The 2012 election left American politics largely entrenched, something that the Global Agenda Council survey results identified as a major challenge. However, the electoral results, by default, should be interpreted as a country drifting towards higher levels of government involvement (and therefore increased taxes and spending) in society, ongoing multi-billion dollar deficits, and, in time, a significantly reduced ability to project “hard” or “soft” power. This last point is quite important because the United States “delivers” security and other global public goods both for its own interests and for the rest of the world.

Partisanship is not dead in the US, nor is entrenchment. As others have noted, US President Barack Obama is the first president in American history to have won his second term with smaller shares of the Electoral College count and the popular vote, and a smaller aggregate vote than when he was first elected; he won fewer actual votes than George W. Bush won in 2004.

The 2012 election did not resolve the issues of entitlement-driven deficits, primarily driven by the promises built over generations to pay for retirement and retiree health benefits. Deficit spending has been the result of avoiding or being unable to carry out difficult political choices.

The resulting continued political entrenchment after the 2012 election will put American leadership at risk in four ways:

  • The US Government will print more money (“quantitative easing”).
  • There will likely be major cuts to US defence spending, which will reduce the ability of the US to provide this central global public good that no one else is willing or able to provide.
  • The Obama administration will pursue a very weak global trade agenda (there are currently 100 global trade deals being negotiated worldwide in 2012 and the US is a party to only one of those deals).
  • Political entrenchment and the related deficit spending will force hard choices about traditional foreign assistance and other “non-kinetic” instruments of American power related to global engagement.

Do not expect China, Brazil and India to “pick up the slack”. Although they have been growing economically, are major global investors and even foreign aid providers, these countries like the status that comes with being a middle income country (space exploration programmes, better seats at the global table, pushing back on the Bretton Woods institutions), but have been unwilling to pay the “condo fees” except in limited ways. They offer sporadic or limited troop contributions in challenging places,  are incapable or unwilling to act to resolve global conflicts and show a willingness to play the “poverty card” when it suits them to opt out of paying the collective bills for the World Bank or other global institutions.

Europe has its hands full and there are no “takers” for Russian global leadership.

Regardless, we have global challenges that require, by default, American leadership or at least strong American participation. Some of those challenges will require burden sharing, using instruments other than the US military such as foreign assistance, trade or other resources. At the same time, the whole debate about “0.7% of GNI for foreign assistance” is dead on arrival in Europe and in the US and the developing world is moving to a better place beyond traditional assistance.

Traditional foreign assistance budgets are going to come under pressure that they have not seen in at least 10 years as part of a broadly reasonable review of all public spending to contribute to this new age of austerity. At the same time, given how small these budgets are, they are not going to close anyone’s deficit in the OECD countries.

The United States is going to have to work in “coalitions of the willing” (sorry but it’s a very descriptive term and I’m sticking with it) to confront specific challenges, more effectively combine different non-kinetic instruments such as trade, public diplomacy, investments and foreign assistance, and look at new instruments and partnerships where we catalyse private investment and private action.

As a result, this should not be the time to go after the charitable contribution tax write-off because it is one of the enablers of private global action. The challenges we face are immense. Our political process has not “resolved” our problems after this election.

Author: Dan Runde, William A. Schreyer Chair and Director, Project on Prosperity and Development, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), USA

Image: A voter enters his polling place to cast his ballot during the U.S. presidential election REUTERS/Matt Sullivan