Earlier this week North Korea threatened to break the 1953 ceasefire with South Korea, citing the probability of new international sanctions and U.S.-South Korean military exercises scheduled for later this month and next. Secretary of State John Kerry responded by saying Pyongyang continues to make “belligerent and reckless moves that threaten the region, their neighbors and now directly the United States of America.”
Rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula are one more stunning reminder that U.S. foreign policy must be supported by the international perception that America has its act together. Unwillingness or inability to find a well-ordered approach to our fiscal and budget issues has flagged to the world that in Washington political acrimony is at an all-time high. Don’t fool yourself: overseas they see our domestic and international approaches as part and parcel of the same thing. For that reason, great effort was made, especially during the Cold War, to try and put a good face on our internal political differences. For the most part, we consigned much of the rough and tumble to “behind closed doors”—lest the USSR see a vulnerable America that couldn’t agree on or advance its national interests. And when we failed—amid the discord of the 1960s, for instance—our divisions were exploited abroad though propaganda and manipulation.
Today, the overt demonstration of a dysfunctional political system allows our adversaries to see openings where once they did not. As much as we think we are talking to ourselves and each political machination is for internal consumption only, there is no such thing as a domestic conversation within the confines of a country anymore. Technology today assures that dirty political laundry gets left out to dry and, given its ubiquitous nature, an international breeze picks up the scent.
That’s why the last eighteen months have been especially hard to watch. The international community – including many of our bond holders – has observed the way we handle unfolding events. What many of them have concluded is that our two political parties are intent on putting their ideological fortunes ahead of our national interest. This impacts them. That’s why we, as global leaders, should have provided predictability and cooperation in dealing with these sensitive issues.
At the same time, a number of prominent GOP senators attacked the president’s choice for secretary of defense—a Republican— knowing full well that former Senator Chuck Hagel had the votes to be confirmed. It was an unprecedented display of political grandstanding. I predict that Secretary Hagel will prove his critics wrong. But did those senators, who purport to be national security hawks, really believe that only Americans were listening to their personal slurs of a former colleague?
It appears that our politicians don’t know the difference between politics and policy anymore, which has brought us to a leadership crisis at the very point in our history when our country’s future depends on our capacity to find compromise. Political leadership is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, putting the country first, and demonstrating moral courage. That sense of moral bravery, seemingly absent in recent times, would have required both sides to engage in a series of intensive closed door sessions until they had hammered out a comprehensive deal—which would have averted other rounds of crises. Instead, over the last eighteen months they “negotiated” with each other via Twitter, Facebook and friendly 24/7 cable programs. This wasn’t a serious effort to find a solution for the country; it was only an attempt to talk to their supporters. Guess who was listening and watching?
News just in tells us that President Obama is now reaching out to the Republicans to see if a compromise is possible. This is a welcomed move. We need to reverse our image overseas that the federal government is hobbled by paralysis and dissension. If we don’t, our nation’s rivals and adversaries may have all the information they really need to know. Appearances of acrimonious gridlock or a failure of “collective will” can be more important intelligence for a foreign power than any specific security breech.
Many Americans are deeply concerned about this country’s crisis of governance. I am pleased to have been asked to serve on The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform. Over the coming year we will be engaging the American public on issues of concern, and providing recommendations that may help create an impetus for change. Follow our activity here. They have put together an impressive program that deserves your attention. You may also be interested to read of the Commission’s kick-off event, which was held earlier this month.