Archive for October, 2013

For presidents, like sports team managers, the tough weeks tend to outnumber the jubilant. But even by the standards of an unforgiving job, Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling unusually buffeted of late. Many of the blows have come on the domestic front, with the all-consuming stand off of the government shutdown segueing into frantic efforts to defend and repair the roll-out of Obamacare amid charges of fatal technological incompetence. But if he were tempted to seek solace in the autonomy of foreign policy – as modern presidents have been wont to do – there has been little consolatory triumph to be found.

In August and September, he was caught in a mighty tangle over Syria, threatening military strikes over its chemical weapons use before being hamstrung first by Britain’s refusal to join the charge and then by the reluctance of his own Congress. The legacy of that mess continues to work itself out in unpredictable ways, such as increasingly public tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, hitherto one of its more solid allies. Though the eventual Russian-orchestrated deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was a respectable one given the circumstances, the episode as a whole spoke of an America straining to translate its power into influence, or to maintain a united front among its friends.

Now the rolling scandal over National Security Agency surveillance, triggered by the mass leak of secrets by Edward Snowden, has entered another phase of intensity, this time centred on Europe. Revelations that the US tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, operated numerous “listening posts” on European soil, and sucked up vast quantities of communications data from millions of citizens across Europe have broken in the press. Public expressions of displeasure have been forthcoming, including a European Union statement. Taken together, these vignettes of public dissention will be enough to make many ask the question: is the US losing its influence even over its allies? Is this just a tricky moment for a particular president, or harbinger of a broader trend?

Global shift

First, the necessary caveats: enduring alliance relationships resemble long marriages, in that the mere presence of moments of strain, or even audible arguments, cannot be taken as evidence of imminent separation. Looking back over the longer-term history of America’s relations with its allies, episodes such as the Vietnam War, the “Euromissile” crisis of the 1980s, and the controversial interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, demonstrate that sharp differences of opinion and conflicting priorities are no radical new state of affairs.

And however unhappy they may be with their recent treatment, it is not obvious that countries such as Germany, France or Saudi Arabia have anywhere to go if they did decide the time had come to tout for alternative alliance partners. It is not entirely clear how European annoyance might manifest in ways that have practical importance. It is true they have it in their power to threaten progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership process, but it is not clear that such an action would harm the US more than Europe itself. In short, even if they are disgruntled, necessity may ultimately prove a sufficient force to help them get over it.

The reason present friction between the US and its allies carries greater weight, however, is that it arises in the context of a global shift in power away from the US and its established allies and towards new powers. The prospect of “American decline” in terms of relative international power is the focus of a great deal of debate over both substance and semantics. But the central fact is that even the part of the US’s own intelligence apparatus charged with long-term foresight regards it as established that within 20 years the world will have transitioned from the “unipolar” American dominance of the first post-Cold War decades to a world in which multiple centres of power must coexist. The centre of economic gravity has already shifted markedly towards Asia during the last decade.

This certainly does not mean any single new power is about to rise to replace the US as a hegemonic force. Nor does it mean the US will be going anywhere: the scale of its existing advantages across a range of fronts – military, economic, institutional – is sufficiently great that it is assured a prominent place at the table of whatever order may come. What it does mean is that Americans must presently be engaged in thinking carefully about how best to leverage their advantages to retain the maximum possible influence into the future. If they cannot continue to be first among equals in managing the world order, they will wish at least to ensure that order is one that runs in line with their own established preferences.

Soft power

Many of those who are optimistic about the ability of the US to pull off this project of declining power without declining influence place emphasis on two things: the extent to which the US has soft power due to widespread admiration for its political and cultural values, and the extent to which it has locked in influence through the extent of its existing networks of friends and allies. Even if these advantages cannot arrest America’s decline on harder metrics, if played properly they can mitigate its consequences and secure an acceptable future. Shoring up support from like-minded countries such as those of Europe ought to be the low-hanging fruit of such an effort.

So the current problems do harm on both fronts. It will be difficult to maintain the allure of soft power if global opinion settles on the view that American political discord has rendered its democracy dysfunctional at home, or that its surveillance practices have given rein to the mores of a police state. And it will be harder to preserve American status through the force of its alliances if its politicians’ economic irresponsibility (for example, publicly contemplating a default on American national debt) or scandals over surveillance or drone strikes alienate their public or cause their leaders to question the extent to which they really are on the same side as the US.

Obama’s day-to-day foreign policy struggles should not be simplistically taken as signs of collapsing American influence. But if the long-term plan is to carefully manage relative decline so as to preserves maximum influence, episodes such as those his country has faced since August do nothing to boost the prospects of success.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

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After 16 days of anxiety, grandstanding and acrimonious finger-pointing, the experiment in American democracy that was the government shutdown has been run, and for the Republicans, the results were devastating.

