Should Foreign Policy be Politicized?

  • March 28, 2012
  • Richard Fontaine
  • Op-eds

It's that time of the election again. As the primaries wind down and the general election looms, foreign policy becomes ever more politicized, and particular events - such as President Obama speaking to Russia's Dmitry Medvedev over an open microphone - generate debate and partisan tussles.

Is that bad?

After all, the only thing more predictable than partisan sniping over foreign policy in the midst of an election year is the weary reaction of foreign policy leaders and experts that we should somehow be above all this. In an interview with Fareed Zakaria earlier this year, President Obama himself remarked that, "In foreign policy, the traditional saying is, 'partisan differences end at the water's edge.'"

The problem is that partisan differences in the United States do not end at the water's edge, and never have. As the 2012 election sharpens the political contest over American foreign policy, we might do well not only to lament the paralysis and bitterness our politics engenders, but also reflect for a moment on the advantages it conveys.

President Obama is hardly the first political leader to wish an end to politics in American foreign policy. The "water's edge" business dates back to Senator Arthur Vandenberg, who coined the term in the late 1940s while serving as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Pestered by fellow Republicans who thought he was too deferential to Truman's policies in Europe, he pointed out that while politicians might use for political advantage pedestrian domestic issues, politics should stop when considering the high affairs of state.

Senator Henry Jackson sounded similar themes in the 1970s, saying that "in matters of national security, the best politics is no politics." Then-Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle in 1998 said, "I really do believe that partisanship ought to stop at the water's edge when it comes to foreign policy," and three years later President George W. Bush observed that "one of the things that America has prided ourself on is a bipartisan foreign policy." Since then, politicians from the right, left and center have quoted Vandenberg or otherwise incanted the water's edge mantra.

At first glance, it's hard to imagine why anyone would suggest that politics does not infect foreign policymaking, or even why it should not. The stuff of politics - partisanship, ideological competition, elections, and so on - all of this is intimately related to the stuff of policy.

Take, for instance, that era to which many water's-edgers point as the high point of coldly rational, bipartisan national security policymaking - the decade following World War II. In that time, the story goes, America was guided by wise men, mandarins who enjoyed bipartisan support to forge the pillars of postwar global order - the United Nations, NATO, Bretton Woods and the Marshall Plan. It was a time when domestic politics did not taint the making of foreign policy, when the consensus on containment and weight of superpower responsibility together guided the ship of state beyond party bickering and attempts at electoral advantage.

The reality is more complicated. In fact, those halcyon days of yore actually saw an American foreign policy laced with politics and a politics that used national security as a key weapon. The decade following the end of World War II saw intense debates over the establishment of a national security state and the implications that a large, centralized and permanent military bureaucracy would have on national life.

In the 1948 presidential contest, Truman touted his foreign policy credentials and painted Henry Wallace as pro-Communist. Republicans who refrained from criticizing Truman (even Vandenberg limited his support to Truman's Europe policy and assailed his approach to Asia) learned their electoral lesson; by 1952 Eisenhower was running against Truman's Korea policy and promising rollback in Eastern Europe. Joseph McCarthy's communist witch hunts gave President Eisenhower and the Republicans a political advantage for a time as well; until he took on the military they were content to avoid directly confronting him.

While an era of bipartisan foreign policy nirvana never existed, it is true that Vietnam broke the establishment consensus on the ends of American policy and the nature of America's global role. But this debate did not create something wholly new; instead, it simply stretched the previously acceptable limits of the foreign policy debate, making the extreme positions more extreme and the tone more vitriolic.

That legacy seems to have colored debates ever since. It is always hard to measure the degree of bitterness in American politics - and historians can always cite the caning of Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate to demonstrate just how much worse things once were - but politicians and pundits today generally agree that partisan bickering has reached new lows on both domestic and foreign policy issues.

Most observers over the decades have seen the intrusion of domestic politics into the making of American foreign policy as a major impediment in national life. In his interview, President Obama referred to the "tradition among those who work in foreign policy" of focusing on "advancing American interests," through "decisions based on facts and analysis and a clear-eyed view of the world, as opposed to based on ideology or what's political expedient."

Alexis de Tocqueville, George Kennan, Walter Lippmann and others have argued that successful foreign policy requires secrecy, cold rationalism, vast experience, continuity over time - precisely the characteristics that American democracy conspires to prevent in its policymaking. As American foreign policy becomes politicized, policy lurches as administrations change, interest groups hold sway over key issues, and populist and moralistic strains take flight. Is this any way to run a superpower?

Apparently it is. Because for all the downsides of a politicized foreign policy, and despite the mistakes it has made, America has nonetheless enjoyed a remarkably successful foreign policy over the past six decades. It remains the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, and has preserved the American way of life. Perhaps, then, there is an upside to the politics.

The open nature of the American political system permits genuinely new ideas to enter calcified foreign policy debates, which may over time improve the quality of the country's policymaking. The disjunction between a mature executive branch managing bilateral relationships and an impulsive, populist Congress enables American diplomats to play good cop/bad cop. "Look, I want to help your country. But if you don't cut out the extrajudicial killings, Congress is going to act, and there's not a lot I can do about that..."

The political debates over American policy enhance transparency in the minds of foreigners, and may add a degree of predictability to U.S. behavior. And all of this may in the end be an attribute of America's vaunted soft power - our foreign policy is not made in a hermetically sealed environment by wise-men-for-life but rather rises from the give and take of our democratic process, which at the end of the day is open to all.

For good or ill, the politicization of American foreign policy is about to increase. There are some exceptions: The Senate voted this year 100-0 in favor of Iran sanctions; there is bipartisan support for enhancing ties with a Myanmar that continues reforms, and so on. But with the election looming, most foreign policy issues will be seen through the 2012 presidential prism.

Though it will not be the key issue in the presidential campaign, national security will nonetheless play an important role. Both eventual candidates, the incumbent President included, will have to demonstrate to the electorate that they pass the commander-in-chief credibility threshold, that they can lead a superpower in times of peril and plenty. As they attempt this - and try to undermine their opponent's credibility in the process - we should recall that none of this is new. Different, maybe, over recent decades, and rougher than it ought to be. But politics in foreign policy? That's downright American.