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Polarized Politics Has Infected American Diplomacy – The Atlantic

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The Atlantic

Moments of national crisis ought to bring Americans together. Instead, led by a divisive president, our society is being ripped apart, as the country is battered by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and centuries-old pathologies of racism and inequality. The consequences of our division are profoundly troubling at home, but no less worrisome abroad.

The style and substance of our polarized politics have infected American diplomacy. Policies lurch between parties, commitments expire at the end of each administration, institutions are politicized, and disagreements are tribal. The inability to compromise at home is becoming the modus operandi overseas. In the past, a sense of common domestic purpose gave ballast to U.S. diplomacy; now its absence enfeebles it.

Partisan divides about foreign policy are hardly new. I saw my share of them as a career diplomat, from the battles over Central America policy in the Reagan era to the war in Iraq two decades later. We’ve had plenty of painful fractures, bitter policy fights, and dramatic about-faces between administrations.

But as Stanford University’s Kenneth Schultz demonstrates in an important study, partisan animus and schizophrenia are more and more the rule, not the exception. Once a regular phenomenon, Senate approval of international treaties grew ever more tenuous over the last few decades. By the Obama administration, it had become nearly impossible. Even when Bob Dole—grievously wounded in World War II, and later a Senate majority leader and GOP presidential candidate—sat in his wheelchair on the Senate floor in 2012 and asked his fellow Republicans to ratify an international disability treaty modeled on U.S. law—nearly all of them walked past him to vote nay, bent on denying Barack Obama a victory of any kind.

If that seemed like a new low in reflexive partisan opposition, President Donald Trump—as with most everything else he does—proved he could dig even deeper. He has scrapped one agreement after another, with disruptive glee and no regard for Plan B. The Iran nuclear deal (“an embarrassment”), the Paris climate accord (“very unfair”), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“a rape of our country”), all negotiated by the administration of his Democratic predecessor, wound up on the trash heap. New START, following the president’s exit from the Open Skies Treaty, may be next. Meanwhile, the administration is channeling General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove, threatening to resume nuclear testing and spend rivals “into oblivion” in a new arms race.

If Representative Mike Pompeo’s Benghazi hearings showed the power of weaponizing foreign policy for domestic purposes (where polarization is the end, not the means), Secretary of State Pompeo’s tenure has been marked by the weaponization of domestic politics on the world stage. The impeachment scandal—the distortion of Ukraine policy to pursue what Fiona Hill aptly termed “domestic political errands”—is not the only example, just the most dramatic.

The erosion of the bipartisan foreign-policy consensus in itself is not a tragedy, given its innumerable flaws, blind spots, and uneven track record. But the intense divisiveness and scorched-earth tactics that have poisoned our domestic politics over the past decade are crippling American diplomacy as well. The consequences are severe. Three in particular stand out.

First, America’s credibility, reliability, and reputation for competence are damaged. Credibility is an overused term in Washington, a town prone to badgering presidents into using force or clinging to collapsing positions to prop up our global currency. But it matters in diplomacy, especially when America’s ability to mobilize other countries around common concerns is becoming more crucial, in a world in which the U.S. can no longer get its way on its own, or by force alone.

If our elected representatives won’t give a negotiated agreement a fair hearing, support it, or at a minimum avoid undercutting it even before the ink dries, why would any friend or foe enter into any kind of good-faith negotiations with the U.S.? And why should they have any confidence that the American government will deliver on its commitments if they do? I remember an Iranian diplomat asking me during an especially difficult moment in the nuclear talks why he should believe that an agreement wouldn’t simply be thrown overboard in a different administration. With less than total conviction, I replied that if all parties complied with their obligations, our system would uphold it. I certainly got that wrong.

The U.S. is stuck in the mud of its own polarized dysfunction, its already-bruised reputation for getting big things done suffering badly. Others around the world have always had grievances with America’s policies and its geopolitical weight, but they usually had a grudging respect for our competence, and for the power of our example. Today, the U.S. government can’t pass a budget, let alone bring the world together to stop the spread of a ruinous pandemic. Trump once claimed that foreigners were laughing at us. The reality today is far worse—they pity and discount us.

A second effect of polarization is the demolition of diplomacy’s apolitical role. I served 10 secretaries of state. They all had finely tuned political antennae, or they wouldn’t have gotten the job in the first place. All of them, however, were scrupulous about keeping domestic politics out of foreign policy. Pompeo, by contrast, has been the most partisan secretary of state in living memory—systematically sidelining career professionals in favor of political allies, waging a war against an imagined “deep state,” relishing political skirmishes, attacking “opposition” media, stripping away safeguards (like firing the State Department’s independent watchdog last month), and barely concealing his use of the department as a platform for future political ambition.

