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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 123-130

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How to Forge Ahead

Lee H. Hamilton

Few words in politics are bandied about as much as bipartisanship. All politicians recognize that, like freedom or prosperity, its approval ratings approach 100 percent. Yet translating rhetorical support for bipartisanship into practice can be extremely difficult. Although Americans have consistently said that they want their elected officials to work across party lines, the nation's politics have been excessively partisan over the past several years. U.S. foreign policy has suffered as a result.

Foreign policy always has more force and punch when the nation speaks with one voice. When the president works with the opposing party and takes its views into consideration, the policy that results is more likely to have strong public support. Such a foreign policy makes the United States more respected and effective abroad.

The United States is at a remarkable moment in its history. The international environment is relatively tranquil; there is no major threat to our security; and we enjoy a position of unprecedented economic, political, and cultural preeminence.

We must not, however, take these good times for granted. Most Americans have barely begun to comprehend threats now on the horizon. To remain secure, prosperous, and free, the United States must continue to lead. That leadership requires a president and Congress working together to fashion a foreign policy with broad, bipartisan support.

Obstacles to a Bipartisan Foreign Policy

The past several years have been marked by bitter partisanship both within [End Page 123] Congress and in the relationship between Congress and the White House. Then-President Bill Clinton's impeachment and last year's disputed presidential election stoked partisan flames to their most heated levels in recent memory. Faced with the residue of those battles and a nearly evenly split Congress and U.S. electorate, President George W. Bush faces an extraordinarily difficult political climate.

His task is made more challenging by today's complex world environment and the low public interest in foreign affairs. With the world changing at a rapid pace and most Americans paying little attention to international events, it has become more difficult for the president to shape a national consensus about the purpose of U.S. foreign policy. Foreign policy debates often turn into partisan disputes because the national interest in a given issue is unclear.

Changes in the Congress have further complicated the task of developing a bipartisan foreign policy. Many members of Congress now view foreign policy as nothing more than an extension of U.S. domestic politics. They use foreign policy to curry favor with supporters or constituents or to score points by attacking the president. Power in Congress on foreign policy has become more diffuse in recent decades, as the main foreign policy committees have lost influence to a variety of other committees and to individual members advancing specific causes. It may be misguided nostalgia to think that Congress ever spoke with one voice in foreign policy, but now Congress seems often to speak with 535.

Additionally, foreign policy partisanship is exacerbated by the media. The media encourage policymakers to take controversial stances by focusing on political conflict more than foreign policy analysis. A member of Congress does not get onto television by agreeing with, or explaining, the administration's foreign policy. He or she gets attention by accusing the administration of failure or inadequacy.

Overcoming the Obstacles

It will not be easy for Bush to overcome these obstacles to build a bipartisan U.S. foreign policy. Certainly some things, such as the behavior of the media, are beyond his control, but he can do several things to develop a strong foreign policy with broad congressional and public support.

Take Charge of Foreign Policy

Bush's leadership is the most important ingredient for success. The American people will generally support him on major foreign policy questions if he [End Page 124] vigorously makes his case. Early in the administration, Bush must set a strategic direction for his foreign policy and determine what his priorities will be. If he does not, his foreign policy will...


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