Daniel W. Drezner

Chuck Hagel and The Credibility Fairy

Chuck Hagel and The Credibility Fairy

Over at Slate, Anne Applebaum looks at the budget shutdown from the perspective of an overseas foreign correspondent and concludes, in so many words, that the state of American democracy is pretty f**ked up.  She closes with these two paragraphs: 

Plenty of people outside the U.S. understand how strange this debate has become. A couple of days ago, an Egyptian tweeted that it was “impressive how everyone in #US follows the law even in the face of extreme political vandalism by an irrational fringe. #Egypt.” His intention was ironic, but actually, he was right. In many parts of the world—in, say, Egypt—an “irrational fringe” group of politicians who tried to subvert the entire political system by overturning a law already confirmed by three branches of government would be called “insurgents” or “coup-plotters” and their behavior would lead to arrest, prison, or worse.

But because Americans, even irrational Americans, no longer use violence to achieve their goals, because this process is still just barely taking place within the outer boundaries of those institutions, and because the protagonists still observe the language if not always the spirit of the law, the result is peaceful. That is indeed impressive. But it is a narrow achievement. Americans are paying a high price for the events of this week, though they may not know it. The cost of shutting down the federal government for a few days or even a few weeks pales in comparison with the damage we are doing not only to the credibility of the United States abroad, but to the credibility of democracy itself. (emphasis added)

Well…. Applebaum is correct about the hit that democracy takes when gridlock like this happens, but I’d qualify her assessment in two ways.  First, it’s the U.S. presidential system that takes the hit — not democracy more generally.  As her colleague Matthew Yglesias explained in his eulogy for comparative politics scholar Juan Linz, presidential systems that allow divided government to persist can lead to this kind of persistent gridlock — which, in many other countries, is followed by coups or revolutions. 

The second issue is whether America’s foreign policy credibility is really affected by a government shutdown.  I think the answer here is "no."  The last time the United States went through this kind of sustained deadlock was the 1995/1996 government shutdowns.  As it turns out, this was right around the time that the United States also brokered the Dayton peace accords between the warring parties in Bosnia.  There is no evidence that the former affected the latter — I don’t think Slobodan Milosevic’s spine was stiffened because Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton couldn’t agree. 

I suspect that Applebaum might be conflating U.S. credibility with U.S. soft power.  It would be hard to argue that prominent evidence of governance dysfunction would tarnish the image of America abroad.  The effect of such a hit on U.S. soft power is literally incalculable — I have no idea how to calculate it, and whether the effect is large or small (Pssst — political economy thesis writers flailing for a thesis topic — this is a very loud hint).

Still, Applebaum is a columnist — not a policymaker.  With all the loose talk about "credibility" floating around the foreign policy community, I can see why she’d use that language a bit too loosely.  I mean, it’s not like a foreign policy principal would be so careless

The U.S. government shutdown will undermine American credibility abroad and lead allies to question its commitment to treaty obligations, the U.S. defense chief warned on Tuesday as he prepared to put 400,000 civilian workers on unpaid leave….

The Pentagon chief said since arriving in Seoul on Sunday night, he had been questioned by South Korean officials about the threatened shutdown and why it seemed likely to take place.

"It does have an effect on our relationships around the world and it cuts straight to the obvious question: Can you rely on the United States as a reliable partner to fulfill its commitments to its allies?" Hagel told reporters.

"Here this great republic and democracy, the United States of America, shuts down its government," he added. "The Pentagon, even though we are (partly) exempted, the military has no budget. We are still living under this dark cloud of uncertainty not knowing what’s going to happen.

"It does cast a very significant pall over America’s credibility with our allies when this kind of thing happens. It’s nonsensical … It’s completely irresponsible," Hagel said.

Son of a….

This is not the first time that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has…. let’s say exaggerated the impact of a policy decision on U.S. credibility abroad in recent weeks. (To be fair, if we were talking about the debt ceiling, then I’d agree with Hagel.  But even a few weeks of government shutdown is unlikely to cause U.S. allies or adversaries to question U.S. resolve or commitments overseas.)  Indeed, the government shutdown is less linked to overall foreign policy than, say, Syria — and even there, the scope of the credibility issue seems remarkably constrained

What is ironic is that there has been a news cycle in recent months that probably has eroded U.S. credibility abroad — and yet, Hagel has studiously not talked about that blow to American credibility. 

So, to conclude:  while the U.S. government shutdown falls under the "not good" category, I doubt it’s affected U.S. credibility abroad.  Indeed, the only actor whose credibility has been weakened by this episode has been… Chuck Hagel.  At this rate, he’d say that U.S. credibility was taking a hit if he tripped on the sidewalk in Seoul. 

Am I missing anything?