As the government shut down and the nation spiraled toward a near-default on its debt obligations in October, much of the world's attention focused on the economic consequences of Washington's dysfunction. And while those consequences are all too real, the past weeks have highlighted a different, similarly pressing problem—a splintering in the politics of national security. A strong and secure America depends on a vibrant economy, innovative diplomacy, a well-trained and equipped military, and strong alliances. But its foundation is a political system that can build consensus around key foreign policy objectives. Today, that consensus appears to be fracturing along multiple fronts.
The most visible fracture is that between the parties. Hyperpartisan politics in Washington is not new, but many cite the current era as the worst in memory. As the budget showdown highlighted, the inability of Republicans and Democrats to coalesce around even routine spending bills generates uncertainty both within and outside government. It also produced sequestration, a particularly damaging form of budget cutting that has caused pandemonium within the Federal government.
A second fracture has occurred between Congress and the President. The recent debate over Syria provided a dramatic example; had the vote on Capitol Hill gone forward, President Obama might have faced a historic defeat. The White House's two signature trade initiatives—the Trans-Pacific and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnerships—are proceeding in the absence of "fast track" authority, and congressional support for them is uncertain. State Department diplomats are engaged in potentially groundbreaking talks with Iran, but whether the legislature will go along with any agreement remains to be seen.
A third fracture has emerged within the parties. Historically, a coalition of Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats could be counted on to support robust defense spending and keep an eye on force readiness. Yet intraparty cohesion on matters of national security is ebbing just as the parties themselves differ more than ever. Many Republican members of Congress—particularly those elected in recent years—seek to shrink the role of government in American life, and deficit and spending hawks outnumber defense hawks. At the same time, many Democrats wish to trade guns for butter. As a result, few in either party blink when three of four military service chiefs announce that, if current spending cuts stand, they may not be ready to respond to even a single regional war.
A final fracture has occurred in the post-Cold War consensus for a strong American internationalism. Tired of over a decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, seeking to cut budgets in an era of austerity, and fed up by political paralysis in Washington, the American people today display a marked preference to focus on affairs at home. A recent poll indicates that 46 percent of Americans believe that the United States "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own"—one of highest percentages recorded since the early 1960s.
These four fractures pose challenges for those who would wield American power, and at a time when U.S. leadership is vitally important. By remaining actively engaged across the globe, the United States has helped deter aggression, protect vital sea lanes, stabilize the international trading and financial systems, and limit the threats of terrorism and proliferation. The value of vigorous leadership is not lost on the rest of the world; foreign leaders today frequently call for more American activism in their regions, not less.
Ironically, dysfunctional U.S. politics has become entrenched at a moment when American power, by many objective measures, appears to be waxing rather than waning. The shale gas and tight oil revolutions are adding to economic growth, reducing our trade deficit, and creating jobs. Innovations in robotics and 3-D printing may lead to a boom in domestic manufacturing. Technological advances are extending the reach and effectiveness of the U.S. military. Potential competitors like China face an array of challenges, including demographic problems and environmental challenges, and growth is slackening in a number of emerging markets.
The President and the Congress have before them a number of tasks in the coming months, ranging from tackling immigration reform to passing a farm bill. Important issues, all of them. Yet no less pressing is the need to bridge the gaps in the politics of national security, to return to common sense defense and foreign affairs budgeting, to see more partnership between the White House and Congress and to articulate for the American people a sense of the country’s international role and how it connects to affairs at home. Now is the time to get started, before our political fractures threaten America’s security, dishearten our allies and friends, and diminish our standing in the world.
Robert O. Work is Chief Executive Officer of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and served as Under Secretary of the Navy from 2009 until March 2013. Richard Fontaine is President of CNAS, was a foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain and served the State Department and on the National Security Council staff.