Water's edge

How to stop low road politics of national security at home from holding America back in the world

The next few weeks offer early tests of President Joe Biden’s theory that he can get different results in reaching across the aisle than his two predecessors did. Even though Democrats control the presidency and Congress, the margins between the two parties are slim. Getting big things done will require cooperation

Earlier this week, the Washington Post suggested that foreign policy is a good place to start finding bipartisan unity, an idea I support.   For more than a decade and a half, too many on both right and left have made national security a partisan wedge issue in politics; some have used foreign policy to stake out positions in internal party fights.  The Senate nomination hearings for Biden’s top national security picks this past week offered some important signs about the possibilities for greater unity of purpose on America’s approach to the world.  

“We must stop politics at the water’s edge,” Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan said at the dawn of the Cold War era, when he was the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Democrat Harry Truman was President.  

But in today’s divided times with a media and politics that thrive on discord, that’s easier said than done.  Besides, as historian Julian Zelizer points out in his book Arsenal of Democracy – the truism of politics stopping at the water’s edge was a false notion throughout the decades of the Cold War.  Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to use national security to their advantage for years.

Instead of naively calling for a foreign policy “kumbaya” moment that’s never going to come, we ought to settle for something more basic: working to lower the influence that the cheap gutter politics of national security, particularly via social media, has on actual policy discussions.  

Foreign policy debates are more open to a wider array of voices – and that’s a good thing overall.  The barriers to entry are lower, and the diversity of perspectives would ideally make things better in terms of policy. But the sum isn’t greater than the individual parts for a few reasons.

First, the costs of how certain voices use their platforms are high – with ad hominem and other personal attacks displacing substantive disagreements over policy.  Even some members of Congress and Congressional staff have jumped into the game by operating as little more than Twitter trolls on complicated national security issues. This may be good for amassing Twitter followers, but it is hard to argue that it has resulted in better policies or ideas.   

Second, this mode of debate also destroys necessary relationship capital among policy experts and practitioners to build coalitions that get results in the real world.  Third, it also spawns more dysfunction and division in America’s own policy landscape.  Finally, this a dynamic that other countries around the world notice and in some cases seek to exploit to their own advantage.  Friends in the world question America’s strategic reliability because of its divisions, and competitors relish the gridlock and dysfunction.  

Case in point: Iran.  Look at the paltry and underwhelming outcomes of recent debates that burned a lot of time, energy, and expertise.  U.S. policy on Iran has not achieved what is should have for years. The perspectives of the loudest Iran pundits on social media are so predictable that someday soon they could be replaced by artificial intelligence and algorithms without anyone really noticing.  No matter where someone stands on these issues, it is hard to argue that this debate has advanced our Iran policy in any meaningful way – it fractured and divided America internally on the tough sets of issues related to Iran, when the country should be working toward more unity. 

A second thing America’s political leaders and opinion shapers can do: look for areas where people of different parties and ideological backgrounds actually agree and use that unity to build support for a smarter U.S. foreign policy.  One place might be Russia policy, where a strong degree of bipartisanship actually already exists. 

The Biden administration must juggle multiple issues on the Russia front: arms control, cyber intrusions and political interference, and a range of more or less traditional security challenges in Europe like Ukraine and the Middle East like Syria.   The outbreak of widespread protests across Russia this past week supporting opposition leader Alexei Navalny, coming on the heels of recent political protests in Belarus, shows that the flame of freedom is still alive in the harshest of circumstances.  

The Biden administration in its early days demonstrated it can walk and chew gum at the same time – announcing a five-year renewal of the New START deal limiting strategic nuclear weapons while ordering a broad assessment of Russian hacking.  

Russia’s crackdown on protesters, its broad efforts to stifle freedom at home, and its ongoing interference in open societies require a stronger response than the last two U.S. presidents offered.  America can put one together without falling into the tired tropes used by parts of the left and right that any response equals a slippery slip into another war.  

In crafting his Russia policy, Biden should reach out to pragmatic Republicans in Congress.  Even during the Trump years, many of them found common cause with Democrats in developing stronger responses to Russia’s actions than President Trump proved willing to countenance.  Not all of them fell for the arguments made by a handful of conservatives who extolled the virtues of Vladmir Putin and held him up as a paragon of conservativism in recent years. 

One Republican Biden might phone up is Senator Mitt Romney, the man in 2012 who raised the red flag about Russia in a debate with President Barack Obama. This outreach to Republicans on Russia won’t solve all of the thorny policy problems America faces – and it certainly won’t ameliorate the partisan divides poised to produce more gridlock.  

But presenting a more united front on America’s policy towards Russia could actually send a strong message about the role America intends to play in the world under President Biden.