The End of Leadership – and the Coincidence of Self Interest

Though 80 percent of Americans say that threatening a government shutdown is an unacceptable way to negotiate, that’s exactly what’s happening in Washington. The president says he is unwilling to negotiate with Republican “extremists.” And Republicans are too busy fighting with each other even to notice whatever the rhetoric emanating from the White House.

The result is the American people held hostage to a government so hobbled it raises questions about democracy in the 21st century. And the result is the United States of America itself diminished by dysfunction that has transitioned from episodic to chronic.

If this were the first time that the president and the Congress had been unable to do the people’s work it would be one thing. But this has become a pattern – Ground Hog Day on steroids. Repeatedly we witness the spectacle of elected officials so mired in their own morass they are unable to do the right thing in anything resembling a civilized and timely manner. Too few in Washington are able to lead. Too few in Washington are willing to follow. Too many members of the governing class are atomized – unable to connect to compromise.

How different the picture at the international level! Right and left amazing things are happening! Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin have become best friends forever. Bashir al-Assad is willing suddenly to surrender his arsenal of chemical weapons. The American president and the Iranian president are chatting on the phone. And the Israelis and Palestinians are engaging in continuing conversation.

How to explain this disconnect – the difference between being stuck in domestic affairs and, apparently, forging ahead in foreign affairs? Try this – self interest. It is not that the American president is a failure at home and a success abroad, that he cannot lead here but he can lead there. Rather it is that for a constellation of reasons there is in world affairs, for the moment at least, a coincidence of self interest. It is in Putin’s self interest to press his client, Assad, to get rid of his chemical weapons. It is in Assad’s self interest to go along with his patron, Putin. It is in Iran’s self interest to negotiate on its nuclear program in order to reduce the crippling sanctions against it. It is in the self interest of the Israelis and also the Palestinians to seem at least to be seriously negotiating under the watchful eye of Secretary of State John Kerry. And of course it is in Obama’s self interest to create a climate in which any one of these changes, not to speak of all of these changes, is, would be, a personal and political gift.

What I am arguing is that the difference between what is happening at home and what is happening abroad is more apparent than real. There is no more good leadership, or for that matter good followership, in foreign affairs than there is in domestic affairs. It is just that at the international level there happens to be, at this particular time, a coincidence of self interest. Putin’s self interest happens to coincide with Obama’s; Assad’s with Putin’s, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s with American president Barack Obama’s, and so on.

I will however admit that all this putative progress in international relations does raise an important question: why now? Is the coincidence of self interest merely coincidence? Or is there something in the ether that has enabled it, encouraged it? Mostly it is merely coincidence – but not entirely. The president of the United States deserves some credit for creating a context at the international level that has escaped him at the national level – one in which compromise is considered a game that under certain circumstances ends in a win-win. It is not necessarily, not always anyway, If I win you lose.

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