Category: GBU

The Past Shapes the Future: The Weimar Constitution in context

Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist

Germany is celebrating three important events this year: The 100th anniversary of the Weimar Constitution, 70th anniversary of its Basic Law and 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate these occasions, the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development (CCSDD) in Bologna and The SAIS Observer are partnering for a series on the future of German constitutionalism. This article is the second of eight.

By David C. Unger

This year marks three German constitutional anniversaries: the centennial of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, 70th anniversary of the 1949 Basic Law of the (West) German Federal Republic and 30th anniversary of the 1989 breaching of the Berlin Wall, leading to the absorption of the former East German lander (states) into the Federal Republic the next year.   

Anniversaries are not events. They are reminders of past events, occasions for reflection, celebration, regret or indifference, depending on how the sequels of these past events are currently perceived. Judgments change as new events reshape the questions we ask of the past.

Otherwise, there would be no point writing new histories of the French Revolution, Germany’s 19th century unification or the Versailles Treaty. All of these, particularly the last, shaped the world in which the Weimar Constitution operated. The Versailles Treaty, concluded six weeks before the Weimar Constitution was adopted, left a toxic legacy of constricting German borders, leaving significant German minorities outside those borders, unrealistic reparations and, most crucially, the ideological trope of a Germany that had not been militarily defeated, but politically “stabbed in the back” by socialist politicians, on whom all the above-mentioned problems could be blamed.

Early judgments about the Weimar Constitution were shaped by the 14 turbulent years of the Weimar Republic, then reshaped by the following 12 years of Nazi rule. Today’s judgments must also consider the 70 years of the postwar Federal Republic and more than six decades of treaties that have shaped, and continue to reshape, the European Union. East Germany’s 45 years of constitutionally separate existence must also be taken into account.

This contextual approach does not ignore the dictum of the 19th century German historian Leopold Von Ranke that history is what actually was (wie es eigentlich gewesen); it recognizes that what actually was consisted of complex and multidimensional interacting phenomena, some of which can be better understood in the light of subsequent experience or as new generations confront similar problems.

A new era of income inequality and fiscal austerity lets us see the political stresses of the 1920s and early 1930s in a clearer light. The same goes for today’s heightened politicization of ethnic nationalism and ethnic difference. In fact, much about the interwar decades of the 1920s and 1930s seems eerily relevant to much of today’s politics, as a rereading of Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation” makes clear.


The Weimar Constitution, drafted by Germans under the watchful eyes of the victorious powers of World War I, had many flaws, such as its now notorious Article 48, which gave German presidents the power to declare national emergencies and temporarily rule without parliament (the Reichstag). As with Donald Trump’s recent use of emergency powers to build a border wall, Weimar’s emergency powers could be cancelled by a vote of the Reichstag (Weimar required only a simple majority, not the two-thirds required to override a U.S. presidential veto).

As the Trump example shows, presidential emergency powers under the Weimar Constitution were not outside the parameters of representative democracy. Weimar’s elected presidents were less free to ignore Reichstag majorities than the pre-war hereditary Kaiser had been.

What made Article 48 so notorious to later eyes was that it paved the way for Hitler’s 1933 Enabling Act. The act, a constitutional amendment and therefore requiring a two-thirds majority, was passed by a Reichstag that the Nazis dominated and intimidated, but in which they held less than a simple majority. As William L. Shirer notes in “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” before the vote, Hitler reassured the Reichstag, “The government will make use of these powers only insofar as they are essential for carrying out vitally necessary measures . . . The number of cases in which an internal necessity exists for having recourse to such a law is in itself a limited one.”

It was the Enabling Act (not Article 48) that allowed Hitler to rule indefinitely without the Reichstag while remaining technically within the bounds of the Weimar Constitution. So was the problem Article 48 or Hitler’s later use of it to legitimize one-man rule? Or, was the underlying problem the political, economic and social crisis of the early 1930s that made this extreme stretching of constitutional emergency powers seem acceptable to the German voters of 1933 and their elected representatives? While Donald Trump is no Adolf Hitler, similar questions could be asked about the use of presidential emergency powers in the U.S.

