Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

A diminished president, a diminished global power

I have been in Singapore for the past several weeks serving as the S. Rajaratnam. Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (my FP colleague, Steve Walt, was the very first to get this honor back in 2000, and he blogs regularly about his return visits). Traveling abroad is a ...

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

I have been in Singapore for the past several weeks serving as the S. Rajaratnam. Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (my FP colleague, Steve Walt, was the very first to get this honor back in 2000, and he blogs regularly about his return visits). Traveling abroad is a great opportunity to look at American foreign policy and politics with fresh eyes. And this time, with the debt ceiling debate receiving prominent attention in every corner of the globe, the effect was especially vivid. I hope to post further reflections provoked by my sojourn in Singapore, but will begin with an observation narrowly focused on the debt ceiling crisis.

Viewed from a long way away, I think David Sanger has it about right: the United States avoided the worst possible self-inflicted wound of default, but the extraordinarily divisive debate and the manifest failure of President Obama to lead in a responsible way likely did long-lasting damage to his and the country’s global stature.

The Obama team operated in rapid response campaign mode, giving higher priority to demonizing Republicans than in honestly negotiating with them. In terms of media gimmicks, this approached scored some tactical successes for Obama, even from afar. For instance, many of my interlocutors over here bought into the White House narrative that a few score Tea Partiers, who were not even the majority of House Republicans (themselves only controlling one half of Congress, itself only one of the two relevant branches of government in the dispute), were so strong that Democrats who controlled the White House and the Senate had no choice but to do their bidding. This distorted view served the short-term interests of a president who wanted to avoid responsibility for leading, but likely did damage to his long-term standing as a global leader. (Ross Douthat argues persuasively that the same diminishment will happen with the president’s domestic standing).

I have traveled abroad at regular intervals since Obama entered the White House and the decline in his global image among the elites I interact with has been discernible. Early in his presidency, my foreign interlocutors sounded as blinkered and starry eyed as any Grant Park attendee. But with each new trip, I have noticed that the fervency receded and the doubts mounted. And now when I talk with government insiders, people with actual experience dealing with the U.S. government (as opposed to watching it on BBC and the Daily Show), there is often a quietly expressed nostalgia for earlier administrations — even, gasp, the Bush administration. A grudging consensus appears to be emerging: that President Obama gives good speeches, but even three years into his term he has not yet hit his stride on the nitty-gritty of actually leading as president, domestically or globally. (Interestingly, my interlocutors are much quicker to give Secretary Clinton strong marks. They seem to attribute any good things to her and any bad things to the president.)

Yet the parameters of the debate were further damaging to our global leadership. The choice appeared to be between, on the one hand, joining the ranks of bankrupt failed states who default on their financial obligations or, on the other hand, drastically slashing those parts of the government budget that are most crucial to our global role (defense and international operations). There were few voices, on either side of the aisle, making the case for adequately funding these key pillars of American power and the inference that many would draw seems inescapable: Americans are heeding the siren song of isolationism and global retreat. No one I talked to wanted to see the United States walk any further along this path. But few were confident we could or would reverse course soon.

I have been in Singapore for the past several weeks serving as the S. Rajaratnam. Visiting Professor of Strategic Studies at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (my FP colleague, Steve Walt, was the very first to get this honor back in 2000, and he blogs regularly about his return visits). Traveling abroad is a great opportunity to look at American foreign policy and politics with fresh eyes. And this time, with the debt ceiling debate receiving prominent attention in every corner of the globe, the effect was especially vivid. I hope to post further reflections provoked by my sojourn in Singapore, but will begin with an observation narrowly focused on the debt ceiling crisis.

Viewed from a long way away, I think David Sanger has it about right: the United States avoided the worst possible self-inflicted wound of default, but the extraordinarily divisive debate and the manifest failure of President Obama to lead in a responsible way likely did long-lasting damage to his and the country’s global stature.

The Obama team operated in rapid response campaign mode, giving higher priority to demonizing Republicans than in honestly negotiating with them. In terms of media gimmicks, this approached scored some tactical successes for Obama, even from afar. For instance, many of my interlocutors over here bought into the White House narrative that a few score Tea Partiers, who were not even the majority of House Republicans (themselves only controlling one half of Congress, itself only one of the two relevant branches of government in the dispute), were so strong that Democrats who controlled the White House and the Senate had no choice but to do their bidding. This distorted view served the short-term interests of a president who wanted to avoid responsibility for leading, but likely did damage to his long-term standing as a global leader. (Ross Douthat argues persuasively that the same diminishment will happen with the president’s domestic standing).

I have traveled abroad at regular intervals since Obama entered the White House and the decline in his global image among the elites I interact with has been discernible. Early in his presidency, my foreign interlocutors sounded as blinkered and starry eyed as any Grant Park attendee. But with each new trip, I have noticed that the fervency receded and the doubts mounted. And now when I talk with government insiders, people with actual experience dealing with the U.S. government (as opposed to watching it on BBC and the Daily Show), there is often a quietly expressed nostalgia for earlier administrations — even, gasp, the Bush administration. A grudging consensus appears to be emerging: that President Obama gives good speeches, but even three years into his term he has not yet hit his stride on the nitty-gritty of actually leading as president, domestically or globally. (Interestingly, my interlocutors are much quicker to give Secretary Clinton strong marks. They seem to attribute any good things to her and any bad things to the president.)

Yet the parameters of the debate were further damaging to our global leadership. The choice appeared to be between, on the one hand, joining the ranks of bankrupt failed states who default on their financial obligations or, on the other hand, drastically slashing those parts of the government budget that are most crucial to our global role (defense and international operations). There were few voices, on either side of the aisle, making the case for adequately funding these key pillars of American power and the inference that many would draw seems inescapable: Americans are heeding the siren song of isolationism and global retreat. No one I talked to wanted to see the United States walk any further along this path. But few were confident we could or would reverse course soon.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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