If the world gets used to dealing with distinct brands of Democratic and Republican foreign policies, the temptation to ignore career diplomats, meddle in our politics, and wait out the clock on seemingly adversarial administrations will grow at the expense of our national interests.

Finally, leaders undercut diplomacy’s potential when the “no compromise” feature of our domestic politics becomes a feature of our diplomacy as well. I remember a story about a mistranslated U.S.-military pamphlet released over Saddam Hussein’s forces during the 2003 invasion. It mistakenly read “Surrender and die” as opposed to “Surrender or die.” The former is a pretty good slogan for much of the Trump administration’s approach to diplomatic negotiations, embodied most fancifully in its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

The Trump White House is not the first to embrace lazy maximalism. That has been a ruinous habit of American diplomacy for some time. But in fanning the flames of polarization in foreign policy, the administration has done more than any of its predecessors to suffocate the potential of American diplomacy when we need it most.

Depolarization is hard. As my colleague Thomas Carothers has argued, it’ll be an especially tough challenge in the United States. Ours is a particularly acute form of polarization—it has been around longer than in most other countries, and it’s more deeply rooted and more multifaceted, an amalgam of ethnic, ideological, and religious divides.

The polarization of our foreign policy is still largely confined to the political elite, not the general public. That’s the good news. The bad news is that while polarization may start among elites, it rarely ends there. And once it spreads, it becomes nearly impossible to extinguish.

Partisan divides are stark today over a number of foreign-policy issues, such as climate change and immigration. But on some foundational policy questions, public opinion is far less fractured than it is in Washington. Despite President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, a growing majority of Americans support an active, disciplined role for the United States on the world stage; strong alliances; and open trading arrangements. More important, there is an increasing appreciation for the need to root foreign policy more firmly in the needs and aspirations of the American middle class.

A foreign policy more representative of the American public’s concerns than those of an inbred foreign-policy elite is a good start toward depolarization, but it’s not enough. American leaders will also have to deliver results—with far greater discipline abroad, and the kind of political skill at home that goes beyond just playing to the predispositions and passions of a partisan base.

That will require working with new constituencies—including mayors and governors, who have a decidedly more practical approach to foreign affairs—and renovating institutions charged with advancing our interests. Leaders will need to reinvent a foreign-policy consensus that reflects new global realities and domestic priorities, and avoid the temptation to solve foreign-policy polarization by shoehorning all our concerns into one unifying global crusade—even as central a challenge as our rivalry with China.

Polarization was a pre-existing condition in America, well before Trumpism. Change at the ballot box in November will be a powerful therapeutic, but not a cure. Reaching across the fissures laid bare by pandemic and protests will take time, vision, and hard work. And now, with an unforgiving international landscape, there is far less margin for error.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.

William J. Burns is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former deputy secretary of state, and author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal.

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When American Politics Turned Toxic – The New York Times

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BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE

Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party

By Julian E. Zelizer

When did American politics take the wrong turn that led to our present era of endless partisan warfare and hyperpolarization? According to the Princeton University history professor Julian E. Zelizer, politics went pear-shaped in the period from January 1987 to March 1989, when the maverick Republican representative Newt Gingrich rose to power, which culminated in the forced resignation of Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. Zelizer makes a convincing case that Gingrich not only “legitimated ruthless and destructive practices that had once been relegated to the margins,” he also helped to degrade Congress’s institutional legitimacy and paved the way for the anti-establishment presidency of Donald Trump.

Although “Burning Down the House” is not the first history to cast Gingrich as lead assassin in the murder of bipartisanship and effective governance, it is an insightful if deeply unflattering portrait of Gingrich himself, highlighting his signature traits of arrogance, ferocity, amorality and shoulder-shrugging indifference to truth. It’s not surprising that Gingrich declined the author’s interview request. And the book’s narrow time frame, which stops well short of Gingrich’s leading the House Republicans to their 1994 electoral triumph and his subsequent elevation as speaker, supplies a detailed and nuanced historical context that makes Gingrich’s actions more understandable if not excusable.

Gingrich first won election to Congress in 1978, representing a district based mainly in the northern Atlanta suburbs. It was a transitional moment when an older generation of Southern Democrats was being displaced in Congress both by reform Democratic “Watergate babies” and a rising wave of conservative Republicans like Gingrich. Zelizer’s masterly 1998 work, “Taxing America,” focused on one of those old Southern Democrats, Wilbur Mills, who chaired the powerful House Ways and Means Committee from the 1950s through the 1970s.