Another criticized feature of the Weimar Constitution was its provision for national referenda, like the 1934 plebiscite that combined the offices of president and chancellor to make Hitler absolute dictator. While no one would ever mistake David Cameron for Adolf Hitler, the parliamentary paralysis following the 2016 Brexit referendum reminds us that plebiscitary democracy can imperil parliamentary democracy anywhere, not just Weimar Germany.

Weimar Germany has also been faulted for its system of proportional representation, which weakened large parties, empowered small ones and made stable majorities difficult. Yet even in Britain, with no proportional representation, Theresa May has been hostage to the 10 votes wielded by the small, sectarian Democratic Unionist Party.  Once again, was the real problem the Weimar Constitution or the fractured political world it operated in?

Weimar Germany’s most corrosive problem was its violent rejection from birth by the nationalist and militarist right. Under assault by rightist putschists and communist revolutionaries during its first five years, the Weimar Republic seemed to stabilize after 1924, only to be battered again after 1930 by the social economic and political stresses of the Great Depression.

Technically, the Weimar Constitution remained in force until Germany’s unconditional surrender of 1945, used by the Nazis to apply a veneer of legality and legitimacy over a totalitarian dictatorship. And the vast majority of German bureaucrats kept on following orders, no matter who gave them, a phenomenon not unique to the Weimar Republic.

Amid the disasters of defeat and occupation, Germans came to believe in the 1940s that a more thoroughgoing change in constitutional and political culture was needed for Germany to be reborn.


Conventionally, the Weimar Constitution has been remembered for its flaws, the 1949 Basic Law for correcting those flaws and reunification for the triumph of that Basic Law which formed the basis for a new, democratic, united Germany. Perhaps a better way to understand these three turning points is to broaden the frame from constitutional history to the longer-running process of German unification.

In this broader view, we can analyze a halting, problematic process which begins with Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and moves through the 19th century dynastic power struggles, Bismarck, Weimar Germany, the Third Reich and the cold war division of Germany to culminate after 1990, for the first time, in a democratic and federal German nation-state peacefully cooperating with, rather than worrying and threatening, its European neighbors.

The constitutional strand of this broader history is itself rich in paradox. Drafters of 1949 Basic Law were less sovereign actors than their 1919 Weimar forebears, yet produced a constitution that enjoyed a much more broadly-based (West) German consensus. Through the traumas of defeat and occupation, a vital new democracy was born. Couldn’t the same be said in slightly different ways, of France and Italy?

David C. Unger is a journalist and former foreign affairs editorial writer for The New York Times (1977-2013) and adjunct professor of American foreign policy at SAIS Europe.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The aftermath of Pulwama

Photo Credit: Surajit Das

By Cecilia Panella and Srijoni Banerjee


Conflict in Kashmir isn’t necessarily a new occurrence. Since gaining independence from the British in 1947, India and Pakistan have each claimed sovereignty over this mountainous region. Since each country only controls part of this territory, the fluidity of national boundaries has sparked conflict after conflict in the area. To make matters more complicated, both states started nuclear weapons development programs in the mid-1970s and have since accrued at least 130 warheads each. Thankfully, conflicts over the Kashmir region have never escalated to the point of a nuclear detonation, but the introduction of terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pakistan have pushed the bounds of diplomacy.

The most recent crisis seems to touch upon — and exacerbate — many of the sensitive issues between the two states. Border security, the rise of violent non-state actors and air power escalation have all played a role in the events this past February, when a suicide attack on a bus carrying Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir sparked the two-week confrontation that led to the capture and eventual release of an Indian air force pilot. While onlookers may now take a sigh of relief as tensions subside, many analysts fear that this mini-crisis may be reflective of more sinister long-term problems in the India-Pakistan relationship. This week’s episode of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” will be analyzing the crisis and its second- and third-order effects on the region and around the world.



