Two parties, two approaches to multilateralism

Two parties, two approaches to multilateralism

When it comes to partisan differences on foreign policy, one area that the conventional wisdom regards as a deep chasm is multilateralism. A crude set of stereotypes have taken hold: Republicans as reckless unilateralists, and Democrats as feckless multilateralists. But in actual practice the differences over multilateralism are often not as acute, as most policymakers from both parties would admit.  On this note, our readers might be interested in the results of a recent survey that my colleagues Josh Busby (also of the University of Texas-Austin) and Jon Monten (of the University of Oklahoma) and I put together. Assessing the views of experienced policy-makers in both parties, we found that while there are genuine partisan differences on multilateralism, there is also a surprising degree of agreement and bipartisan consensus. We wrote-up an analysis of our findings at the Foreign Affairs website, and a summary of the survey results can be found here. [In the spirit of bipartisanship, alert readers will also appreciate this collegial cross-linking between Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. If this bonhomie keeps up, by week’s end Peter Feaver will be writing nice things about the North Carolina basketball team].

In brief, our survey found that both parties see the value and the limitations in multilateralism. Furthermore, while both parties might often arrive at similar policy outcomes, they do so from different orientations. For example both parties believe multilateralism in practice generally increases the effectiveness of American foreign policy. Yet as we describe in the article, Republicans and Democrats use different balancing tests when considering a multilateral initiative and evaluating just how effective it might be. Republicans tend to emphasize the importance of sovereignty and freedom of action, while Democrats tend to emphasize the importance of legitimacy and interdependence. Thus Republicans weigh whether the multilateral opportunity protects American sovereignty and produces the desired policy results. They usually will agree to relinquishing a measure of sovereignty if a multilateral policy otherwise appears to be effective, but are likely to oppose a multilateral initiative that they perceive to erode sovereignty without delivering adequate policy benefits. In contrast, Democrats weigh whether the multilateral opportunity appears to address the vulnerabilities created by interdependence and is perceived as legitimate by other countries. These principles, Democrats believe, contribute to more desirable policy outcomes.

In trying to make sense of these findings, we considered various labels to summarize the dispositions of the parties (e.g. Republicans as "pragmatic multilateralists" and Democrats as "principled multilateralists," or the GOP as "a la carte multilateralists" and Dems as "prix fixe multilateralists"). Ultimately we settled on the categories "sovereignty-minded multilateralists" and "interdependence-oriented multilateralists," which hopefully make up in accuracy what they lack in pith and punch.

The survey is admittedly constrained in how much it captures party attitudes because we limited it to people who have served in meaningful policy-making positions (rather than pundits and party activists), and because the surveys depended on people believing it worthwhile to take the time to respond. So while our political scientist friends out there might find areas to quibble on methodology and selection effects, we still think that the surveys capture something meaningful. Especially because the responses reflect the beliefs of those who have actually made policy, and who may well occupy policy-making roles in the future.

The survey also helps illuminate not just where Republicans and Democrats might diverge on certain foreign policy questions, but why they do so. Understanding these reasons can be constructive on a number of fronts. It can lay a basis for bipartisan cooperation by helping each side understand the other’s core concerns and priorities, and also help illuminate potential sticking points on particular issues. Understanding how Democrats and Republicans think about foreign policy can also help clarify the differences between the parties for other stakeholders, ranging from foreign governments trying to understand American foreign policy, to American voters weighing their choices this November.