[ Read an excerpt from ”Burning Down the House.” ]

Gingrich’s adversary, Jim Wright, was a Texan born in 1922, from a political generation between Mills (born in 1909) and Gingrich (born in 1943). A protégé of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, he was sufficiently a part of the old Southern Democratic tradition that he voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But he soon regretted that vote and supported the Voting Rights Act the next year.

Zelizer’s portrait of Mills made clear that many of the old Southern Democratic committee chairmen were inclusive dealmakers concerned to reach bipartisan agreements and move legislation forward — with the glaring exception of any issue involving race. Zelizer doesn’t quite spell this out, but while Wright clearly was not a racist of the old stripe, neither was he a dealmaker of the same caliber as they were. That was partly because the post-Watergate reforms prevented the kingpins from negotiating behind closed doors, and partly because of ideological sorting within the parties. But it was also because House Democrats by the 1980s, convinced that Republicans would be permanently in the minority, regularly abused their majority power.

Democrats denied minority legislators adequate staff, excluded them from committee deliberations, gerrymandered their districts and even, Republicans were convinced, stole elections. Wright piously recorded in his diary that Republicans were making it impossible to “rely upon the gentlemen’s rules which have prevailed for all of my 30 years in Congress,” but the speaker broke plenty of norms himself with his parliamentary rule-bending. And despite the Watergate babies’ desire to remove money from politics, the Democrats did little to halt the stream of funds from lobbyists, private money and special interests that flowed principally to the majority party.

Those to whom evil is done do evil in return. Democratic bullying made moderate Republicans willing to empower Gingrich — their support was critical to his election as minority whip in 1989 over a more conciliatory candidate — and to tolerate his scorched-earth tactics. Gingrich insisted that the only way to end the Democrats’ four-decades-long majority was for Republicans to destroy Congress in order to save it. They would have to “put aside their concern for governance until they regained power,” according to Zelizer. They would seek to persuade the public that Congress had become “morally, intellectually and spiritually corrupt,” in Gingrich’s words, and to overthrow Speaker Wright as the embodiment of that illegitimate establishment. In pursuit of these ends all means were permissible, including the shattering of traditional customs, the destruction of opponents’ reputations and the embrace of maneuvers long held to be off-limits, like shutting down the government.

Zelizer argues that Gingrich made the media unwitting accomplices to his partisan crusade, just as the unscrupulous anti-Communist demagogue Joseph McCarthy had done in the 1950s. “The number-one fact about the news media,” Gingrich observed, “is they love fights.” By provoking confrontations with the Democrats, Gingrich would gain media attention — even more so when he succeeded in goading the Democrats into retaliation, which he portrayed as further evidence of their tyranny. The Woodward-and-Bernstein-inspired influx of young investigative reporters into Washington, most of them educated and well intentioned but ignorant of the practical operation of politics, offered a decisive opportunity for Gingrich, who “instinctively grasped the possibilities for taking advantage of their idealism.”

Zelizer sees Gingrich’s “masterstroke” as the co-option of reform-oriented institutions that, in Watergate’s wake, were supposed to make government more accountable and progressive. The ethics charges that Gingrich brought against Wright were, in Zelizer’s view, mostly spurious. But scandal-seeking journalists served Gingrich’s cause by churning out so many thinly sourced stories about Wright’s supposedly shady involvement with Texas oil executives and bankers that the leading good-government organization, Common Cause, felt compelled to call upon the House Ethics Committee to investigate him. This instantly transformed what otherwise would have seemed “a shabby partisan coup” into a respectable campaign, giving cover to Republicans who previously were reluctant to enlist in Gingrich’s vendetta and undercutting Wright’s Democratic defenders. From then it was just a matter of time until Wright was forced out.

Zelizer provides a moving description of Wright’s farewell address, in which the resigning speaker decried the “mindless cannibalism” that had overtaken politics, and he delivers an eloquent indictment of all those responsible for Wright’s downfall. These include Gingrich, of course, along with the journalists and good-government organizations he made his patsies. But they also include the Democrats who failed to stand by Wright, thus incentivizing Republicans “to ramp up their efforts and engage in even more brutal fights,” and Wright himself, who couldn’t adapt to a new era of partisan warfare.

Zelizer reserves some of his harshest verdicts for the Republican Party leaders who naïvely believed they could harness Gingrich’s insurgency. He acidly observes that while Republican gatekeepers of the early 1950s used McCarthy to attack their opponents, they never made the renegade senator their leader. Many, perhaps most of the Republicans of the Gingrich era deplored what the minority leader Bob Michel called “trashing the institution.” But Republicans who upheld reasoned opposition, bipartisan compromise, civil discourse and mutual respect deceived themselves about their ability to control the revolution and ended up being devoured by it. To quote the Talking Heads song that shares the title of this book, “Watch out — you might get what you’re after.”