The United States has long counted on India’s non-alignment on the global stage as a balancing factor between a potentially dangerous Pakistan and a revisionist China. While this crisis highlighted some of the worst aspects of modern international relations — fueled by jingoistic vitriol and rapidly deteriorating relations in the global spotlight —it also forced American policymakers to take a critical look at the India-Pakistan relationship, its positioning in relation to the United States and the rest of the global order and ultimately confront the dangers of regional conventional and nuclear force imbalances.

American diplomatic efforts in Pakistan have run the gamut from expansive diplomatic dialogue in attempts to limit the flow of terrorist financing operating in and around the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to threats of escalation should Pakistan not ally itself with American counterterrorism operations in the region. It is clear that the Americans have underestimated the leverage that Pakistan has in this arena, especially given recent American overtures toward a peace agreement with Taliban forces. As much as the United States would like to be able to minimize the threat that Pakistan poses to the Indian border, the reality of the situation — one drawn out by this crisis in particular —is that the United States cannot “meaningfully inhibit Pakistani risk-taking” in this area. That is not to say that the United States is without avenue for improvement: As Brookings Institution Visiting Fellow Madiha Afzal points out, the United States would do well to establish a relationship with the Pakistani civilian government rather than simply seeking to cooperate with the military. If the United States hopes to leverage Pakistan in support of future American interests, a reassessment of our foreign policy approach is necessary.

When taken individually, these events suggest that there is little if any upside to the crisis. If we drill down further on this issue, it is obvious that this is only true if our unit of measurement is efficacy of American involvement. When we note that this situation was de-escalated by Pakistan and India themselves without a meaningful American influence and in spite of the fact that previous military posturing would have favored further escalation, we really have to credit the diplomatic efforts of the Pakistani and Indian governments. Slightly cooler heads did, in fact, prevail.


Indian Wing Force Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s safe return from Pakistan was the first silver lining in a regional crisis that was on the brink of devolving into an issue of international concern. Not only did it prompt a sigh of relief from millions across the world who were waiting with bated breath to see what would unfold next, but it also showed Pakistan’s keenness to follow through with its request of  renewing peace talks with India. I believe this gesture of goodwill will, at least temporarily, de-escalate tensions that had been on the rise in the wake of the Pulwama terrorist attack. Commander Abhinandan’s positive treatment while in Pakistani custody and his timely return might bring India back to the negotiating table, but this is not a guarantee given India’s surprising military attack on Pakistan’s Balakot region on Feb 26. It is obvious that the jury is still out as to what India intends to do strategically. In terms of global support, an overwhelming majority of states have openly denounced Pakistan for allowing the safe haven and financing of terrorist cells — including typical allies such as China and Iran — signaling a moral victory for India in winning international sympathy and emerging with the diplomatic upper hand.



What was particularly concerning about this conflict was the blatant distortion of facts and hype around misinformed rumors that surfaced from premier news sources.This kitsch display of “performative nationalism,” as Shashank Joshi of The Economist would call it, was in full force and, predictably, resulted in inflammatory reactions from both countries. After India’s surprise airstrike in Balakot, the Indian government did not release any visual evidence of the effectiveness of the operation. Instead, the Indian media took it upon itself to produce footage showing fighter jets attacking a town, which turned out to have taken place in 2017. In a similar fashion, Pakistani news outlets also shared a photo of the Pakistan air force supposedly taking down an Indian fighter jet, which was later revealed to be the wreckage from a previous crash. This flagrant disregard for fact-checking or responsible journalism was wildly successful in guiding public opinion and inciting hyper-nationalistic sentiment on both Indian and Pakistani soil. It’s bad enough that sensitivities regarding India and Pakistan’s equation were at an all-time high without the media’s twisted, yet heavy, involvement in our lives causing everyone — and I do mean everyone — to claim to have an “informed” opinion on the matter.


