Bipartisan Foreign Policy Died This Weekend

Richard Lugar represented an endangered aspect of American—and Republican Party—leadership.

Richard Holbrooke talks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar before a hearing on Capitol Hill July 14, 2010 in Washington.
Richard Holbrooke talks with Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Richard Lugar before a hearing on Capitol Hill July 14, 2010 in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, who died Sunday at age 87, was the man whom many conservatives had in mind when they railed against the Republican establishment. His long Senate service, from 1977 to 2013, was an affront to advocates of term limits. He was the Senate’s leading authority on foreign policy, a field despised by populists and nationalists as the province of elite sellouts. He was a leading exponent of bipartisanship and compromise, which made him a target for die-hard partisan warriors. It came as no surprise when he was ousted out of politics in 2012 by a Tea Party fanatic.

But Lugar was a considerably more interesting and consequential figure than the conservative caricature. The paucity of Republican politicians of his stature and outlook is a large part of why the American Century seems to be hastening to a premature end.

Lugar always seemed a poor fit for hardball politics, given his almost too-good-to-be-true background as an Eagle Scout, student body president, Rhodes scholar, naval officer, farmer, businessman, and lay Methodist minister—and his resolutely noncharismatic public presentation. He was serious, intelligent, familiar with the intricacies of policies, and the rare politician who spoke in carefully considered paragraphs rather than colorful sound bites. As the joke went, if you asked him what time it was, he would tell you how a clock works. Still, his worthy-but-dull demeanor camouflaged a willingness to take bold, far-reaching actions.

He got his start in politics during the mid-1960s as a member of the Indianapolis School Board. In that era, when many Republicans were passionate advocates of civil rights, he led the unpopular fight to desegregate the city’s educational system. In 1967, as the first Republican mayor of Indianapolis elected in nearly two decades, he combined fiscal conservatism with creative innovation in approaching social problems. His major achievement was the “Unigov” plan that consolidated the city government with that of the surrounding Marion County. At a stroke, it made Indianapolis the nation’s 11th-largest city, extended the reach and enforcement of fair housing and employment laws, and helped forestall the kind of urban decay that afflicted many cities surrounded by prosperous suburbs, such as Detroit and Baltimore.

Lugar also promoted education reforms, pollution controls, low-cost family housing, and effective job retraining programs for the hardcore unemployed. His relationship building with the Indianapolis black community, and his impromptu televised speech after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination about his personal awakening to the problems of racial inequality, helped prevent the rioting that devastated many other U.S. cities.

He became known as Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor, at a time when that was still a positive endorsement. He parlayed this popularity into winning elections, first as president of the National League of Cities in 1971 and then as a U.S. senator in 1976. His moderation proved useful when, as a nonranking member of the banking committee, he was able to help solve New York City’s bankruptcy crisis by persuading conservatives not to abandon the city altogether and liberals not to bail it out without imposing financial controls.

The new senator soon shifted his focus to foreign affairs, which had been a compelling interest for him since his service as a naval intelligence officer during the Eisenhower administration. Lugar became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1985 and restored it to prominence after years of weak chairmen and ideological infighting. Some felt he became, in effect, the shadow secretary of state.

Lugar brought his experience as a mayor to bear on the wider stage of foreign-policymaking. He reached his decisions through the hard work of hearings, investigations, impartial research, and a willingness to work with good-faith actors on both sides of the aisle. The value of bipartisanship in foreign policy, he believed, was that it reassured America’s allies and deterred foes who might otherwise have been tempted to prey on the country’s divisions. He believed that the United States had an essential role to play in maintaining the postwar order—without succumbing to the arrogance of power but also without shirking the responsibilities of power. “Americans are not isolationist by nature,” he wrote. “We come from too many nationalities and ethnic groups to withdraw from the world.” Ultimately he saw the United States as part of a world community, in which—just as in Indianapolis—the habits of inclusion, persuasion, and compromise were preferable to coercion.

Though Lugar had a reputation as a nonideological moderate conservative, he was no mere incrementalist. He dared to lead the Senate in overriding President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a bill imposing economic sanctions on the apartheid regime of South Africa. As he explained later, “The American people felt very strongly that narrow sanctions on the leadership of South Africa might lead to freedom for Nelson Mandela and certainly put the United States on the right side of history.” When, as an election monitor, he witnessed the kleptocratic strongman Ferdinand Marcos’s theft of the 1986 Philippine presidential elections, he publicly declared that Marcos should step down and pressured a reluctant White House to support his position.

Most notably, perhaps, he and Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia led Congress to pass the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, better known as Nunn-Lugar, which secured and dismantled weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet republics. The program deactivated thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at the United States and destroyed large quantities of chemical and other weapons and delivery systems. “His legacy,” declared President Barack Obama when awarding Lugar the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013, “is the thousands of missiles and bombers and submarines and warheads that no longer threaten us because of his extraordinary work.”

Lugar was a reliable conservative voter on most domestic issues, although he did support the DREAM Act, limited gun control measures, and federal school lunches. Lugar angered comparatively moderate Republicans with his reluctance to challenge President George W. Bush’s unilateralism in Iraq, but he angered conservatives more with his vote for Bush’s TARP bailout program in 2008 and his vote for Obama’s Supreme Court justice nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Lugar’s primary election overthrow in 2012 confirmed that the time when legislators were free to ignore the dictates of ideologically driven partisanship was over.

But is it possible to hold together the U.S.-led, post-World War II global order without a critical mass of legislators like Lugar? Its maintenance depended in no small part on U.S. allies’ trust that it was a cooperative community rather than a system run for the benefit of “America first.” Its slow disintegration is due not only to Russian and Chinese aggression but also to the Senate’s failure to check President Donald Trump’s isolationist and unilateralist impulses. Without a Senate that can put country over party and take the long view of America’s global interests, the liberal world order that leaders such as Lugar worked to build and maintain is unlikely to endure.

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskansen Center.

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