It is not uncommon for American political scientists to look at the governing systems of India or Brazil and comment on how the success of these countries is compromised by populism. America now has a similar problem: a populist furor that is perverting America's ability to lead in the world.
The American primary system for the nomination of presidential and congressional candidates, a system never mentioned in the constitution, has allowed populist anger to be exploited into a veto on foreign policy. Primaries, as they have evolved with the assistance of social media, have become an exercise that grants extraordinary electoral power to the dissatisfied and to the extremes.
The brilliance of the American system of government is not just democracy, but democracy defined by a check on the power of the majority and the protection of the rights of the minority. The primary system was established to reform the nominating system, but very low turn out and the caucus procedure has turned it into a system that has the ability to upend that vey delicate balance. It has enabled the minority view to have an oversized influence on foreign policy.
And since the primary system empowers the fringes, it encourages candidates to take the most simplistic views on America's role in the world in order to win votes. These candidates highlight what political scientists call 'wedge issues,' instead of trying to lead and explain to the electorate the realities of today's more complicated globalized world.
The effect of the misalignment of power in the American primary system on foreign policy is substantial. Beyond the simplistic bombastic issues discussed such as forbidding Muslim immigration or carpet bombing of Syria or punching Putin in the nose, there have been maneuvers in Congress by members who are running for the Presidency, who in their need to score points among primary voters check any foreign policy initiatives that are not based on the narrowest interpretation of American exceptionalism.
Examples of this are numerous. Senator Cruz of Texas blocked the vote on the Senate floor in 2014 for International Monetary Fund (the IMF) reforms that would increase China's voting shares in the IMF from 3.8 % to 6%. The IMF voting shares, or quotas as they are called, were of course set up long before China became an economic giant. To continue to allow China's shares in the IMF to stay at only 3.8% was a denial of reality. In fact the proposed 6% still represents only about half of China's true size in the global economy. The reforms were proposed by the Obama administration to try to keep China within the Bretton Woods system.
Senator Cruz did this, as Bloomberg reported on May 6, 2014, to "build his case for 2016" (presidential run). Ostensively, Cruz's reason for blocking the vote on the IMF was that it would reduce the power of the United States. But that excuse is based on either not fully comprehending the economic realities of the world or, more importantly, not understanding the changes in the IMF structure that were included in the bill, or possibly both. The reality was that the bill barely reduced the U.S. shares in the IMF from 16.7 to 16.5. China's additional shares were mainly to come from individual European economies.
China, partly out of piqué over its inability to have its economic clout rightfully recognized by increased shares in the IMF, decided to form its own development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But the blocking of the IMF reform bill did something more damaging than simply insulting China. It showed to the rest of the world that the United States Congress does not understand the world. It showed that instead of leading towards the future by binding the rising power in the interconnecting economic web of globalization, it was more important, because of short term domestic politics, to acquiesce to the traditional black and white view of the world where if someone else gains, America loses.
In a wonderful commentary on Senator Cruz, the IMF and China, Christopher Hooks wrote the following in the Texas Observer on March 30, 2015,
"The fiasco (blocking the IMF vote) seemed, to many observers, evidence that Congress would never let China and other emerging economies have more voting power.
And so the Chinese search for an alternative accelerated. A few months later, it unveiled grand plans for its new bank, and observers told the Financial Times the proposal was directly tied to the death of IMF reform:
But Congress--and Cruz specifically--bears a significant amount of blame. Plenty of Republicans were happy to vote for IMF reform until it was made a litmus-test issue. Some Republicans now acknowledge stalling on the IMF package was a mistake: Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, no hippie squish, told a policy forum in Brussels recently that the policy fumble was "an unfortunate event and it might be bigger than we understand today."
It's a crummy way to manage a superpower whose influence is in relative, though not absolute, decline. It's one of the few things Cruz has done in Congress that has had real consequences. Now, of course, he's asking for control of American foreign policy."
Ironically, in December 2015 while Senator Cruz was out of Washington campaigning in Iowa, and more worried about stopping Donald Trump and Marco Rubio than the publicity he could get from bashing China, the IMF reform legislation was passed in the U.S. Senate as part of the omnibus-spending bill.
Although the IMF/China vote situation could be the most damaging since it was an unnecessary affront to one of America's largest economic partners, it is just one of many examples of how the dynamics of the primary system subvert America's ability to lead in a very nuanced globalized world. In addition, there was the fight over the Export/ Import Bank, which, if it had continued, would have given American manufacturers an undo disadvantage in a globalized economy. Then there is the Cuban embargo still in place because of the importance of Cuban - American Republican primary voters in Florida. The embargo prevents American companies from doing business in our own back yard, which of course enables our international competitors to do that business; somewhat of a reverse of the Monroe doctrine. And of course there is the anti global warming position of almost all of the Republican members of Congress, holding us back from acting responsibly in an increasingly important global effort to mitigate the harmful effects of global warming.
As the good and bad points of globalization becomes daily more integrated into the lives of Americans it is only natural and correct that all spheres of foreign policy be actively debated in a Presidential election. But debate should mean debate and not a populist check on policy.
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