Seventy years ago this week, as the Truman administration was defining its approach to the Cold War, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg coined a phrase and proclaimed a principle: “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Vandenberg acknowledged that Americans had “earnest, honest, even vehement” differences on foreign policy. But, he wrote, “so long as we can keep partisan politics out of foreign affairs, it is entirely obvious that we shall speak with infinitely greater authority abroad.”
Following the most divisive presidential campaign in our country’s modern history, calls for bipartisanship may seem old-fashioned and naïve. But a bipartisan approach to foreign policy is achievable and remains essential for our security at home and stability around the globe.
The world does not pose its challenges in neat four- or eight-year increments; they span the course of administrations and election cycles. Thus, to be effective, America’s foreign policy should be consistent—sometimes over the course of decades—regardless of which party occupies the White House. Our global adversaries have long-term strategies, and America must be able to make long-term commitments to protect our interests.
We know from our own careers that achieving consensus is hard. The parties have important differences that cannot be papered over. But even in recent memory, Democrats and Republicans have joined to enable our most important national security and foreign policy achievements—containing Communism, expanding NATO, decimating al Qaeda, promoting democracy, fighting HIV/AIDs and the Ebola virus, achieving arms control agreements, and combatting narco-terrorists in Colombia.
Not every bipartisan policy has been successful, yet virtually every successful foreign policy initiative has been bipartisan. Where our policies have not succeeded—in stabilizing Iraq, preventing a nuclear-armed North Korea, or in stopping atrocities in Syria—they have lacked a sustained approach carried across administrations or supported by both parties.
Today’s polarized debates—whether over Russian hacking or trade with China—may suggest to some that realistic ground for bipartisan foreign policies has slipped away. But our own recent work suggests that a starting point from which to build renewed bipartisanship is actually one of the world’s thorniest crises: the chaos across the Middle East.
We recently spent 18 months working with Republican and Democratic former officials, and regional stakeholders, on a strategy for the long task of building a more stable Middle East, from Syria and Iraq to Yemen, Libya and elsewhere. Across the Middle East, the challenges of civil war, violent extremism and humanitarian crises are rooted in states where governments and institutions are unresponsive to their people’s needs, thus breeding corruption, poverty, public discontent and the breakdown of security.
These “fragile” states are a global challenge. They’re prone to violent conflicts—whether from sectarian warfare, extremist groups, or regional rivals—with tragic results, including the rise of ISIS and the humanitarian crisis in Syria. They aren’t limited to the Middle East’s borders—you can count South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Haiti among them. And globally, fragile states’ civil wars have spewed terrorist attacks, threatened political cohesion and uprooted the bulk of the world’s 65 million displaced persons.
Experience shows that problems abroad, if left unattended, all too often come home to America. The United States cannot fix every fragile state; it must pragmatically choose those spots where the threat is the greatest and the possibility of reducing that danger is the most realistic. In those states, a policy of helping local people strengthen their institutions—making them more resilient and able to manage future shocks peacefully—is far cheaper than dealing with the wars and refugee flows that will erupt otherwise.
A bipartisan foreign policy for the Middle East would recognize that American leadership is still critical to mobilizing the international help required for these states. It would use every tool in the toolbox: security, diplomatic and development assistance, support for democratic institutions, plus private-sector investment. It would push for a more efficient, effective global relief effort for the world’s record refugee population, focusing on offering these populations opportunities for self-sufficient futures. It would acknowledge that any major U.S. ground force deployment should be avoided unless it is a national security imperative. And it would require a long, patient investment with a partner country, ready for the years of persistent support required to build strong and inclusive institutions.
After prolonged wars in and around the Middle East, Americans understandably have grown wary of major military deployments and nation-building. A bipartisan approach to the Middle East would begin by insisting that the bulk of the vision, effort, and resources must come from the people of the region. Only when a country is making the tough decisions that will build its own stability can U.S. support become a good national security investment for Americans.
In 1947, Americans were similarly exhausted by World War II and eager to rebuild at home—a yearning that Sen. Vandenberg, a lifelong skeptic on foreign affairs, understood fully. But through the fog of the early Cold War, Vandenberg and his contemporaries saw clearly that only bipartisan dialogue and unity on our policies abroad would guide our nation safely through. Seventy years later, neither our domestic divisions, nor our challenges from abroad, are worse than those we have overcome before. It is vital that we give a bipartisan approach a try.