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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 83-91

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Stopping at the Water's Edge

John F. Kerry

Pundits and pessimists argue that a slim Republican margin in the House of Representatives, an equally divided Senate, and a president elected with no clear mandate for action will bring an already gridlocked Washington to a complete standstill. These predictions may prove true on some domestic issues, but foreign policy, like time, waits for no mandate.

The president--and the Congress--will be forced to deal with the inevitable crises beyond our borders and our ongoing international obligations. The question is not whether but how foreign policy issues will be addressed: through a partisan tug-of-war or through bipartisan cooperation among those who believe that U.S. national security and national interests demand that politics stop at the water's edge. At the risk of challenging conventional wisdom, the prospects for cooperation are greater than one might think.

In truth, the numbers game in Washington is rarely the key to consensus on U.S. foreign policy. Throughout the Cold War, narrow partisan margins and divided government coexisted with a bipartisan consensus that the first priority for the United States was to contain the Soviet Union and prevent a nuclear holocaust. To be sure, U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the Nixon administration's new policy of d├ętente produced cracks in the consensus. Disagreement emerged over the degree to which communism was monolithic, the lengths to which the United States should go to contain the communist threat in places such as Southeast Asia and later in Latin America, and the wisdom of trying to contain Soviet power through negotiation rather than isolation. This debate was largely over methods, not over the fundamental goal of containment.

U.S. policymakers have struggled to find an organizing principle to guide foreign policy since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Unlike the Cold War, [End Page 83] when the enemy was defined and the threat understood, the last decade has left the United States as the dominant power in a messy and increasingly complex international arena where few conflicts directly threaten vital U.S. interests, yet many require U.S. attention. No longer confronted on the international stage by another global superpower--or in fact any serious challenger--U.S. policymakers are searching for a common vision of the U.S. role in the world. This search is conducted against a backdrop of ethnic and regional conflicts; emboldened state and nonstate actors; a proliferation of transnational security threats; and increasing global interdependence in economic, environmental, and health care sectors. In this scenario, it is hardly surprising that a myriad of new and often conflicting international priorities have arisen within the U.S. government.

In the executive branch, the influence of the Commerce and Treasury Departments, as well as the U.S. trade representative, in foreign policy has grown steadily and clashed frequently with the more traditional priorities still espoused by the State and Defense Departments. Acknowledging that its role and responsibilities have also changed, the Department of Defense has added a peacekeeping office within its structure and beefed up its ability to deal with strictly humanitarian crises. At the Department of State, an office for a new undersecretary for global affairs has been created to raise the profile of transnational issues such as preventing and managing massive refugee flows and addressing global environmental problems. Although the more traditional diplomats may prefer to focus on the political dimensions of U.S. relations with other nations, the State Department has been forced to strengthen its efforts to promote U.S. business and economic interests abroad.

In Congress, where Republican freshmen from the House class of 1994 were known to brag that they did not even hold passports, the end of the Cold War has relegated foreign policy to the back burner for most members, except in times of crisis or election-year politics. Many engage in international issues selectively, tending to advance the specialized interests of their own constituents over a foreign policy driven by any concept of the national interest...


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