You really do need a score card these days to tell politicians’ foreign policy inclinations. There are Democratic internationalists, right-wing isolationists, Democratic doves, pro-defense Republicans, anti-Pentagon Republican budget hawks, anti-Pentagon liberal welfare state supporters and members of both parties with a range of views when it comes to the centrality of human rights in U.S. foreign policy. In all the tumult and with players changing “sides,” however, there is more unity across party lines than we have had arguably since Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The majority of members of Congress and the rhetoric of Obama officials reflects the decades-old conviction that the United States is the world’s indispensable power. Although President Obama utterly failed to carry through, Secretary of State John Kerry’s public statements urging Syria action (before the president turned tail) could have been given by any number of Republicans.
Consider for example, the remarks of former ambassador Eric Edelman, a career foreign service official, at a recent conference hosted by the Foreign Policy Initiative. He argued that there has been for decades large agreement on the things the United States should be doing:
And among those were, first of all, of course, defending the homeland, but maintaining the freedom of the seas, freedom to transit in air, outer space, the freedom to use cyberspace. Maintaining a balance of power in Europe and in Asia through our alliances . . . And then being able to provide for international humanitarian needs when disaster strikes as we have done repeatedly around the world. I would say those are still things that the United States needs to be able to do as a matter of defense policy, and it is something that we have done for the last 60 years. We have provided global public goods, and I think what the events of the last month and a half — and I would both include the budgetary issues, but also the debate over Syria — have begun, I think, to for the first time in my adult lifetime call that into question, that is to say, call into question whether the United States is willing to continue to provide these global public goods.
He argued that those who adhere to the internationalist consensus “have gotten a little bit intellectually lazy, I think, about having to make the case for it. And I think we need to remedy that and need to be able to make the case for why providing these global public goods is still vital to the nation’s security and to its future prosperity and to the safety of the world in which we live.”
The task is made harder when the president exercises no leadership and makes no consistent case for U.S. involvement in the world. His lackadaisical and sometime hostile view toward U.S. intervention (military and otherwise) naturally sets the tone for many in his party and gives legitimacy to such silly nostrums as “We need to nation build at home.”
There is, however, good news on two fronts for those who fear an erosion of the internationalist consensus.
First, the anti-internationalists don’t really have an answer to the question as to who will provide stability and how we will maintain our way of life and economic position in a globalized world if chaos, war, genocide, WMD use and the like spread. In that regard Edelman made a point I have not heard raised but which is extremely compelling:
[T]here are a lot of folks who, you know, in recent years have talked about the importance of, you know, getting back to, you know, a stricter adherence to the Constitution. To those folks I would just point out that in the Constitution the number one obligation of the federal government is to provide for the common defense. And, by the way, it’s the only obligation that is mandated, not optional for them. They may do other things, but they must provide for the common defense, and I think we need to get more folks . . . . elected to office who understand that that’s their primary responsibility.
So in short, the anti-interventionists don’t have a good case for abandoning the world and anti-interventionists on the right aren’t being consistent with their fidelity to the Constitution.
Second, on some big issues there is enthusiastic bipartisan unity in favor of U.S. leadership. At another panel at the same FPI conference this was evident in the remarks of House Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers (Mich.) and the ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engels (D-N.Y.) Compare two sets of remarks on Syria. First this:
I think this is a classic case of why we ought to re-engage in the world or at least stand up as a general populace about engagement in the world. Our national security interests in Syria were very clear to many of us from the very beginning. . . . [W]hen we don’t make a decision thinking that we’re doing some international good or we’re tired of being engaged in the world, what you get now is a worse problem.
And then this: “I know people feel well, well, we’re all tired. We’re all tired but we have responsibilities not only as the leading power of the world. We have responsibilities to ourselves.”
The first is Rogers, the second Engels. Well, you say Engels and Rogers aren’t necessarily representative of their parties. And that is my point — the coalition for international responsibility and realistic engagement in the world cuts across parties. Rogers on these issues has more in common with Engels than with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)
The challenge then is to expand the influence and following of the Roger-Engels contingent by explaining the necessity of U.S. involvement in the world. That means confronting nonsensical shibboleths (“We can’t be the world’s policeman”) and explaining the connection between U.S. world leadership and our own prosperity and security. Both in Congress and in the larger policy-making community that is the central task. Only after that can we agree upon the details (e.g. precise budget figures, tactics in Syria). The essential task for now is to convince the majority of Americans and their elected representatives that the world needs America and Americans — if they want to maintain their lifestyle and safety — to cultivate stability, liberty and peace internationally.