The Realist Prism: U.S. Policy Paralysis Risks Global Leadership Void

The Realist Prism: U.S. Policy Paralysis Risks Global Leadership Void

While Washington lawmakers congratulate themselves for avoiding a default on U.S. government obligations by raising the debt ceiling at the proverbial 11th hour, and the halls of the Capitol ring with praise that the "system worked as intended," the view from outside the Beltway is not so sanguine. Certainly, the U.S. has not fallen into the morass that bedeviled 18th-century Poland, where with a single negative vote, any member of the assembly could force its dissolution -- and the nullification of all legislation passed during that session. But the inability of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the president to reach a workable compromise that might have avoided this crisis does not speak well to the health of the U.S. policy process.

Three trends are particularly worrisome. The first, very clearly on display in the weeks leading up to Aug. 2, was the extent to which expert opinion and advice had little impact on politicians' deliberations. Seeing the global system, one historically constructed and led by the U.S., threatened with a fatal blow while legislators clung to bumper-sticker slogans came as a major shock to America's allies and partners. In the short term, the U.S. avoided any disruption of its credit rating, but it is not clear what the longer-term impact will be on sustaining America's leadership of the community of nations. Opining about the crisis, the Süddeutsche Zeitung noted that "the dysfunctional nature of Washington is a risk factor that must be calculated for in the future."

The second was how scoring political points and securing political position trumped putting America's fiscal house back in order. The way in which the debt ceiling crisis played itself out confirmed the observations made several years ago by Matt Bai in his book, "The Argument" -- namely, that to legislators on the Hill, policy "was . . . an endless game between two teams, one blue and one red." Linked to this is the growing unwillingness of U.S. elected officials to propose dramatic measures that might negatively impact vested special interests in the short term, but which will be necessary for ensuring the continuity of American global influence over the next several decades. Satirist Stephen Colbert's observation that members of Congress eagerly embraced the creation of a small committee to propose dramatic spending cuts in order to avoid taking the blame themselves from constituents was unfortunately right on the mark. As Colbert put it, Congress seems to be operating under the conviction that "with great power comes no responsibility."

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