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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 131-136

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Redefining Bipartisanship

John J. Hamre

Did the U.S. tradition of bipartisan foreign policy die during the Clinton administration? I had not thought it had deteriorated so badly until I heard the vote on a normally routine resolution commending U.S. military personnel for their performance during the Kosovo air campaign. Because the resolution contained a phrase commending the president as commander-in-chief, the House of Representatives defeated it by a narrow margin.

Did this vote represent another example of congressional contempt for President Bill Clinton after a failed impeachment drive, or did it signal a deeper pathology in the U.S. political system concerning foreign policy?

Upon considerable reflection, I believe the vote was caused largely by the brittle politics that characterized relations between a Republican Congress and the Clinton administration. These years are more marred by aridity, however, than controversy. A decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, this nation still gropes for a unifying U.S. foreign policy.

I recall a remarkable event on August 31, 1989, when the icy grip of totalitarian control was slipping in East Europe. The Hungarian government announced that it would no longer block East Germans living in Hungary from emigrating to West Germany. Within hours, nearly 800 East German citizens arrived at the West German embassy in Budapest asking to emigrate. After a day or so of negotiations, the Hungarian government agreed to let the West German government charter a train to take the refugees to the West. A CNN crew in Frankfurt recorded the arrival. A reporter interviewing a young German couple sought to conclude the interview by asking if there was any message they wished to give the viewing public. The young German man said, "Yes, I would like to thank America for keeping a place in the world that was free." [End Page 131]

That simple, powerful, riveting statement illustrated the United States' foreign and security policy through the Cold War. More importantly, the statement reflected a philosophy that the U.S. public instinctively understood. U.S. foreign policy was fixed in a constellation dominated by the imperatives of containing the Soviet Union and managing the evolution of the international political order in relatively peaceful ways under the tension of a superpower standoff. Therefore, U.S. politicians had no difficulty defending a policy to maintain 325,000 troops in Europe or 100,000 troops in Asia to their constituencies. The central theme of the Cold War resonated not only on both sides of the aisle, but throughout the country.

What Bipartisanship Means Today

Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, we have yet to discover an equally compelling consensus. Instead, U.S. foreign policy seems to mirror the Internet--increasingly functionally decentralized, with component policies initiated by many disparate actors. The constitutional prominence of the presidency has been eroded by numerous boutique initiatives designed to address highly specific interests. A congressman with a large constituency of Armenian Americans in an especially tough reelection fight pushes legislation to condemn Turkey for the Armenian genocide. To satisfy agricultural interests anxious to expand exports, Congress drops long-standing export prohibitions of food products to so-called "rogue" states, but keeps sanctions on Cuba in place in an election year featuring Florida as the key battleground state. With active encouragement by the administration, U.S. business mounts a successful campaign to authorize permanent normal trade relations with China only two years after China was excoriated for spying in U.S. nuclear laboratories. A loosely knit coalition of peace activists promotes a ban on land mines that effectively isolates the United States in an international treaty-making forum. The U.S. software industry, short of skilled labor, successfully gets Congress to raise the quota on skilled technology green card holders even though, in the larger political context, foreign-born spies working in U.S. laboratories dominated the year.

The previous examples are but five of the dozens I experienced during my time in office as deputy secretary of defense. They teach us one fundamental lesson: foreign policy...


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