Foreign Policy Blogs

The Eroding Authority of Government?


How does the “the eroding authority of government” impact American foreign policy making?

Recently, I had the privilege of a brief exchange with a senior defense advisor.  After the substance of the conversation, he commented that the debate itself was “evidence of the eroding authority of government.”

The question of trust in government has been around for a long time, of course.  But recent questions on both sides of the aisle raise important issues.  If the people don’t trust government, or, to be more precise, if citizens don’t view their government as having the “authority,” expertise, judgment, disposition, or political competency to make foreign policy, how does that impact the process and outcomes?

The “authority of government” has long been acknowledged as essential in successful foreign policy making.  The Weinberger Doctrine and Powell Doctrine noted the importance of the support of public opinion, as did Philip Crowl, head of strategy for the Naval War College.  So did Raoul Castex, Clausewitz and Sun Tzu.

The recent record of foreign policy authority is mixed, of course.  After initial U.S. military achievements, Iraq (without the promised weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs) and Afghanistan have severe, continuing difficulties.  A partial list of long-term foreign policy struggles today might include: drugs and immigration from Latin America, war in Syria and the lost opportunities from the Arab Spring, rising China and unpredictable Russia, an uncertain global economy, seemingly endless Israel-Palestine, and terrorism in places like Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen – not to mention Boston and Paris.

If there is an “eroding authority of government,” it is not only a result of frustration with outcomes but also with process. The government shutdown in 2013 angered voters on all sides, rejecting the posturing of their opponents but also frustrating taxpayers over the inability of the governing class to work together at all.  It was made worse by the seeming artificialness of it: less than half of federal workers were actually furloughed, and all of them eventually got full pay. Meanwhile, the political gamesmanship included stunts like blocking access to Washington’s World War II memorial – an open-air memorial that took more effort to close than to keep open.

U.S. government authority has also suffered from a continuing series of events at home that might fuel frustration among citizens. The 2008 financial crisis left a large and lasting impact, with several years of bad news in the growth, unemployment, and housing data. In just the last two years, examples are rampant. A Senate filibuster stirred the question of whether drones could be used against American citizens. Massive intelligence-gathering of telephone and Internet activity by the U.S. National Security Agency was revealed. The IRS admitted to using “improper criteria” in dealing with perceived political opponents of the administration. Technological problems marred the roll-out of the new Affordable Care Act (“ObamaCare”) web site. Flaws and fraud were exposed in the Department of Veterans Affairs.  At the local levels, the Virginia governor, members of Washington, D.C.’s city council, the New York State legislative leader, and others were charged with corruption.

Taken together, the American electorate has responded by switching back and forth between parties in recent years:  choosing a Democrat to replace a Republican in the White House in 2008, followed by an historic Congressional win for Republicans in 2010, returning support to the incumbent Democratic president in 2012, and then giving the Republicans the Senate in 2014.

While every era and every administration have difficulties and errors, at least two new factors may be at work.  The first is media saturation – including partisan cable networks, politically-active celebrities, and ubiquitous social media.  People and governments have more news to deal with in part because there are more news and opinion outlets, with constant updates on the device in your pocket.  Second, the Millennial voters (born in the 1980s and 1990s) have accelerated a trend away from party loyalty.  The Pew Research Center shows that millennials are less likely to identify with a political party – and less likely to trust people in general – than previous generations.  A similar pattern is emerging in science, with scientists and the public increasingly far apart on climate change, genetically-modified foods, and vaccinations.

How can this impact foreign policy processes and outcomes?  A lack of faith in government’s abilities and intentions can lead to a lack of support for, or lack of interest in, its policies.  Foreign assistance, investments, negotiations, and agreements might go lacking without Congressional support, or less scrutinized if Congress thinks the voters don’t care.  Budget impacts are sure to follow.  Most Americans already think we spend too much on foreign aid.

The eroding authority of government risks putting American foreign policy at a great disadvantage at a time of many important security, defense, economic and transnational challenges. Policies and debates that that are logical, well-grounded, and reasonable may be rejected or ignored by a skeptical public whose engagement and support is so important.




Jim Quirk

Jim Quirk teaches American and comparatiive politics at American University in Washington, D.C. He has taught at Loyola University Maryland, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria. His favorite projects have included work with in Mexico, Russia, the Balkans, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, OSCE, IEEE, and the Open World Leadership Center. He tweets from @webQuirks