Many social scientists believe that the partisan polarization that now afflicts us was all but inevitable, a byproduct of geographic and ideological sorting that led to more consistently ideological parties. If Newt Gingrich hadn’t pursued no-holds-barred partisan warfare, according to this line of thinking, someone else would have. But Zelizer forcefully counters that this view “denies agency to the politicians and leaders who pushed partisan combat into a deeper abyss at very specific moments.” The battle to overthrow Wright, he concludes, was one of those critical turning points “from which Washington never recovered.”

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China-Africa: Its the politics, stupid! – The Africa Report

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Why Guyana’s political stalemate matters – The Washington Post

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No, this isn’t Venezuela, but neighboring Guyana, which is entering its fifth month of political paralysis since the results of a March 2 presidential election were thrown into question by allegations of vote-rigging and fraud.

A lengthy recount of the ballots, which found a narrow victory for the opposition, only intensified the standoff. The ruling multiparty coalition led by President David Granger has latched on to an observations report by the country’s chief elections official, which said that as many as 115,000 of the approximately 400,000 votes cast in the election should be invalidated and that emigrants and the deceased were registered as having voted. Granger’s opponents reject the accusations as “baseless” and say their presidential candidate, Irfaan Ali, should be allowed to take the oath of office. The bulk of the international community, including Caricom, the Caribbean’s main regional bloc, and the Organization of American States, or OAS, appear eager for Granger to concede.

But he isn’t quite ready to do so. In a recent interview, Granger said his country and its interim government was abiding by a constitutional and legal process to manage its elections. Injunctions and appeals have taken the dispute to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice. “Guyana is not a rogue state,” Granger told Today’s WorldView. “We are on a path, albeit a slow one.”

Nevertheless, Guyana is being increasingly viewed as a troublesome actor. The OAS issued a statement in June calling on Guyana “to begin the process of transition, which will allow the legitimately elected government to take its place.” Both OAS and Caricom observers certified the recount results and say there is enough evidence to justify Granger conceding defeat.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week urged the Guyanese to “get on with it” and threatened potential punitive measures on Guyana or its leading officials if the country’s democracy remains deadlocked.

“Recent reports suggest questionable maneuvers by interested parties designed to continue forestalling a final declaration of results, which members of the press say indicates a defeat for the incumbent government,” read a bipartisan statement from members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). “President Granger should honor the will of the Guyanese people and concede.”

They added that, for the sake of “the future of democracy and the rule of law in our hemisphere, the ongoing uncertainty and gamesmanship must end.”

Granger urges outside patience. “I’m not a gamesman,” he said, insisting that the alleged rigging of the March election remained the real issue. “I don’t see any corruption, any fraud, delay,” Granger said of the impasse. “If there’s any fraud, it went into the boxes when the ballots were cast March 2.”

“The election is considered the most important since Guyana became independent from Britain in 1966, given the recent discovery of major oil and gas deposits near its coastline,” the Associated Press reported last month. “But the impasse has largely paralyzed life in the country of some 750,000 people. The Finance Ministry warned it’s unable to access funds amid the coronavirus pandemic because there is no functioning Parliament, which was dissolved in December.”

The delay has chilled investor enthusiasm in Guyana, where ExxonMobil has taken the reins of cultivating its oil industry. The U.S. company recently announced that the political stalemate and the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic were complicating its plans to ramp up oil production this year.

“The lure of petroleum revenue made these elections more exciting, perhaps more contentious than ever,” Granger admitted. But it also fueled a divisive election campaign that played largely along ethnic lines. The opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP), once the dominant ruling faction, is heavily backed by Guyana’s Indian-origin population. Granger’s party draws its strength from Afro-Guyanese voters, though it is in alliance with a smaller faction that champions multiracialism. He and his allies point to the proliferation of “fake news” on social media and have accused the PPP of bringing in Cambridge Analytica, the notorious (and now defunct) British political consultancy, to weaponize racial grievances.

“International business headlines discuss investor confidence in this small South American country on the brink of political disaster,” wrote Guyanese academics D. Alissa Trotz and Arif Bulkan. “But for Guyanese, the fundamental issue is how vulnerable our ongoing polarization makes us to this latest chapter of multinational resource extraction and exploitation.”

Granger appeared less perturbed. “We don’t have race riots or religious riots. We don’t have terrorism,” he said. “It’s a question of political competition, and I’m very confident it can be resolved in a peaceful way.”

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