need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.
We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that's why we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia.
Now, let's see if there's anything of substance in there:
1) "We will double our exports over the next five years..." Well, the President said this would happen, so it must be so!! I would humbly request that the president also decree that the pull of gravity be cut in half. The government has an equal chance of making that happen.
2) "we will continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets..." The key word there is "shape." I have every confidence the administration will do this, because they make this pledge in every communique they ever issue. It's a tradition now, like playing "Hail to the Chief." Play the music, pledge to work on Doha, and then go about your business.
3) "we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea, Panama, and Colombia." You mean, by ratifying the threee trade agreements that have already been signed and negotiated? Oh, you don't mean that? Well, never mind, then.
State of the Union speeches are usually about domestic priorities, and it's not surprising that this one played to type. Still, I would have liked to have seen a more robust effort to link foreign policy priorities to domestic priorities -- because the two are more linked than is commonly acknowledged.
Understanding the cartoon requires sharing the New Yorker’s prejudices, not its sophistication. Without a prior understanding that the magazine is hostile to the paranoid style in American politics and well-disposed towards the Obamas, the cartoon is unintelligible. This problem would never have come up 20 years ago, when the only people who read the New Yorker were subscribers. But today, billions of people are a mouse-click away from being New Yorker “readers”. Enough clicks and the cartoon begins to convey the opposite of what it meant to. Under the influence of a hyperdemocratic medium like the internet, you can’t say anything to anyone that won’t be heard by everyone.... In a partisan climate, any joke that rises above mere jeering will miss its mark. For half the country, the target is too decent to ridicule; for the other half, he is beneath contempt. On the eve of the primaries, 39 per cent of young Americans told the Pew Research Center they got most of their news through late-night comedy shows. So comedy has never been more important to American politics. Perhaps as a consequence, it has never been less funny.Caldwell is onto something, but I'm not sure the problem is strictly about partisanship. Methinks it's the witches brew of partisanship and the democratization of media. I've always been an optimist in thinking about how more media affects public discourse -- but it's hard to be optimistic about the way this has played out.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.