My concerns are more focused on the role of other regional actors in this crisis. I’m still of the opinion that a lack of American leverage was not a bad thing in this particular situation, but this crisis exposed a larger regional power vacuum. China’s border with India and Pakistan made it a natural political behemoth in this space, and Chinese calls for restraint and diplomatic dialogue dominated the news. Despite these peace overtures, the Chinese have exhibited a vested interest in the continuation of a India-Pakistan squabble in two major ways: First, China has repeatedly allied itself with Pakistan against Indian interests, forcing the Indian military to divide its attention between its eastern and western borders. Second, China sends 40 percent of all of its military exports to Pakistan, including the new Wing Loong II UCAV, China’s largest drone export.

When coupled with India’s recent deal with Russia for $5 billion worth of weapons, the message is clear: South Asia is aligning itself away from the United States. Another fun fact? India’s deal includes the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, the very same defense system that has strained the U.S.-Turkish bilateral alliance in recent news. India has also publicly committed to continued purchases of Iranian oil in the wake of the American exit from the JCPOA to the tune of 1.25 million tons of Iranian crude. Essentially, Russia and China are capitalizing on regional friction to further limit American influence in South Asia, and they’re committing to this effort monetarily as well as politically. This doesn’t bode well for longer-term American interests of limiting Iran’s economic freedom of movement and confronting and combatting a rising China.



Worst for last! The biggest question here is the changing role of Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenals. According to Brookings Institution Fellow Joshua White, India and Pakistan “represent the world’s most likely venue for nuclear conflict.” A history of conventional conflict in the region as well as the increasing boldness of regional actors like Russia and China also don’t make this situation any easier. It is also very important to note that Pakistan is not the lone aggressor in this arena —according to Christopher Clary and Vipin Narang, Indian policymakers have shown increasing interest in a “hard counterforce strike” against Pakistan’s “strategic nuclear assets.” More dangerously, Clary and Narang argue that this interest has been recently translated into more forward-leaning policies that would eliminate the “specter of Pakistani strategic nuclear use altogether” and leave India free to act with impunity and wage a conventional war against Pakistan. Recent Indian investment in more precise targeting systems as well as the aforementioned deal with the Russian Federation suggest that the Indian state is preparing for a more severe conflict in the future.

While tensions may have de-escalated this time, I think American policymakers need to start seriously considering what a more prolonged — and more dangerous — conflict over Kashmir could bring to the region and the world. Given the recent escalation of nationalist sentiment on social media, aggressive reporting by state media, and rapid regional alignments with notoriously anti-American world powers, it is easy to see how this could go very south very quickly.


I suppose the possibility of things turning truly “ugly” is minimal by this point. However, a spat of attacks between two nuclear-armed neighbors — the Pulwama attack and its aftermath being only one such instance and not the complete story —is not one that the world should take lightly. If anything, this conflict in particular was on the precipice of escalating quickly and grave enough that the world was forced to sit up and take notice. I don’t expect any future peace talks that take place in the immediate aftermath of Pulwama to resolve the ever-present Kashmir question. It’s one that not only goes back decades but also involves a heavily-contested border dispute, 72 years of tension, three wars in half a century and everyday instances of casualties and skirmishes along both sides of the 740 km (460 mi) Line of Control. But what is particularly alarming about this situation is Pakistan’s rapidly-dwindling reputation in the international arena due to its repeated failure in constraining and preventing terrorist activities within its borders. Even natural allies such as the Gulf countries, who were willing to show their support for Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks by assigning blame to “non-state actors,” seem unwilling to turn a blind eye any longer.

Earlier this month, India’s Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj was invited to deliver the inaugural address at the Organization for Islamic Cooperation in Abu Dhabi, to which Pakistan had initially objected. Not only did the OIC disregard Pakistan’s disapproval, the conference went on with Pakistan’s pointed absence, highlighting its increasing global isolation. Furthermore, India’s triumph at Pakistan being forced to stay on the global FATF “gray list” for terror financing serves to exacerbate Pakistan’s economic perils and could negatively impact its upcoming appeal for an IMF loan bailout. Crippling the economy of a nation that has already lost the goodwill of many global actors might not be the most prudent way forward — for any stakeholders..

