Can’t We All Just Not Get Along?

Why the push for bipartisan consensus in foreign policy is a dumb idea.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Does America need more bipartisanship in foreign policy? My fellow Foreign Policy columnist, Aaron Miller appears to think so, as he’s twice argued in recent weeks that the next president should pick a secretary of state from the other political party. After all, says Miller, "for the first time in a quarter-century, the United States has a bipartisan — even nonpartisan — consensus on many of the core issues relating to the country’s foreign policy." Indeed, according to Miller, "there’s an emerging consensus in U.S. foreign policy that’s smart, functional, and welcome. We should build on it."

Along the same lines, Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose writing in the Washington Post this past weekend, noted that "the basic template for American foreign policy has been relatively constant for almost seven decades now and needs only tweaking and updating, not fundamental revision."

While both are right that there is foreign policy consensus in the country today, it doesn’t necessarily follow suit that this is something good. In fact, what the country needs now is not more consensus, but less. While foreign policy harmony often has positive attributes, it can also constrict national security thinking, limit policy options, and marginalize iconoclastic voices. Instead, the competition of ideas in foreign policy debates — which as Miller implicitly argues doesn’t currently exist — is far more important than perpetuating a "consensus" that keeps new ideas or strategies from rising to the political surface.

At a time when the U.S. faces no serious security threats — and the country is transitioning away from to a post-war on terrorism template — there is no better time to have a robust debate about America’s global responsibilities, the role of its armed forces and the nature of U.S. interests in a world that is perhaps freer, safer, and more prosperous than any point in human history. Solidifying the current consensus would have the opposite effect. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once wisely observed: "It isn’t the fact that [foreign] policy is nonpartisan that’s important, it’s the fact that it’s good."

On the surface, however, it might appear that the United States is in the midst of a rather robust partisan debate on foreign policy. Hardly a day goes by when Republicans miss a chance to attack President Barack Obama’s foreign policy as weak, feckless, and apologetic. Yes, on issues like China, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran, there are areas of reasonable disagreement. But dig down and what becomes visible is more convergence than contrast.

For example, while Mitt Romney likes to assail Obama for cutting the defense budget, the differences between the two candidates on the state of the military are actually not all that significant: Obama wants a giant military; Romney wants a gigantic one.  Indeed, after the signing of the debt limit deal last year, which called for as much as a trillion dollars in defense spending cuts both parties practically fell over themselves trying to run away from it. The ink was barely dry before Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was warning that the cuts would invite "aggression" against the United States. And the Republican-led House has already passed legislation that would take a sledgehammer to crucial safety net programs like meals on wheels and children’s health care in order to protect the Pentagon’s more than $650 billion budget. But the consensus stretches to cover more than just Department of Defense spending.

How about U.S. global alliances, many of which are a vestige of the Cold War and yet remain unchanged 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? For example, the United States continues to massively underwrite and subsidize security responsibilities for Europe (via NATO) and the Far East (via U.S. security relationships with Japan and South Korea)  Good luck finding a significant voice in either party who thinks either of these situations — driven as much by inertia than by actual U.S. interests — is problematic.  What about the U.S. relationship with "allies" like Israel — which regularly takes actions that are contrary to U.S. policy in the region, but are unquestioned among elite national security policymakers?

Or how about the unshakable agreement within both party elites on the necessity of prosecuting the war on terror via drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen? To be sure, there is certainly a healthy amount of varying opinions between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy tactics, but as Miller rightly pointed out recently: there isn’t much difference between Obama and Romney’s thinking on major strategic issues. While Romney is more likely to use tough rhetoric on Iran — and might even talk himself into the use of force — both men share the view that there is an abiding national interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb (at practically any cost) and that containment of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Even in today’s highly partisan political environment, the areas of contention in foreign policy are frequently less than meets the eye.

As Sean Kay, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University said to me, there is "virtual agreement in Washington between liberal interventionists and neo-conservative hawks — and the result is a lack of any alternative worldview in the upper echelons of U.S. foreign policy." As Kay ruefully notes, though Obama ran on "changing the mindset of American foreign policy" he didn’t have a "single major dissenter on his foreign policy team (with the possible exception of Vice President Joe Biden). All were pro-war on Iraq and eventually pro-surge in Afghanistan." Obama has, in key regards, perpetuated that which he once sought to transform.  

In the view of Peter Feaver, who writes at the Shadow Government blog for FP and teaches at Duke University, alternative viewpoints have been rejected because they’re not very good ideas: "Radical critiques of American foreign policy are known and given lots of air time proportional to their influence. You can’t swing a dead cat without hearing a serious critique of American foreign policy at an academic conference, for example. These views are known, considered, and rejected. It’s not that no one had a chance to know about the movie — they didn’t want to see it."

