Daniel W. Drezner

The Achilles heel of the foreign policy smart set

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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