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The INF Treaty withdrawal

By Cecilia Panella and Dani Thompson

Photo Credit: John Salvino

WASHINGTON — On February 1, President Trump announced not only that the United States would be suspending its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) but also that the United States planned to leave the Treaty entirely in six months’ time. Shortly afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin also announced that Russia would be suspending its obligations under the treaty, which was originally signed during the Cold War to create grounds for future cooperation on arms control and stave off potential conventional and nuclear conflict between the two countries. While Putin said that Russia would neither “seek confrontation” with the United States nor be the first to deploy missiles as the treaty was suspended, he did issue a stark warning to the United States: Should the Americans deploy to any nation in Europe, Russia would aim its missiles directly at the United States. This escalation of tensions puts more pressure on the already tenuous relationship between Washington and Moscow, leading many critics of the Trump administration to draw parallels between current events and Cold War tensions. Not only could the suspension of this treaty ease the way for a new arms race between Russia and the United States, but the abandonment of the INF Treaty has also eliminated one of the few remaining aspects of arms control cooperation between the two countries.

However much this development may speak to Cold War diplomacy, the White House has stood by its decision. They note Russian violations of the treaty, including the production of “INF-violating, nuclear-capable missile(s),” as well as the dangers of a rising China and Iran, neither of whom are a party to the INF Treaty. According to President Trump, this move signifies American commitment to genuine arms control — but we’re not so sure. On this week’s episode of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” we’re going to take you inside the history of the INF Treaty and deliberate on whether or not American withdrawal really is a good thing for the future of global arms control efforts. Buckle up.



Concerns about Russian treaty violations in this area are nothing new. Russian cruise missile testing took place as early as 2008, which eventually culminated in the Obama administration designating Russia as a “compliance concern” for the INF Treaty in 2011. Then in 2014, the United States raised its concerns with NATO allies, eventually officially accusing Russia of noncompliance with the treaty in the State Department’s 2014 Compliance Report. Despite repeated earlier statements that the Obama administration was doing its best to preserve the treaty and the arms control cooperation that came with it, the 2014 report was a result of an administration that had clearly been “considerably patient” with Russia in this regard.

In the face of increasing public condemnation of Russian missile activity, the Obama administration held fast to the idea that the treaty could still be salvaged. As of January 2014, President Obama had firmly stated that the United States “would not retaliate against the Russians by violating the treaty and deploying its own prohibited medium-range system.” However much the Obama administration may have worked towards a reasonable reconciliation of the INF Treaty, it was clear that relations were deteriorating. With the introduction of the Trump administration’s policy towards treaties as a general rule, it’s easy to overlook previous concerns and chalk this up as a another Trumpian gesture towards isolationism. Arguments that the treaty is outdated could also be compelling — China, the focal point of this presidency, is not bound by the INF Treaty. Not only has China’s economic and military encroachment in the region been a concern, but the United States under the INF Treaty was limited in its ability to pursue regional missile deterrence. But simply pulling out of the treaty does not automatically beget reasonable policy moving forward. In the context of the Obama administration, Trump’s policies are understandable on their face in this regard if not entirely substantiated by logical policy planning. This dumpster isn’t on fire yet, and that’s the best thing we can say about it.


The good news is that I think this was a good decision and one that was crafted and developed by key non-partisan strategists in the White House and military. That is just my perception, but ultimately, we have to give credit where credit is due. Even Obama had issues with the INF Treaty, and particularly with Russia violating the terms of the agreement. They again violated the terms under the Trump administration while denying it fervently. So this isn’t the first time Russia has violated the treaty, nor the first time it has been claimed that the 1987 treaty is an outdated holdover from the Cold War.