With the immediate crisis over, amid a prevailing mood of exhaustion and contempt for those who precipitated it, Republican minds now turn to question of long-term electoral fallout. Immediate polling has suggested that association with the shutdown debacle has the potential to do damage to Republican hopes of winning a Senate majority, and some have even argued that it may lead them to lose the House of Representatives.

How realistic is the prospect of a Republican electoral blowout in 2014 as a legacy of recent events? Well, if it does happen, or even if the House numbers swing substantially towards the Democrats, it will certainly be because of recent missteps. The polling makes clear that an incumbent’s association with the shutdown can nudge voters to vote against them, making the strategic play during the campaigns a no-brainer for Democrats. A Republican loss of the House was considered a pipe dream only a few weeks ago, so the very existence of the debate suggests the severity of the recent error.

The path of moderation

Two points should be borne in mind, however. The first is that election day is more than a year away, meaning that much depends on what happens between now and then. Given that they were unconvinced of its wisdom in the first place, and it has now ended in ignominy, it might seem a reasonable prediction that the (relatively) moderate leaders of the Republican caucus will refuse to countenance any re-run of recent brinkmanship when the next set of budget and debt deadlines arrive.

They are seasoned enough operators to know the difference between tough negotiating and self-immolation, even if not all of their colleagues are. During some of the arguments to come – on the role of government, “entitlement” (health and welfare) spending and taxation – the GOP may be able to retain greater party unity and win more favour with the median voter, so long as they steer clear of flirting with nuclear options.

A successful Republican regrouping may rely, however, on the radical right being more chastened than they appear to have been by recent events, and accepting the need to rein in their more outlandish instincts, as opposed to mounting a renewed assault on the moderates in their own party. If, on the other hand, the radicals choose to interpret this latest defeat as a stab in the back by their own side and become even less controllable by the party leadership, all bets are off. We may yet find out where the party’s rock bottom ultimately lies.

Lest we forget, even when staring down the barrel of the gun on Wednesday night, a majority of Republican members of the House – 144, or 62% – voted against the deal which ultimately won the day. The difficulty involved in steering the Republican house majority onto the path of moderation should not be underestimated.

Saved by the gerrymander

Bleak as that may sound for the party’s electoral prospects, it is important to remember a second point: there is a structural safety net limiting how far the party can fall, least in the short term. If the Republican goal is ultimately to reclaim national power, then the shutdown circus may well have done them grievous harm, since the electorates for marginal Senate seats have tended to punish extremist candidates in the general election. Those voters show all the signs of responding badly to the recent burst of radicalism.

In the House, however, where the drawing of constituency boundaries usually lies in the hands of partisan state legislatures, dislodging the Republicans in 2014 will be a far taller order. Because they won big in 2010, Republicans were able to lock in advantageous boundaries for themselves for the next decade. Combined with other factors, such as the increasing geographical clustering of like-minded voters and the tendency of Democrat voters to be concentrated in urban districts, this helps explain why Democrats failed to win a majority of seats in the house in 2012 even though they won 1.4 million more votes nationwide.

The number of uncompetitive seats that this creates also helps explain why Congressmen fear a primary challenge from their own extreme flank as punishment for compromise far more than a backlash from the general electorate for adhering to doctrinaire positions.

Plumbing the depths

The story is more complicated than gerrymandering alone, but it is evident that the problem is real. Current arrangements make it unduly difficult for Democrats to translate national victory with the voters into a House majority.

Unless the misjudgements of both leadership and radical fringe continue to mount such that the Republican party plumbs catastrophic new depths of unpopularity, it seems highly likely the party will remain entrenched in their majority position in the House, even as their Senate and presidential aspirations falter.

President Obama will no doubt seek to press his advantage to maximum effect in the weeks ahead, as any politician worth his salt should. But so long as the electoral system remains as dysfunctional as it presently is, and so many of the participants within it so averse to the very idea of compromise, divided government seems all-too likely to continue after 2014. Sadly, with that comes the sort of government-by-crisis that has embarrassed America and horrified the world over recent months.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Conversation

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Republican Speaker John Boehner faced a choice between two unappetising gambles on Monday night. One option was to cut a deal with Democrats to continue federal government spending at present levels, and in so doing trigger a revolt from the radical wing of his own party that might end his speakership. The other was to dig in, precipitate a partial shut-down of the government, and risk the public assigning the blame to congressional Republicans.

Caught between grim and grimmer as far as political prospects were concerned, he has gone for option two, and the government shutdown has begun.