In fairness, bipartisan constancy can hardly be dismissed out of hand — it allows policymakers to coalesce around policies that have broad public and elite support, like democracy promotion and open economies, backing for international institutions (though this is slipping), humanitarian assistance, and collective security, to name a few.

In fact, "a bipartisan or general consensus in foreign affairs made great sense through the years of the early republic and much of the 19th century," says Christopher Nichols, a professor at Oregon State University. "As the American party system developed, it was broadly agreed that the fledgling nation should follow the Washingtonian-Jeffersonian injunction to ‘steer clear of foreign entanglements,’ largely conceived of as monarchical European power politics."

But times have changed. In the era of U.S. superpower status, a bipartisan consensus has tended to narrow the options of policymakers from endzone to endzone to between what one might proverbially call the 45-yard lines of a football field — a much narrower space that today keeps in place policies, alliances, and relationships desperately in need of a refresh. Wouldn’t a competition of ideas on foreign policy (even some radical ones), rather than variations on an already agreed-upon consensus be a good thing, particularly at a time of relative global stability? 

From a recent historical perspective, the perils of a bipartisan consensus are even clearer. For example, after World War II, agreement developed around the idea that the United States had a responsibility to not simply contain communism, but to roll back its mischievous intentions. This became the virtual bulwark of post-World War II foreign policy. While it brought with it many positive results — the creation of NATO, the Marshall Plan, and Bretton Woods are obvious and laudatory examples — it also became a self-perpetuating vision of American foreign policy, crowding out alternative ideas and viewpoints and leading the United States to pursue anti-Communist fights, even when they were tangential to direct U.S. interests (see: Vietnam War).

This consensus — though shared by both parties — was in reality anything but bipartisan. It was directly reinforced by rancorous partisan politics and the realization by Republicans that they could demagogue on anti-communism and the fear of Democrats at being portrayed as weak and feckless in the fight against Red expansion. A poorly conceived consensus, enforced by fear of political attack, hardly seems like a bygone era that Washington should be aspiring to.

After September 11, the United States adopted yet another set of consensus views: that America must go to war in Afghanistan to remove al Qaeda’s safe haven (good consensus); that America must not only fight a global war on terror (less good consensus); and finally and most disastrously that America must topple Saddam Hussein in order to keep America safe (god-awful consensus).

It’s easy to forget now, but 77 U.S. senators supported the authorization of the use of military force against Iraq — and while Republican elites were strongly supportive of the war, so too were Democratic ones. Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, and Richard Holbrooke all gave their imprimatur to the war (and, in some cases, even lobbied Democrats) as did a healthy cross section of the Democratic analyst and pundit community. With the notable exception of Sens. Teddy Kennedy and Robert Byrd and much of the House Democratic caucus (as well as a little known State Senate candidate from Illinois) there was little public opposition not only to the war, but to the strategically flawed thinking that underpinned the decision to take up arms in the first place.

Wouldn’t America have been better off with a more robust public debate about the decision to invade Iraq? The answer today seems tragically self-evident. But because there was so much unanimity about the war, those who were opposed were seen as outliers, radicals, or extremists. It’s a perfect example of the dangers and even folly of fetishizing bipartisan consensus.

Finally, it’s important to remember that when political movements coalesce around challenging unanimities in U.S. foreign policy it can bring with it positive results. In 1968, the decision by Eugene McCarthy to challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president did more than offer an alternative viewpoint about the war in Vietnam, it gave a political voice to those who did not share in the conceits of the bipartisan consensus. McCarthy’s fight ended Johnson’s presidency, but by giving a political outlet to the "non-consensus" wing of the party it reshaped the way that Democrats approached foreign policy issues. In its most positive light, the shift in Democratic sensibilities provided support for détente and indirectly led to a greater recognition of the importance of human rights in foreign policy — even if the political results were less than salutary for Democrats.  

Indeed, Obama as president has been at his most interesting — and dynamic — when he has gone against form, like aspiring to a nuclear-free world, bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq on schedule, and pulling the plug on the surge in Afghanistan.

Rather than appointing a member of the other party to confirm an elite foreign policy vision of the world, a voice in Obama (or Romney’s) future foreign policy cabinet with distinctly alternate views would be far more interesting — a la William Jennings Bryan who was secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson or perhaps the true "team of rivals" that existed in Jimmy Carter’s presidency with Cyrus Vance at State and Zbigniew Brzezinski at the National Security Council.

Indeed, contra to Miller’s notion that we need a secretary of state from a different party, what America really need is a secretary of state with a different worldview. Of course, none of this means that a foreign policy debate that takes place outside the carefully circumscribed 45-yard lines will lead to different and better policies. But unless that debate takes place — how will we ever know?

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