Amy Zegart

The Shortsighted Presidency

America's foreign policy is now trending on Twitter.

Getty Images
Getty Images

There is nothing quite like the Olympics in Russia to make American political institutions and economic conditions look good. But soon, those podium moments (Go men’s freestyle slope skiers!), Vladimir Putin’s creepy "pay no attention to my repressive regime" half-smile, and Russia’s inability to make flushing toilets or working Olympic ring lights will fade. The spotlight will turn once again to the United States — and whether it still has what it takes to forge a successful, sustainable foreign policy.

Few would dispute that American political institutions aren’t what they used to be. Filibusters, which allow congressional minorities to grind government business to a halt, have skyrocketed, from six in the 91st Congress (1969-1971) to an all-time high of 112 in the 110th Congress (2007-2008). Today’s legislators are also more polarized ideologically, with moderates in both parties becoming an endangered species. Trust in government is at an all-time low, with only 10 percent of Americans reporting a high degree of confidence in Congress (compared to 76 percent for the U.S. military).

Our economic fundamentals aren’t any prettier, with debt constituting 73 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), higher than any time since around World War II, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That compares to a debt-to-GDP ratio of about 20 percent for China and 94 percent for Spain. Of course, the 2008 recession, which started with the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble, created the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression, leading to the near collapse of several large financial institutions, sovereign debt crises across Europe, and downturns in stock markets worldwide. But since then, U.S. growth has averaged an anemic 1.075 percent from 2009 to 2012 (compared to an average of 3.68 percent during the second half of the 20th century). And as Nobel laureate Michael Spence notes, the American economy is poorly structured to thrive in the global marketplace, with increasing employment in nontradeable sectors such as government and health care, and an educational system in relative decline.

Yet here’s the thing. Even with a gridlocked, polarized, and reckless Congress, a skyrocketing national debt, and a shaky economy, President Barack Obama has been strangely unconstrained in executing his major foreign policy priorities. He surged then drew down in Afghanistan, intervened in Libya, pivoted to Asia, negotiated an interim nuclear deal with Iran, expanded NSA surveillance capabilities, and deployed drones to kill suspected terrorists, including American citizens, around the world without much of a peep from Congress (with the exception of Rand Paul). While many question whether these policies are wise or well-implemented, it’s clear that Obama has been able to get much of what he wants on major issues. U.S. foreign policy has hewed closely to his preferences.

What’s going on? How can we square these serious institutional and economic conditions with Obama’s comparatively free hand in foreign affairs? 

It’s possible that Obama is simply a persuasive politician, though his domestic policy struggles with health care reform and his outright failure to pass major domestic priorities — immigration reform, a budget "grand bargain," climate change legislation, or expanded background checks on gun purchases — suggest otherwise. It is also possible, as the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky famously noted, that presidents are systematically less constrained in the conduct of foreign than domestic policy. The president is, after all, the commander-in-chief, negotiator-in-chief, and secret-information-holder-in-chief, wielding substantial formal powers to strike deals and order strikes abroad, and carrying more informal clout on the world stage than he often does in Washington.

If Wildavsky’s "two presidencies" thesis were true, it would be good news, suggesting that coherent foreign policy still has a future. But I think there’s a third, more likely, and disconcerting dynamic at play. Like all presidents, Obama is relatively unconstrained in the near term to pursue the foreign policies he desires. But he is seriously and dangerously constrained over the longer term by three factors that are often hard to see — but growing worse.

1. The paradox of political time.

Foreign policymaking requires faster decisions and responses than ever, but international security challenges require patience and consistent responses to produce successful outcomes. In today’s Twitter age, news cycles take seconds, but democratization and nationbuilding in weak states — the keys to fostering peace and combating terrorism — take decades. Indeed, efforts to accelerate democratization often backfire. Political scientists Jack Snyder and Dawn Brancati have examined the timing of elections following 130 civil wars since World War II. They found that since 1989, the average time to the first post-conflict election has dropped from 5.5 years to 2.7 years. Yet the sooner elections are held after civil war ends, according to Snyder and Brancati, the more likely states are to revert to violence. As Samuel Huntington noted years ago, and as the United States found painfully in Iraq and Afghanistan, building political institutions still takes time. Yet democratic politics in the Internet age — where human rights groups and other NGOs, foreign governments, interest groups, citizens, and the press exert immediate and nearly constant pressure — demands speed.

