The greatest challenge facing the next president will be bringing the nation’s foreign policy back into balance with its political will.
For most of the last 50 years, bipartisanship at home steadied U.S. statecraft abroad. But today, Congress is bitterly divided over the Iraq war, as is the public. Even after Gen. David H. Petraeus testified to Congress that the “surge” was working, a Rasmussen poll revealed that 82% of Democrats want the forces home within a year, while 71% of Republicans believe that the troops should remain in Iraq until the mission is complete.
Arguably, U.S. foreign policy has not been so beleaguered by partisanship since the early 20th century, when the nation lurched incoherently from the brash realism of Teddy Roosevelt to the expansive idealism of Woodrow Wilson, before settling with the false security of isolationism in the 1930s.
Presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle recognize the problem, and they say they are eager to rectify it. Hillary Clinton, for instance, told the Council on Foreign Relations that America prospered for half a century because of a “bipartisan consensus on foreign policy,” and she urged a “return to that sensible, cooperative approach.” Mitt Romney has claimed that Washington’s “divisiveness” raises concern about the nation’s capability to meet today’s challenges and has called for “new thinking on foreign policy” to unite the United States.
But such exhortations are in vain. The era of bipartisanship is over for the foreseeable future. Today’s political impasse is not just a temporary result of President Bush’s misguided war. Rather, the nation’s domestic divisions about how to engage with the outside world are rooted in a deeper, more lasting development: the hollowing out of the country’s political center. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the resurgence of regional and class tensions at home have undermined the coalition of centrist Republicans and Democrats that once insulated foreign policy from partisan extremism — even when ideological passions flared, as they did over the Vietnam War.
The last time U.S. foreign policy was so rent by partisan division, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who took the lead in fashioning a domestic consensus. Roosevelt was haunted by the poisonous politics that had foiled President Wilson’s attempt to win Senate approval of the country’s membership in the League of Nations after World War I. Intent on avoiding Wilson’s fierce confrontation with the Republican opposition, FDR sought to make Republicans stakeholders in his foreign policy, appointing them to important posts and adjusting his strategies to preempt isolationist objections. Roosevelt even asked Wendell Willkie, the Republican candidate he had defeated in the 1940 election, to undertake a world tour to help focus public attention on foreign affairs.
But, although Roosevelt’s legendary political skills certainly helped, the onset of bipartisanship was primarily the product of international and domestic circumstance. World War II and the Cold War exercised a disciplining effect on U.S. politics; strategic necessity discouraged partisan gamesmanship. German, Japanese and then Soviet expansionism required that the United States both project its military strength abroad and secure loyal allies. The demand for a U.S. grand strategy that combined power and international partnership trumped the objections of isolationists and unilateralists alike.
Developments inside the United States were equally important. Roosevelt took the country to war at a moment when socioeconomic divisions were reaching an all-time low. Between the late 1930s and mid-1940s, the gap between rich and poor declined dramatically, easing the North-South divide and reducing the class tensions that had fueled partisan confrontation. In the years that followed the war, prosperity expanded America’s middle class still further, helping form what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. dubbed the “vital center.” The ideological gap between Republicans and Democrats narrowed, enhancing the power of such centrist leaders as Sens. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) and Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-Wash.), thereby buttressing bipartisan support for a strategy of power and partnership.
Today, however, the conditions that once made U.S. strategy politically solvent have disappeared. The demise of the Soviet Union and the absence of a comparable new competitor make it easier for politicians to exploit foreign policy for partisan advantage. The threat posed by international terrorism has so far proved too elusive and sporadic to act as the new unifier. Indeed, the Bush administration continues to use terrorism as a tool of partisan warfare rather than a cause for bringing the country together. As the president insinuated before the 2006 midterms, a Democratic victory would mean “the terrorists win and America loses.”
At home, the return of regional divisions has contributed to the evisceration of the center. Republicans reign in the Mountain West and South; Democrats dominate in the Northeast and Pacific West. Red and blue America disagree about not just abortion, gun control and taxes but the Iraq war and what mix of force and diplomacy will advance the nation’s security. In the 2004 elections, 66% of Bush voters believed the use of force would best defeat terrorism, compared with only 17% of John Kerry’s supporters.
Globalization has widened disparities in wealth among Americans, fueling sharp debate between Democrats and Republicans over trade, immigration and the outsourcing of American jobs. Congressional redistricting and the proliferation of highly partisan media outlets have also taken their toll on the political center. All told, conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans are a dying breed. According to one authoritative index (Voteview.com), Congress is more ideologically polarized today than at any time in the last 100 years.
Can the next president restore political solvency to U.S. foreign policy, or will divisions at home inevitably mean failed leadership abroad? There is a way forward, but absent a political center, a more modest vision of America’s global role will be needed to rebuild domestic consensus. U.S. foreign policy will have to be far more selective and judicious if it is to appeal to both sides of the partisan divide.
Washington must dramatically reduce the U.S. footprint in Iraq, rely more on Europe, Japan and others to shoulder global burdens, and develop flexible partnerships to complement Cold War institutions such as the United Nations and NATO that have become unwieldy. Instead of pursuing foreign policies that polarize the electorate, the United States needs a more discriminating grand strategy that can regain domestic legitimacy.
Pragmatism must also prevail on the home front. Rather than resorting to rhetorical appeals to bipartisanship, the next administration should follow Roosevelt’s example and appoint prominent members of the opposing party to key foreign policy positions and dedicate itself to striking the concrete political bargains needed to anchor U.S. statecraft. Evangelicals on the right and social progressives on the left share concern about climate change, protecting human rights and promoting international development. Democrats might support free trade if Republicans were willing to invest in worker retraining. The desire of big business to preserve access to low-wage labor intersects with the interests of pro-immigration constituencies on the left.
The candidate who makes the case for bringing America’s purposes and its political means back into balance will do well in the coming presidential contest. If elected, that candidate will be poised to enhance U.S. security by pursuing a foreign policy that not only meets the country’s geopolitical needs but also secures enough domestic support to sustain a coherent national strategy in an era of partisanship.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.