The Case for a Bipartisan Foreign Policy
The United States is strongest when Congress and the White House speak with one voice.
Yesterday, the U.S. Senate, with a 98-1 vote, approved the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which gives Congress the chance to review a future nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. While it might be tempting to dismiss this overwhelmingly bipartisan vote as an accident or an aberration, we hope that it signals a reemergence of the Senate, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) in particular, as an indispensable player in the foreign-policy arena.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and ranking member Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), building on the work of former Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ), deserve much credit for assembling a bipartisan coalition and shepherding the bill through a gantlet of opposition. This was no easy task, and it bodes well for future cooperation.
Beyond the partisan differences in the approach to foreign policy, there is inherent institutional friction in the American political system. In this case, Congress has been reluctant to give the Obama administration the credit it deserves for seizing the opportunity to pursue a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Likewise, although the administration has conceded that it was the sanctions passed by Congress — which the administration opposed — that brought Iran to the negotiating table, it has been loath to work with Congress on lifting those sanctions.
The passage of this legislation ensures that the administration has the space to negotiate a final agreement with Iran and that Congress is involved in the decision to remove sanctions. Having both the executive and legislative branches taking part in this manner will strengthen the agreement and make it more likely to endure beyond the current administration.
Moving forward, we are going to need similar cooperation among the parties and branches on a number of fronts. No foreign-policy challenge is more urgent now than the negotiation between Congress and the White House over a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) to better define and delineate U.S. efforts to respond to the threat posed by the Islamic State. Nine months, thousands of bombing runs, and $2 billion into this war, our allies and adversaries need to know that Washington speaks with one voice. And the American troops waging this war so far from home deserve to know that Congress supports the mission in which they are risking their lives.
Of course, our challenges aren’t limited to the Middle East. Curbing Vladimir Putin’s adventurism in Eastern Europe, addressing China’s rising influence, and dealing with rogue and failed states and terrorist groups, updating the effectiveness of international organizations around the globe — these are just a few of the foreign-policy issues that will confront us in the foreseeable future.
The world seems to be sorting into democracies, authoritarian regimes, and nonstate criminal and terrorist movements. We need to shore up the democracies, skillfully challenge the authoritarian countries, and defeat the jihadists and criminal organizations.
If we want to avoid lurching from crisis to crisis, we need to develop a worldview based on a realistic appreciation of the global environment in which we operate, then develop a strategic vision within which we can deploy diplomatic, economic, and military muscle.
Over the past several decades, we have seen that U.S. global influence is at its zenith when the executive and legislative branches are aligned on foreign policy. Notably, the partnership forged between President Harry Truman and Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, chairman of the SFRC, provided the architecture to contain Soviet expansionism and helped lay the foundation for U.S. and European security for the next half century. During the 1990s, Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Ranking Member Joe Biden (D-DE) worked with President Bill Clinton to broaden the security umbrella by expanding NATO.
We would do well to have a similar approach today. With its advise-and-consent and treaty-ratification roles, and a membership consisting of senators with six-year staggered terms, the SFRC is uniquely positioned as a body in which Republicans and Democrats can develop a well-defined framework for U.S. interests overseas.
Vandenberg put it well: “’Bipartisan foreign policy’ means a mutual effort … to unite our official voice at the water’s edge so that America speaks with maximum authority against those who would divide and conquer us and the free world.”
As senators representing both sides of the aisle, we are not naïve as to the partisan environment in which we operate. But we also believe that we don’t have the luxury of engaging in petty partisanship and institutional turf battles given the myriad challenges that confront the United States and the world today. So let us by all means debate, but once we’ve debated, let us wield “maximum authority” by speaking with one voice on issues of foreign policy.
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