Stephen M. Walt

How our election cycle screws up our foreign policy

Are you tired of the 2012 presidential election? Bored by the endless series of gossipy articles and blogs dissecting every bump and turn in the road to the White House? Me too. I know that a professional political scientist is supposed to find this sort of thing fascinating, but by the time November rolls around, ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Are you tired of the 2012 presidential election? Bored by the endless series of gossipy articles and blogs dissecting every bump and turn in the road to the White House? Me too. I know that a professional political scientist is supposed to find this sort of thing fascinating, but by the time November rolls around, I’m more likely to be in the "just shoot me" phase.

The problem, of course, is that the United States has the unappealing combination of a relatively short presidential term and an unusually long election process. We elect the president every four years (unlike France, where the term used to be seven and is now five), and we now devote a year to the primary process. It’s actually more like two years, if you count the exploratory phase of campaigning and fundraising. So in a sense the U.S. spends at least a quarter of each presidential term actively discussing and debating who the next president will be. (It’s even worse for members of the House of Representatives, who have to start running for re-election even before they’ve unpacked their offices).

Other countries are not nearly so foolish. Parliamentary systems like Great Britain specify that general elections have to be held on regular intervals (i.e., every five years or so) though snap elections aren’t unusual. But I can’t think of any country that spends a year or more actually running the campaign. In Canada, for example, the Elections Act mandates that the minimum length of a campaign be 36 days, and the longest campaign ever recorded (in 1926), was only seventy-four days. In Australia, elections generally last about two months. Apart from the United States, the longest election period I could find in a brief search was Germany, at about 114 days for unscheduled elections. Needless to say, this period is still far shorter than the U.S. norm.

Our stupefyingly long election process is good for political journalists, I guess, and one could argue that it helps us weed out candidates who are obviously unqualified (not a proposition I’d be eager to defend, by the way). But overall, it seems to me that the combination of a short presidential term and a long electoral campaign creates all sorts of potential difficulties, including a number of foreign policy problems. To wit:

First, it is invariably a distraction, with oodles of ink and media time being consumed by mostly trivial discussions of who’s up, who’s down, who’s just made a gaffe, etc., instead of having a serious discussion of real policy issues. (And if you’ve been watched any of the GOP debates, you’ll have noticed that "serious discussion" wasn’t in abundance in those events).

Second, the campaign invariably consumes a lot of the incumbent president’s time, which is probably the single scarcest commodity in politics. President Obama and his inner circle already have too much to do, but he’ll spend a good chunk of the next eight months raising money and giving speeches that are less about fixing the nation’s problems than about trying to get re-elected. I don’t blame him for that; I just wish he only had to it for a few weeks. And of course some issues (e.g., trade policy) have to go on the back burner during an election year, for all the obvious reasons.

Third, the longer the election campaign is, the more it costs to run and greater the influence moneyed interests will have. And that means both incumbents and rivals will have to pander to special interest groups, including groups with foreign policy agendas. That’s normal in a democracy, but surely it would be better if politicians didn’t have to do this for a full year. Among other things, pandering to special interest groups encourages politicians to say lots of silly things about different issues, in effect polluting public discourse in ways that can have lasting effects.

Fourth, a long electoral cycle also lengthens the period in which foreign actors can try to use our internal preoccupations to advance their own ends. In some cases (e.g., Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent visit), the election campaign provides foreign governments with an opportunity to press the president to shift his policies in the way some foreign leader might want. In other cases, foreign adversaries may conclude they can take advantage of a distracted America to shift the status quo in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, knowing that the last thing an incumbent president really wants is a major crisis on the eve of an election. This doesn’t happen all that often, perhaps, but the longer the election campaign is underway, the greater the chance for outside forces to try to exploit it.

Finally, when you consider that a new administration has to make some three thousand appointments (some of them requiring Senate confirmation), and that this transition process itself takes months if not years, then the actual period when the United States can conduct a fully-staffed, energetic and more-or-less coherent foreign policy is no more than a year or two in each administration. One could even argue that this has larger systemic consequences, because it means that the world’s most powerful country spends at least as much time picking its leaders and getting their advisors appointed as it does allowing those leaders to actually govern. Among other things, this situation makes it harder to implement and sustain policies that might take a long time to bear fruit.

This system might have worked well in the 19th century, when the United States was largely isolated from the other great powers, but it’s hardly an ideal position for the self-designated "leader of the free world." Sad to say, I don’t have a ready remedy for this problem. If I had a magic wand, I’d have a national primary election day and I’d institute various measures to raise voter turnout and prevent both parties from being so easily captured by narrow extremists. But I don’t have such a wand (you can all heave a sigh of relief) and I don’t know how you could conjure up the necessary support for this kind of far-reaching change. The bottom line is that this self-inflicted wound will persist for the rest of my lifetime (and beyond) and the problems alluded to above are going to get worse instead of better over time.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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