US Government a Joke in Europe?

obama-pointing-grinIn his years in Washington reporting for The Scotsman, Alex Massie developed an appreciation for many things this country has to offer, such as college football.  But, as he explains in a piece for Foreign Policy, our Congress was decidedly not amongst them.

His piece is subtitled “Viewed from across the pond, the U.S. Congress seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke.”  He points to the dashed expectation that President Obama would change America’s foreign policy and, in particular, his promise to close Gitmo and embrace a global climate change treaty. Not only has Congress stymied those policies, they haven’t even confirmed several ambassadorial appointments a year into his tenure.

While it’s hard to defend some of this — and I don’t — my New Atlanticist essay “Congress Viewed from Across the Pond” does point out that Congress isn’t entirely to blame for these problems.  Moreover,

Even if our legislators suddenly became more mature and less petty (and I agree with Dave Schuler that they won’t) our system of governance was designed with the primary intention of making it difficult to get anything done.  Our Framers feared tyranny much more than inefficiency and designed our institutions accordingly.

For many, the idea that a party can win an election and yet not be able to govern as they wish is shocking. Because the United States is unusual — if not unique — in that regard, it’s unfathomable to those overseas.  Indeed, having taught the subject to college freshmen, I can attest that most Americans don’t understand it, either.    But, if you happen to be on the losing side of things, it’s very much a feature rather than a bug.

Much more at the link.

Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images.

FILED UNDER: Europe, Politics 101, US Politics, World Politics, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    “our system of governance was designed with the primary intention of making it difficult to get anything done”

    The two party system was not designed into the Constitution. It was an emergent behavior. If the Constitution defined the game, two party politics emerged as a self-reinforcing stratagem in that game.

    There is no reason in particular that this strategy should be good for outcomes. To survive it need only reinforce its own power at each election … as it does.

    Now, given that problems like matching taxation to spending can go on for decades, what is there to really prove that the two party system is best for citizens, as opposed to being best for the two parties?

  2. Highlander says:

    This is my personal observation over multiple decades of dealing with elected officials in offices from President to county sheriff.

    Unfortunately the truth is, at the end of the day these people(the politicians) are a pretty fair sample of who we are as a nation and as a people.

    Disappointed with the lack of excellence in our Imperial Capital, and with the apparent ability of all manner of Congress persons to rise well above their level of competence?

    Well,look around your personal world. How many truly excellent people do you encounter on a daily basis? And how many incompetent clowns do you encounter on a daily basis? Over the years more and more of our better people have become unwilling to serve. They can’t be bothered.

    As far as Washington goes,”we have met the idiots, and they are us”. Sad but true. Could it be the Imperial sunset,or just the legacy of the sorry ass baby boomer generation? A generation of which,I am an early member by the way.

  3. John,

    Quite correct about the parties and the constitution.

    However, bicameralism with co-equal chambers and separation of powers equals a system wherein policy-making is difficult. The representational basis of the Senate coupled with its odd (in a comparative sense) rules leads to even larger chances of impasse.

    Two-partyism isn’t even the issue. Indeed, in a different context (say, the British system), a strong two-party system produces a wholly different type of governing.

  4. Floyd says:

    Consider, view from across the pond… Parliament?

    I’ll give it to them though…
    Even viewed from Illinois, the U.S. Congress seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke, except when the joke is on you….then it is not quite as funny![lol]

  5. Andy says:

    Viewed from across the pond, the U.S. Congress seems at best incompetent and at worst a joke

    Judging by polls on the popularity of Congress, the view from this side of the pond isn’t much different.

  6. john personna says:


    I’ve never lived in a parliamentary system. From what I’ve heard of coalition forming and breaking, I’d expect them to have a different dynamic … indeed more of a dynamic.

    Regardless, I think it’s possible that we are getting something new, with the Constitution, two parties, and now a reduction in mass media. It doesn’t look good.

  7. Bengt Larsson says:

    I don’t think Europeans think the process is a joke, but the voters. If you vote for the politician who is the most on TV, you automatically vote for the more corrupt one. People complain about their politicians – and re-elect them. George W. Bush was re-elected. It’s not so much the process as the voters.

  8. sam says:

    Ah, the Europeans. Years ago I read an article by some Brit (name lost in the fog of time) about the United States. I don’t recall any of it except for one part where he was talking about some kind of craziness in Texas. “The United States,” he said, “why do Americans like it so much? Why do we like it so much?”

  9. Bengt Larsson says:

    @sam: That anecdote sure proves a lot. You have a very convincing argument there.

  10. sam says:

    Argument? What argument?

  11. sam says:

    BTW, Bengt, can you provide us with any citations, studies, and such to support this “argument”:

    If you vote for the politician who is the most on TV, you automatically vote for the more corrupt one.

  12. Steve Plunk says:

    Floyd sums up much of America’s opinion of it’s government. It’s laughable until you pay the price for it’s idiocy. That’s happening a lot more these days.

  13. laurie says:

    we have gone from somewhat difficult to nearly impossible to get things done in DC (at least in the senate.) This may not be a problem for libertarians, and repubs think it is a good thing as they relish their power to obstruct. But the American people are looking to the govt for help with unemployment, lack of healthcare, lack of college $ etc. We’ve seen the results under GOP leadership; it’s time to give dems, who won big in last two major elections, a chance to implement some of their agenda.