The crisis of competence

Back in December, veteran foreign correspondent William Pfaff asked the right question: how much faith do other states still have in American competence? Back in 2005, the failed occupation in Iraq and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina led many foreign observers to question whether America’s leaders knew what they were doing. The aura of ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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589459_090115_Competence_1.15_resized2.jpg

Back in December, veteran foreign correspondent William Pfaff asked the right question: how much faith do other states still have in American competence?

Back in 2005, the failed occupation in Iraq and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina led many foreign observers to question whether America's leaders knew what they were doing. The aura of effectiveness matters, because American influence depends in good part on the belief that U.S. leaders (both public and private) are knowledgeable, honest, and above all competent individuals who can figure out what needs to be done and then actually get it implemented. When other governments think U.S. officials can be trusted to make smart choices and deliver them, they are more likely to follow our lead. But if they suspect that our leaders are bunglers, they will keep their own counsel or look elsewhere for guidance.

Back in December, veteran foreign correspondent William Pfaff asked the right question: how much faith do other states still have in American competence?

Back in 2005, the failed occupation in Iraq and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina led many foreign observers to question whether America’s leaders knew what they were doing. The aura of effectiveness matters, because American influence depends in good part on the belief that U.S. leaders (both public and private) are knowledgeable, honest, and above all competent individuals who can figure out what needs to be done and then actually get it implemented. When other governments think U.S. officials can be trusted to make smart choices and deliver them, they are more likely to follow our lead. But if they suspect that our leaders are bunglers, they will keep their own counsel or look elsewhere for guidance.

America’s reputation for competence was based on genuine achievements: the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, the moon landings, a broad array of scientific and technical achievements (signified by a steady stream of Nobel Prizes), some remarkable institutions of higher learning, the creation of media and entertainment industry with unprecedented global reach, decades of fairly steady economic growth, a successful melting-pot society, a belated but well-intentioned effort to address the legacy of slavery, and the eventual triumph over the Soviet Union. One might also add iconic examples of accomplishment such as Charles Lindbergh, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jonas Salk, Margaret Mead, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Even when events like Vietnam cast doubt on American wisdom, these setbacks did not damage the larger sense that America was a country that worked pretty well.

Today, however, the drip-drip-drip of bad news and the growing sense that malfeasance and moral rot are widespread risks permanent damage to America’s global image. Consider what the past eight years has done to our brand name: the fraud-filled “reconstruction” of Iraq and the abuses at Abu Ghraib, the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, the dark scar that is Guantanamo, the feckless performance of Alberto Gonzalez, the corruption conviction of Jack Abramoff, and the failure to capture Osama bin Laden. Add to that the Wall Street meltdown, the Madoff scandal, the Blagojevich follies, and the Big 3 automakers’ lame pleas, and you have a picture of America that raises more doubts than hopes.

Of course, like many other factors in international politics, confidence in American competence is a relative concept: it’s not as if Japan or the Europeans are making consistently smart choices and executing them well. China’s Olympics were undeniably impressive, but then there’s the melamine scandal and numerous reports of widespread corruption. I guess there’s some dubious comfort to be had from the fact that other states have lots of problems too.

Back home, the election of Barack Obama was an electrifying event that has temporarily restored some hope in American ideals and demonstrated our society’s still-remarkable capacity to surprise. But the bleeding will resume if the new team does not demonstrate that it has well-designed strategies for dealing with our current problems, and if they don’t quickly demonstrate the ability to put those plans into effect and make them work. And let’s be honest: despite their ample experience and glittering resumes, the track records of some of his key appointees do not inspire as much confidence as one might like.

HECTOR MATA/AFP PHOTO/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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