2. The growing dysfunction of the American political system.

The Founding Fathers intended to fragment power both between branches and within them, precisely to keep government from veering too quickly or easily in any direction. What we face today, however, is not your father’s gridlock. It is something far more problematic for sensible foreign policy: unpredictability. The problem is not that Congress and the executive are stuck in a policy standoff and nothing gets done. The problem is that they are caught in successive games of chicken in which each side is waiting for the other to swerve and no one has any idea what will happen next.

For three years now, Congress and the president have lurched from budget crisis to budget crisis, with debt-ceiling dramas occurring roughly every six to 12 months. Raising the debt ceiling, which had been done 74 times since 1962 — and now has been done 75 times — has morphed from routine business to serial emergencies. Sequestration’s across-the-board cuts were supposed to be a fate so terrible no policymakers in their right minds would let them happen. But happen they did. Then came the downgrading of the U.S. credit rating and the government shutdown. In this on-again, off-again budget environment, government agencies, including the Defense Department, cannot plan well for the next quarter, much less next year — much less make wise, efficient, long-tail investments in R&D into the next decade.

U.S. allies, meanwhile, understandably question whether Washington can make good on its commitments when it can’t even keep the national parks open and the office lights on. The opportunity costs to this process are enormous. Crisis management — and increasingly, that’s what policymaking has become — sucks time, focus, political capital, and serious thinking away from critical long-term issues. Chief among them are the revitalization of the U.S. economy, which is the linchpin of U.S. power, the ongoing care of foreign policy relationships, and strategic initiatives to deal with critical and complicated challenges — terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cyberthreats, and China’s rise, to name a few. Urgent issues always crowd out important ones. In recent years, however, the list of urgent issues has grown longer with issues that shouldn’t be urgent in the first place. This is no way to run a railroad.

China we aren’t. While the United States finds itself lurching from tactic to tactic, crisis to crisis, and deployment to deployment, Beijing has demonstrated a remarkable ability to stick to a plan. China’s economic miracle started in 1978 and has become the greatest development story in human history, lifting 680 million people out of poverty in large part because successive leaders followed Deng Xiaoping’s basic game plan of "socialism with Chinese characteristics." China’s military modernization began in the early 1990s and has maintained its strategic focus on developing advanced weapons systems, improving information technology capabilities, developing a larger and more sophisticated navy, and improving training, education, and doctrine. Of course, these are not the only key success factors: China’s military modernization has been aided tremendously by economic vibrancy, enabling the country to devote just 2 percent of GDP to military spending yet still outspend every nation except the United States. Authoritarian regimes can often stay a policy course longer than democracies can. But in the case of China, they are important ones that put the ability of the United States to sustain a long-term strategic focus in stark relief.

3. The changing nature of hard military power since 9/11.

Military power has become less costly (in terms of risks to warfighters and dollar costs of remotely piloted vehicles), more modular, more precisely targeted, and more blurred with covert action. This trend is aptly demonstrated by our national defense budget, where the share dedicated to intelligence has almost doubled in the last three decades. Total intelligence spending, measured in constant dollars, has increased by almost 275 percent since 1980, while national defense without intelligence grew by 82 percent over that timeframe. As the U.S. military moves from heavy- to light-footprint operations, as remotely-operated weapons systems proliferate and cybertools become more sophisticated, and as the lines between CIA and the Pentagon’s paramilitary operations continue to blur, political calculations change.

The math here isn’t so complicated. Presidents are more likely to use force when the potential political costs they bear for doing so go down. And political costs decline when operations can be done a) in secret; b) with small numbers of troops, or better yet, with remotely piloted vehicles or cyberweapons that pose minimal risk to American lives; and c) without an authorized use of force from Congress. This is exactly the direction in which the Pentagon and president are moving, and it is likely to continue, thanks to downward pressures on the defense budget. The upshot is that the United States will increasingly depend on low-cost military and intelligence solutions that may be ill-suited to strategic challenges. Covert action, drones, and light-footprint military operations are very good for some things. But they are not good for everything. As America’s recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, it is easier to start wars on the cheap than to win wars on the cheap.

* * *

The sum total of these three factors is that the entire U.S. foreign policy process has a growing tactical tilt. The mismatch between the time needed for policy success and the speed demanded by politics, the dysfunctional crisis footing of the policymaking establishment, and changes in the nature of military power may not constrain presidents much in the short run, but they could gravely undermine U.S. foreign policy interests in the long run.

 Twitter: @AmyZegart

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