Self-Inflicted Wounds: How Political Polarization at Home Hurts Trust in America on the World Stage

Image Credit: New York Times

America’s polarization prevents it from making legally strong international agreements and encourages elected officials to undercut one another. This prevents America from appearing as a stable military ally and trading partner to many developing countries, which can allow rising superpowers like China to fill the void created by American domestic bickering. This may have long-lasting effects on future Americans if the economic and military centers of the world lie in China and not America.

Much of the recent American political dialogue has remarked upon the deep divisions that exist within American society. American television and social media are filled with heated discussion over certain NFL players’ decision to kneel in protest of police brutality and racial inequality during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner as well as other hot-button issues like climate change. While much of the focus of media coverage revolves around dueling views on these various issues or how Americans can begin to reconcile with each other, one less explored avenue is the effects of domestic polarization on US credibility on the international stage.

Inherent to America’s presidential system of government, the President and his/her Secretary of State have broad authority to conduct foreign policy on behalf of the United States. However, Congress possesses a few important checks on the executive branch. Besides oversight, Congress must approve all declarations of war, must appropriate all funds, and two-thirds of the Senate must ratify all treaties the President signs on behalf of the United States of America. This is where polarization can inject itself into the process and effectively paralyze the entire enterprise. As divisions have grown deeper in America, the behavior of elected leaders regarding international affairs has changed accordingly.

Especially after the rise of the Tea Party in 2010, the Obama presidency was plagued by Congressional gridlock and tension between the Republican majority and the Democratic White House. This spilled into the foreign policy sphere in an ugly way during the final negotiations of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Secretary of State John Kerry—who had been working in concert with Chinese, Russian, French, British, and German diplomats—met with Iranian leaders to secure a peaceful end to their nuclear program in exchange for relaxing economic sanctions. However, immediately afterward, 47 GOP senators sent an “open letter”  to the Iranian government explaining that they would consider the forthcoming agreement ”nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time.” A similar story unfolded with the Paris Accords. Knowing that a comprehensive climate change agreement would never gain the required support in the Senate, President Obama—along with almost every other country in the world—signed the deal as an executive agreement, which was widely criticized by GOP Congressional members.

So, why does this matter? By failing to work together, publicly undercutting one another, and in operating through executive agreements, America’s promises to the world have become less stable than they once were. As the GOP’s letter to Iran correctly demonstrates, executive orders can be quickly torn up by the next administration. For other countries, making an executive agreement with the United States is only as safe as long as the administration that creates it retains power. As congressional gridlock deepens, executive agreements are the only way for modern presidents to operate regarding politically tenuous issues. The space for compromises that lead to treaties is ever-shrinking. 

The problem bleeds back into domestic politics as well. At his famous campaign rallies, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump would often excoriate President Obama for the Iran Deal and the Paris Accords. Playing to the crowd, he would promise to withdraw the USA from the agreements shortly after he took office, eliciting major applause. While it is likely too early to tell, this could be the beginning of a dangerous pattern where even international issues are not free from the domestic political tribalism that prevents the compromise that is necessary for America to be a global leader. For the USA to have a coherent foreign policy, the President needs to have the backing of Congress because the latter controls the most influential foreign policymaking tools such as spending for various diplomatic and military endeavors, the ratification of treaties, and, of course, the power to declare war. Polarization incentivizes members of rival parties to undercut one another and refuse to compromise on workable solutions.

This could not come at a worse time for America. By handcuffing itself with polarization, the USA—formerly the leader of a unipolar world order after the fall of the USSR—is inadvertently creating a power vacuum that other countries growing in power are eager to fill. Most notably, China is rising on the global stage. As developing economies in Southeast Asia, Africa, and elsewhere in the world look for military alliances, trading partners, and a reliable ally to trust in international politics, an America constrained by domestic polarization and bickering is much less appealing than one that could come together to maintain itself as the global leader.

Ruthless as it may be concerning civil rights, China presents itself as a much more stable trading partner for the future in the eyes of many developing countries. As Democrats and Republicans continue to bicker—campaigning on withdrawing from all international agreements the prior administration had made—rising global powers like China will gladly fill the void America is creating. By no longer being a trustworthy ally, the economic center of power may shift toward East Asia in the coming decades and centuries, putting US companies at a disadvantage and making growing economies more likely to side with China than the USA in international disagreements when they arise. As a consequence of its increased economic might, China would likely also attempt to extend its military power. If a future conflict similar to the South China Sea islands dispute arises, many states will be swayed by their economic connections. If China is their major trading partner, many former US allies could potentially side with China for fear of economic retaliation. This economic leverage would allow China to grow in power and presents a huge problem for American interests in Asia.  

The above could have adverse effects on the average American as China overtakes America in the global economy and likely expands militarily. This impending shift could potentially be fixed if the American foreign policy apparatus could come together instead of being frozen in gridlock or having its politicians publicly undercut each other. And, even if elected officials do not agree with proposed policies, they should recognize that refusal to compromise only downgrades America’s status as an ally and the believability of the long-term agreements America makes, which carries potentially long-lasting, devastating effects.  

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