Furthermore, I don’t believe that this decision was made with Russia in mind at all. This was a strategic decision made with regards to China, a party that is not hindered by the INF and one that has been developing intermediate-range weapons, which they can do without violating international law. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia are bound by the INF Treaty only in theory.To be clear, the United States has not abandoned weapons research, but has in fact stopped short of full development. Regardless, I think this was a strategic decision made by high-level officials who have more information than is publically available and have shrewd long-term plans in mind.



On the other hand, while this dumpster isn’t on fire, it is smoking slightly. For me, this is a decision with long-term ramifications made on the schedule of a myopic administration. Exiting this treaty without bringing other arms control options to the table is not an effective way to make policy, especially with regard to a dangerous if not entirely rogue Russian Federation. When compounded with the United States leaving the JCPOA and the impending end date for the New START Treaty, these policy decisions speak to a dangerous pattern of the United States prioritizing its own military flexibility over stability in nuclear arms control.

That prioritization also speaks to something concerning in American foreign policy — notably the perception that arms control and nonproliferation treaties reflect a politics of wrongful constraint as opposed to a politics of responsibility. For the Trump administration, and especially National Security Advisor John Bolton, “escaping” the INF Treaty would allow the United States to try and compete against China’s mid-range conventional weapons buildup. Despite arguments that there is little point to adhering to a treaty that the Russians blatantly flout, the United States does relinquish its legitimacy by condemning Russian weapons buildup when it, not the Russian Federation, withdraws from the INF Treaty. Moreover, leaving the INF will not necessarily bring the Chinese to the table for arms control or nonproliferation negotiations. The United States has simply sacrificed its future leverage in its pursuit for current flexibility.


Pulling out of another treaty, which is starting to look like a trend at this point (it’s not trendy) is not great for U.S. foreign policy. It sends a message to the rest of the world that any treaty made with the United States could fall apart at any time. All of the progress that we have made in past years and the relationships developed between allies and non-allies alike mean nothing and can be reversed with a poorly-worded tweet. These are relationships that take decades to build. Diplomacy is not a short-term game and alliances are not easily developed. Ultimately, while I agree with pulling out of the INF Treaty, the fact that the United States has now reneged on several treaties does not set a high standard for American credibility.



The worst part of this is that there isn’t a precisely “right” answer. The INF Treaty was outdated and clearly ineffective in bringing the Russian Federation to heel regarding arms control and nuclear nonproliferation, but it was one of the few areas of meaningful bilateral policy cooperation in this regard between Moscow and Washington. The question then becomes whether or not leaving this treaty was directed at the Russians to begin with — I’m amenable to the argument that this was a move focused more on Chinese development than on Russian unwillingness to abide by treaty law, but I don’t think this was the most direct way to confront that issue. Once again, the Trump administration has chosen to approach foreign policy through a confrontation at the periphery rather than drilling down into the complex problems that will be confronting policymakers for the foreseeable future.

As I see it, those problems are twofold: First, how to negotiate with the Russian Federation in order to prevent Cold War-style escalation in Europe; second, how to limit or combat Chinese mid-range weapons development. Unlike the Cold War power dynamic, the United States does not have the political capital to leverage Russia back to the table via threat of force. The idea that the United States would be willing to defend its allies by placing missiles on the European continent in the face of a threat to the American homeland may have been slightly more believable in the 1960s, but it certainly will not work now. The decline of American prestige means that there is at least a tangential drop in U.S. deterrent capabilities in this realm, and Putin knows this. Considering the problem at hand, I think that it’s unlikely that the United States will be able to push for the same level of bilateral cooperation on this issue, at least during this administration. The Trump administration simply hasn’t prioritized the transatlantic relationship enough to make a sudden reversal on this issue credible. Moreover, the Russians haven’t experienced a meaningful consequence as a result of their actions, and it’s unreasonable to think that a petulant Trump will inspire them to fall in line.

