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What is the effect of U.S. domestic political gridlock on international relations?

Question submitted by Joe Boutte, from United States, May 17, 2013

Answered by: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations


There is a well-known adage that politics stops at the water's edge, but this tends to be more hope than reality. American history is filled with examples in which political disagreement at home has made it difficult for the United States to act, much less lead, abroad.

Division within Congress or between the legislative and executive branches can make it impossible for individuals to be placed in senior positions. Such divisions can also make it impossible to conclude treaties, appropriate funds for foreign assistance, or pass specific reforms, such as the current proposed reform for immigration policy. A lack of consensus also can undermine investment in the foundations of American power, from resources for defense and diplomacy to education and infrastructure.

Gridlock at home can also work against the ability of the United States to set an example that other societies will want to emulate. And it makes the United States less predictable, something that can unnerve allies and others who depend on this country, and embolden adversaries. All this tends to contribute to global disorder—one reason I titled my new book Foreign Policy Begins at Home.

There are many proposals that, if adopted, would reduce gridlock, but many of these reforms are opposed by the same forces that welcome the ability to frustrate particular policies. The Supreme Court has over time shown little inclination to wade into such disputes. In the end, only politics—strong executive leadership along with powerful grass-roots organization—can bring about significant change in politics.