The virtues of competence

The virtues of competence

Back in 2005, I wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times on the value of having a reputation for competence. My inspiration was the lame U.S. response to Hurricane Katrina, and I argued that one ingredient in U.S. global influence was other states’ perceptions that Americans knew what they were doing, would deliver as promised, and would get the job done. The Marshall Plan, the moon landing, and other straightforward displays of competence reinforced America’s material power and made other leaders more inclined to listen to our advice. By contrast, repeated blunders lead other states to doubt our wisdom or our capacity to deliver, and make them more inclined to tune us out. You can read it here.

I was reminded of that piece this morning, when I read about all the problems India has experienced trying to prepare for next week’s Commonwealth Games. The obvious contrast is with the Beijing Olympics, which were intended to demonstrate Chinese efficiency and competence, and clearly did just that. By coincidence, Tom Friedman picked up on the same theme is his column today, and made some invidious comparisons with America’s current situation.

How competent do we look these days? Although the United States is still an attractive society in many respects, one doesn’t get the sense that others are dazzled by how competent we are. The 2008 economic meltdown made Wall Street look inept or corrupt (or both), and the endless partisan squabbling in Washington isn’t going to impress foreign audiences either. And as I’ve harped on before, our foreign policy record in recent years is mostly a litany of failures, and I don’t expect it to improve much in the near future.

A big part of the problem, however, is that the United States has chosen to do a few things that are very difficult, and where failure is to be expected. Like nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of more ambitious — if not utterly misguided — objectives that Washington could have picked.  

You don’t see the Chinese trying to do anything silly like that, which may be one reason they are looking more competent these days. (I’m not saying they actually are, however, because China’s own development plans have some significant downsides too). But no matter how much we try to spin the story ("the surge worked!") our dismal record in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the United States look like it doesn’t really know what it is doing. Why should anyone follow the U.S. lead anymore, if this is where it gets you?

The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. (That assumes, of course, that we aren’t using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose). We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals — as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans — when we use our power judiciously and fairly. And we’ve often done a pretty fair job — in concert with others — at encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy. The United States is not very good at governing foreign societies, especially when the local inhabitants don’t want us there and when we have little understanding of how they work. And if we keep trying to do this sort of thing, we’re likely to look inept far more often than we look effective.

In short, regaining an aura of competence isn’t just about trying harder, or restoring the work ethic and "can do" attitude that we associate (rightly or wrongly) with earlier eras. It also entails picking the right goals and not squandering time, money and lives on fool’s errands.