While the sudden reality of the derailing of the US government may come as a surprise to some, for regular viewers this represents the feared collision at the end of a long series of games of chicken between the president Barack Obama (and the Democrat-controlled senate) on one side and the Republican House on the other. Since the Republican victory in the 2010 congressional elections, which gave them control of the House, power and influence has steadily accrued in the hands of the radical wing of the party, elected from safe Republican constituencies on the back of a wave of anti-tax, anti-government fundamentalism among the base of primary voters.

Fervent in their ideological antipathy to the president, averse in principle to compromise, and with the only threat to their re-election coming from still-more extreme forces to their right through a primary challenge, the resulting caucus of conservative hardliners has turned the budget process into a series of crises and ultimatums.

Over the past three years there have been several moments of last-minute bullet-dodging, when Congress has threatened to shut down the government or – worse still – refuse to raise the debt ceiling and thus precipitate default on US debts already acquired, with these outcomes only being avoided through compromise at the death.

In this, the radicals have been aided by Speaker Boehner’s efforts to abide by the so-called Hastert rule, whereby legislation should only be allowed to come up for a vote when it can be passed with a majority consisting entirely of Republican votes.

A battle for the Republican soul

The present impasse over spending could be resolved swiftly if Democrats and moderate Republicans were permitted to combine their vote through a continuing resolution extending current spending. But to do so would enrage the radicals in and outside Congress and thus put Boehner’s leadership at risk. In that sense, what is playing out at present represents not a stand-off between the two parties, but rather a battle within the Republican Party between those who consider compromise with the other side an inherent evil and those who regard it as the inevitable price of keeping government functional.

The specific ground on which the radicals have chosen to make their stand this time is Obamacare, the large healthcare reform voted through by Democratic majorities during Obama’s first term and due to take effect this year. Unless its implementation is suspended for a year (by which time Republicans hope to have won the votes in the senate for its full repeal), the House refuses to approve any further government spending.

Come at me, bro. Pete Souza

Since it is the president’s signature legislative achievement, and since acquiescence would in effect mean granting the House the right to dictate terms to the rest of the government through the power of budgetary blackmail, there is near zero possibility of presidential or senatorial assent to these demands. Indeed, since Republicans’ list of demands for raising the debt limit in effect amount to implementing the manifesto of Mitt Romney, there is good reason for other branches of government to see the current row as one part of an outlandish power-grab on the part of an extreme group within one half of the legislature.

Closed for business

What does the “shutdown” of the federal government mean in the immediate term? In practice, it doesn’t mean we should expect planes to start colliding in the skies or unmanned border posts to be overrun. “Essential” workers can legally be retained in service with the hope of back pay when the crisis is resolved. But as this chart illustrates it does mean hundreds of thousands of government staff parked at home indefinitely without pay, many government offices shuttered, and millions of dollars of government spending and contracting cancelled or suspended.

This is bad for many reasons, but two have particular weight. While some activities may be “non-essential” in the very short term, many of these government activities provide services which over time the public will increasingly miss. The military may remain in place and welfare administration may not have stopped dead, but as time goes on the closure of permit offices, national parks and parts of the justice system, to name but a few examples, will begin to be felt by more and more of the population as they try and fail to access them.

Abe would not approve. EPA/Shawn Thew

Second, government spending is a vital component in the overall US economy, and has been even more so in recent years as the financial crisis and recession brought the private sector to its knees. While there have been tentative signs of recovery, the sudden withdrawal of huge tranches of government spending from circulation – both from the pockets of direct employees and from the vast number of individuals and businesses who rely on government contracts for their living – will deliver a major shock to the economy. The precise consequences are unknowable, but the short and definite version of what consequences it implies is: nothing good.

The great gamble

A key component in conventional thinking about the prospect of government shutdown until this moment has been the memory that last time it occurred. In 1995, congressional Republicans under the leadership of Newt Gingrich were blamed by the public for unreasonable behaviour, providing Bill Clinton with the opportunity to rebuild his own agenda and popularity.

The assumption has been that Republicans today would wish to avoid a shutdown for fear of a repeat of the same outcome. As it transpires, they have proven prepared to take their chances. That may be because they have reached an informed view that this time they can pass the blame to the president more successfully. Or it may be because radicals Republicans are sufficiently ideologically adamant, and have sufficiently little to lose personally by taking a hard-line posture, that they simply don’t care about the consequences and have drawn a line on principle.

Boehner, at least, and his Republican leadership counterpart in the senate Mitch McConnell, will be painfully aware of the risk they are taking with the party’s image. If the public shows signs of being as unforgiving in its assessment of Republican actions as some have foretold, then he will be forced to revisit his bleak choice between the radicals whose support he relies upon, and the centre-ground of public opinion his party needs if it aspires to future electoral victories at the national level.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

The Conversation

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