That said, I think that the Chinese angle is much more workable. It’s clear that the Chinese have proven themselves as a reasonable geostrategic and economic alternative to the American-led world order, and recent reports of their weapons development projects suggest that they are trying to modernize their armed forces in a way that would place them in serious and direct conflict with American power projection in the region. More problematically, the Russian Federation and PRC are slowly re-aligning themselves against the United States — unlike the last time this happened, China is the political behemoth.


The main issue however is that without the INF Treaty, Russia can develop and use weapons that were previously banned. However, it can reasonably be argued that they were doing that anyway. Russia’s denials that they were not violating the treaty mean very little; after all, they denied they were invading Crimea and we can all see the reality of that situation. Furthermore, while leaving the INF Treaty might be good in the short term, there is no plan in place for long-term constraints on ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and missile launchers with ranges of 500-1000 km. Europe, the clear beneficiary of the treaty, no longer has that reassurance of safety from Russia from these particular weapons, and China is still free to develop these weapons at will. The question moving forward is do we enter into negotiations with China to continue to ban these weapons? I personally doubt that the Chinese will consider doing so. China has been steadily increasing its defense spending since 2007, and it doesn’t seem in their best interest to put restrictions on that progress.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The shutdown

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump currently owns the largest government shutdown in American history — 35 days of political deadlock and recalcitrance. The president pushed for funding for a border wall that Democrats were unwilling to support, and the resulting gridlock furloughed thousands of federal employees and contractors and left multitudes unpaid. The end of this partial shutdown came on January 25, when the president signed legislation that funded the government until February 15, 2019. However, this legislation did not include funds for a barrier at the southern American border, a result that incensed the president’s conservative critics and bolstered the early days of Nancy Pelosi’s newest term as speaker of the House. The important thing here is that this partial shutdown will not quickly fade from the memory of the American people or the institutions starved for resources as funds dried up.

Now, The SAIS Observer presents its newest series: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which endeavors to tackle the tough questions in domestic and foreign policy. Spearheaded by editor-in-chief Danielle Thompson and lead for outreach and external sourcing Cecilia Panella, this project is meant to address the nuances of policy in a way that is both accessible and thought-provoking. We’re glad that you’re with us on this journey, and if you have suggestions on topics you would like us to take a look at, email us here.

Think of us as your tour guides through the jungle of American politics, economics and international relations, minus the bucket hats and necessary malaria vaccinations.

The Good


Honestly, this is a pretty depressing start to the series. Looking around at the benefits of the shutdown, it’s hard to see how the Trump Administration could tally this one up as a win. That said, let’s take a look at the strategy that Trump used. Overall, the president wanted to use the entirety of the federal government as leverage in order to push the Democrat-held House of Representatives to fund the wall and thus cave to the president’s immigration agenda. As I see it, Trump was relying on two things: first, that the House would be unwilling to let the government lapse into partial shutdown, especially with the Democrats at the helm after the midterms. Second, the president was betting that Nancy Pelosi’s leadership would not be enough to make sure that Democrats toed the party line despite the impending backlash for the shutdown. A fractured Democratic Party could have resulted in a funded border wall and a brutal and early blow to Nancy Pelosi’s term as House speaker. This would not only have increased support from Trump’s base, but also emphasized a preponderance of power with the president after big losses in the midterms. At the end of the day, we all know how this story ended: Trump didn’t get a dollar for the wall, and the government has been funded through the second week of February.

The main — and perhaps only — beneficiary of the shutdown was the Democratic Party. Speaker Pelosi clearly consolidated power, and her willingness to call the president’s bluff has stifled criticism of her in the media and tangentially addressed concerns within her own party about her leadership capabilities.

Those who were negatively impacted by the shutdown, be it due to lapses in food stamp licensing in grocery stores or due to the loss of paychecks, will certainly remember Trump’s willingness to use people as bargaining chips when it comes to voting next November. For others who wish to see Trump be a one-term president, the possible fragmentation of his base as a result of his well-publicized failure to deliver on this particular campaign promise may also be reflected at the polls. These may be upsides for the Democratic Party, but they certainly aren’t upsides for the American people.


