America: An Unreliable Ally

The American political system is strange. It has three branches; the Executive, Congress and the Judiciary. Judges within the judiciary are appointed by the Executive with approval from Congress. The President is the highest official in the Executive branch and elected directly by the people. And all members of Congress are also directly elected. All the lawmaking power lies with Congress and it is generally very hard to repeal laws which have already been enacted. On the other hand, the Executive branch is a fickle-minded body where the current President’s whims and fancies are the primary deciding force. Treaties are signed by the Executive branch. And wars begin and end at the Executive branch’s will. This makes America an unreliable republic to have any kind of long-term agreement with.

Democracies crave stability. Economies are the most important things that governments manage, and long-term economic policy can be drafted only when one’s allies are clearly known and their behavior can be reliably anticipated or they can be trusted to give sufficient warning of major policy changes. There are more problems that governments generally want to solve like providing the right amount of nutrition to citizens and enabling access to modern healthcare, emanating from Research and Development efforts in allied countries. All these things hinge upon a reliable ally.

The US-UK relationship is special1. This in turn makes sudden policy changes such as Brexit in UK difficult to navigate for the allied country. Similarly, the abrupt American exit from Afghanistan left Britain in a strange spot. They discovered that refugees from the war-torn country were going to come to various countries in Europe and might soon be eligible to travel to and work on British soil. This puts the policies that both countries have for their own countries in jeopardy, as these sudden excess/deficient flows of goods and people will drive a wedge through established policy.

The Executive branch signs treaties which the Executive branch is free to leave. The reversal is not at all stunning, and in fact, is the obvious solution to an ideological disagreement. If your predecessor entered a deal that you believe is not a good one, just leave. Being in the powerful position of being the largest economy and a leader among English-speaking nations (which covers most of the world, due to British colonial history), the US seldom has to worry about actual impacts inside America.

I stress the word actual here because the Media coverage will insist on the “stunning policy reversals,” even though a self-interested actor (such as a politician) will think of this reversal as the obvious step. Journalists seem to have a soft-spot for symbolic moves. I am incensed by this false emphasis on “symbols” within policy, where the final policy that gets enacted is what matters, and everything else is just fluff. (Sidenote: The US government is good at creating fluff: Biden managed to improve his approval ratings abroad within just 3 months of taking office. This approval rating abroad started falling later in his presidency though. And the global media is exceptional at consuming fluff, both of the self-aggrandizing sort and otherwise.)

Obama entered the Iran Nuclear Deal and the Paris Climate Accords in 2015. Both of these were touted to be a big deal2 at the time and for several years after the fact. Trump took office and swiftly moved to get out of both deals. He gave various reasons for his departure. From the point of view of other parties to this treaty, the reasons are immaterial and no amount of ridiculing Trump3 or the Republican Party is of any real use. The consequential decision had already been made.

Finally, going further in from foreign policy to America’s domestic stance on issues, Biden’s famous “executive order” purge on his first day in office was another symbolic move that served to confirm America’s unreliable status as a “partner” in anything. I was surprised that the Biden administration made a big deal about directly reversing 9 Trump executive orders; this kind of stunning policy reversal is the last thing other partners want to see.

With a falling approval rating at home and abroad and an inability to build a consensus for domestic policy, the Biden administration has failed at their “America is Back” campaign. Facing a grueling mid-term election in just 1 year, in which they are projected to lose control of Congress, it is questionable that any significant policy will be enacted in Biden’s remaining presidential term.

However, this is in no way a hindrance for people that want to see America do something big: the Judiciary branch’s top body, the Supreme Court, has just begun a term with some very big cases scheduled. And Congress is probing both Facebook and Google for (what I approximate to) shady monopolistic business-running behavior.

  1. “The United States has no closer ally than the United Kingdom, and British foreign policy emphasizes close coordination with the United States.” 

  2. I can not comprehend why a climate agreement where countries set non-binding targets which they can choose not to adhere to is a big deal. But hey, your local journalist says its a big deal and so it is. 

  3. Colbert’s coverage of Trump was vitriolic and unwatchable during most of this period.