The Internationalization of US Policy Paralysis and the Collapse of American Diplomacy

Global finance will never be fully regulated at an international level as long as sovereign states exist. At the same time, international financial flows are an important part of how the global economy works, so to be effective regulations need some measure of international coordination. Watching Barack Obama talk about financial reform at last night’s State of the Union has left Felix Salmon worried on this score:

What I’m worried about here, then, is that the Obama administration’s financial-reform proposals are being driven much more by domestic political calculus than by a coordinated international attempt to create a global financial system that is less leveraged and more stable than the one we’ve grown used to.

The thing is that this problem is perfectly general. The dysfunctional nature of the United States Congress means that essentially all diplomatic intercourse with the American government is worthless. If you were at a G8 meeting talking regulation, why would you take the Obama administration’s positions seriously? Or at a Major Economies Forum meeting talking about climate change? Or at a UN Security Council meeting talking about multilateral nuclear disarmament? Or a meeting about “global imbalances” and the need for eventual public sector deleveraging? A WTO meeting about trade in agricultural commodities? It would almost make more sense at this point for Susan Collins’ staff to represent the US in international fora, though even she can’t deliver the 67th vote needed to ratify something like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Domestic political constraints at a diplomatic meeting are nothing new. And in some ways they can strengthen your hand. If you say “look, Japan, I sympathize with what you’re saying but unless you give me my way on this one point Congress will throw the whole thing out” then this is a good way of getting Japan to give in on the one point. But if the people you’re negotiating with think that anything you oppose will face unanimous opposition from a minority with the power to block bills, while your own party isn’t even disciplined enough to provide the leadership with consistent backing on procedural issues, then what is there really to negotiate about?


What’s especially troubling about this is that it’s asymmetrical. A president who “can’t get anything done” still has a wide latitude to conduct national security policy to his liking, but basically only in reactionary ways. Congress can’t or won’t stop a president from launching a war, or detaining people without trial, or surveilling them without warrants. But the progressive view on international policy isn’t merely that we shouldn’t do those things, but that we should take constructive steps to cooperate with other countries on problems of mutual concern. But if the president can’t credibly promise congressional action, then he can’t really undertake cooperative international action.