One of the most tiresome journalistic tics of the modern era is the incessant, automatic characterization of the President of the United States as “the most powerful individual in the western world”, or, these days, perhaps, the world. It’s true that there’s a very small group of people who could bring human life on this planet to an end, if they chose, and the President of the US is one of them, and has the largest nuclear arsenal.
But power means more than that, and power, we find on examination, is actually rather difficult to use effectively. The US has, certainly, been able to impose its will on other countries at certain times. It forced Japan to deregulate its financial sector in the 1990s, for example (and so ultimately destroy the economy) but the financial lobby behind this initiative didn’t actually benefit from it as much as the Japanese did. Beyond that, the US isn’t actually that good at getting other nations to do what it wants except at the rhetorical level.
Which brings us, logically enough, to violence. And here’s an odd thing. For a country which has suffered a string of defeats in modern times, the US retains an almost childlike faith in the utility of force and violence to achieve political ends. Every American President seems morally obliged to destroy at least one country during his tenure, often in the professed belief that it will be somehow born again, but better and more virtuous.
What’s the reason for this trail of disasters? Are American diplomats incompetent? No, I’ve met some highly competent ones. Are American policy ideas always wrong? Not necessarily, or at least no wronger than those of most other nations. The reality is that the foreign policy bureaucracy in Washington (in which the State Department is only one player, incidentally) is so huge, and luxuriant, so complex and divided, that managing it dwarfs everything else, including the problems it thinks it is trying to solve. As a result, a foreign policy issue of any importance in Washington simply becomes an aspect of the endless, violent, pointless turf-wars which characterise that unhappy and dysfunctional city, irrespective of the reality on the ground in countries that hardly any of the players know anything about. Back in the 1990s, for example, when I was involved with Bosnia, getting the warring factions in that country to agree to something was actually rather easier that getting the warring factions in Washington to agree to anything at all. As a result, and harsh as it may sound, there are few problems in this world which would not be easier to solve if the US were not involved. That country’s presence twists and distorts all problems into aspects of US domestic policy, which is the last thing that’s needed.
Ideally, the next American President would be a thoughtful individual who would recognize that his (or her) country faces terrible economic and social problems, and that those problems need tackling before the US even thinks of engaging with the rest of the world. That won’t happen, of course, so the best alternative is probably a weak, indecisive President who won’t do too much damage, won’t start too many wars and won’t destroy too many countries. We can live in hope.