There is really only one perspective from where it can be argued that any good came out of the government shutdown and that perspective is a liberal/Democratic one.

Historically, government shutdowns never really benefit the party that initiates them. The initiating party is usually blamed for the negative repercussions that accompany a government shutdown. Parties may try to spin this, and I’m sure they do a tremendous job of doing so, but bottom line is that it just doesn’t work out politically for the party that uses a government shutdown to get something they want.

This shutdown was an especially tough situation just because of its record breaking length. Government workers lost two paychecks and government contractors aren’t going to get that money back. As a former government contractor, I know that there will be no back-pay, no hours to make up and no recompense for those who are not government FTEs (full-time employees). A situation like this was always a big fear of mine. The only good I can see in this situation is the increased awareness of issues like these and the fact that blame for these hardships was placed squarely on the appropriate person: President Trump.

The Bad


What an unmitigated disaster. Given Trump’s tenuous grasp on control of the federal government, his reliance on the Democrats to bow to his demands was a major and easily-callable bluff. If you’re going to use the entirety of the government and the livelihoods of thousands of Americans as leverage, you have to make sure you actually control the lever first. Trump didn’t, and he won’t in February.

The results of the shutdown have brought the executive branch very close to a legitimacy crisis. My concern is looking ahead to February. If Trump sees this next deadline as a chance to re-exert his power over the legislature, January may have only been the start of a political conflict that could send the American economy and international prestige reeling. Furthermore, this isn’t something with an instantaneous fix. Despite the president signing what is essentially a continuance for this particular matter, the damage has already been done. Re-funding the government doesn’t mean that those thousands of federal workers can suddenly pay rent or a mortgage, fund their healthcare costs, or pay for childcare; their obligations did not pause with the shutdown. This is a long-term threat to the stability of American economic and personnel infrastructure and I sincerely doubt the president is capable of mitigating that with any degree of finesse.


Where do we start? The short-term losses I suppose? This looks terrible internationally; a government shutdown usually does. What does this look like for our economy as well? I understand we still had a great jobs report in January, but much of that was catch-up from the significant decline in December. The economy lost $11 billion. Federal workers lost out on two paychecks, although they’ll receive back pay whereas federal contractors will not

So basically this shutdown affected more than just our domestic economy. Thankfully, another government shutdown was narrowly averted, only to be followed by the announcement of a national security on our southern border; but that is another topic altogether.

I would also like to note that a wall is not border security because it realistically won’t secure anything. The budget for real border security has increased dramatically every year since the 1990s. It has not been neglected. Furthermore, a wall simply won’t stop even the majority illegal immigration on our southern border since the majority of undocumented workers in the U.S. simply overstayed their visas. A wall won’t stop that.

Additionally, building a 30-foot wall just creates greater demand for 31-foot ladders or tunnels. A wall wouldn’t have even stopped El Chapo’s drug movements. Bottom line though, this is not an argument about border security or a wall, it is now a political battle that will have decidedly more devastating consequences.

The Ugly


We kicked the can down the road to the middle of February. With the President still poised to declare a national emergency, the American government is still being held hostage despite efforts by Congress to secure a more stabilized funding bill. This shutdown is a symptom of the discombobulation of the American federal government with Trump at the wheel, and I see no change of course for this administration any time soon. I support safe and well-managed ports of entry for the safety of travelers and the American people, but this “policy” isn’t going to solve the “problems” that President Trump campaigned on in 2016. Also, “aesthetically-pleasing steel slats?” Goddamn, that’s just terrible.


We are now just more divided than ever, and jobs hang in the balance. The truly funny part of this situation is that the shutdown ended almost immediately the second the airline industry was affected. When air traffic controllers weren’t getting paid, they stopped working. That affected private industry and then the shutdown ended. I think this shows where the true power lies in Washington D.C.