On Foreign Policy, Shades of Agreement

Will the end of the Bush era bring the parties together on war and peace?


Republicans are from Mars, Democrats from Venus. That is to say, Republicans are hawkish, Democrats dovish, and common ground is scant. In consequence, the relative bipartisanship that once marked U.S. foreign-policy debates has given way to a bitterly partisan era of which the Bush years provide but a foretaste. Future arguments over the use of force against Iran, North Korea, or other possible adversaries will make the Iraq dispute look like a dinner party.

All of the above is conventional wisdom. That doesn't make it wrong—at least, not entirely. But reality is more surprising and encouraging. Encouragement comes from the underappreciated fact that America's partisans agree on much more than the conventional wisdom would suggest. Surprise comes from what it is they agree on: They want a foreign policy that is less confrontational and more cooperative than the one the Bush administration has given them.

In January, Matthew Continetti, a thoughtful political reporter at The Weekly Standard, published an article whose strengths and weaknesses are both instructive. The headline sums up the thesis: "The Peace Party vs. the Power Party—The Real Divide in American Politics." Writes Continetti: "The Democratic Party is increasingly linked with the attitudes, tendencies, and policies of peace, whereas the Republican Party is increasingly linked with the maintenance and projection of American military power."

Continetti, like others who argue the "red hawks, blue doves" brief, makes two points that are both true and important. The first is that intense Republican and Democratic partisans have different theories of where peace comes from: Republicans tend to think peace comes from U.S. strength, Democrats, from international cooperation. Also true is that the partisan gap has widened in recent years, and that the gap grows as one moves up the political food chain from rank and file to party activists to political leaders. Congress is more polarized, on foreign policy as on almost everything else, than is either the electorate or the population.

For all their undoubted significance, however, those two facts are not the whole story. Also important, but much more commonly overlooked, is that the partisan opinion gap has in many cases not widened to the point of actual disagreement. As it happens, Continetti's article provides multiple cases in point:

* "The 2006 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund [of the United States] found that more than 80 percent of Democrats said they agreed either 'strongly' or 'somewhat' with the idea that 'economic power is more important in world affairs than military power.' The divergence from Republicans was 18 percentage points." Correct. (Though actually 19 points.) But, of course, Republicans and Democrats agree that economic power is more important—by 62 percent and 81 percent, respectively.

* "The partisan difference on expanding defense spending increased by 10 percentage points between 1998 and 2004." Perhaps, but according to a December 2006 poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, 61 percent of Republicans agreed with 83 percent of Democrats that defense spending should not be increased. (Those respondents said that defense spending should be cut or kept the same.)

* The German Marshall Fund poll "asked whether, 'under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice.' Sixty-three percent of Republicans agreed 'strongly' with this sentiment, as did 30 percent of Democrats. In the peace party, war is the final, and perhaps forbidden, option." Really? Add all who agree—both "strongly" and "somewhat"—that war is sometimes necessary to obtain justice, and 70 percent of Democrats concur with 93 percent of Republicans.

* "Democrats [are] increasingly less likely to say that maintaining U.S. military power is a 'very important goal' of American foreign policy." Again, add "somewhat important" to "very important" and the disagreement vanishes: According to a summer 2006 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, 89 percent of Democrats and 96 percent of Republicans agree. The partisan difference is in intensity, not basic belief.

If your guard is now up against the hawks-versus-doves hypothesis, you may want to spend some time examining this chart . It collects 62 foreign-policy questions from nine 2006 opinion polls. Questions on which bipartisan majorities agree are shaded green; the darker the green, the closer the agreement.

The questions are not a scientific sample, so counting them up won't tell you much; I chose them subjectively for quality, interest, and range. Nonetheless, it is immediately apparent that the chart shows a lot of green, and quite a bit of dark green—and often on questions where a Washington partisan would expect strong disagreement.

Questions about President Bush send both parties rushing to their respective corners. No surprise there. Nor is it surprising that backward-looking, evaluative questions about the Iraq war are polarizing. On the other hand, forward-looking questions about how to proceed from here in Iraq show considerable agreement on withdrawal and international talks. (Caveat: These polls predate Bush's public commitment to sending additional U.S. forces to Iraq.)

The plot thickens when one turns to questions about the use of force, including on Iran. Republicans are clearly more hawkish than Democrats, but accent the "ish." Both parties see economic power as more important than military; oppose making regime change an explicit goal; favor (overwhelmingly) using U.S. troops to stop genocide; think the United States should put more emphasis on diplomacy rather than force; and see Iraq as inspiring caution about the use of force against rogue states. On whether to use force to replace dictatorships, Republicans waver, switching sides depending on how the question is asked.

On Iran, Republicans are more willing to use force, but they nonetheless agree with Democrats on preferring efforts to improve relations. More surprising, both parties say that force should be used only with the support of allies and with United Nations authorization.

Similarly with the U.N.: Democrats clearly like and trust it more, but both parties want to strengthen it, even to the point of granting it coercive powers that would appall Vice President Cheney. On what might be called tough versus tender diplomacy, the parties differ on whether to talk to adversaries without preconditions (both in Iran's case and generically), but they agree on favoring talking to adversaries over isolating them (another rebuke to Cheneyism).

Any lingering doubts that both parties, not just Democrats, would prefer a softer touch are dispatched with a look at multilateralism, a sea of green. Both parties love all kinds of treaties, including ones that the Bush administration has rejected (global warming, nuclear test ban, biological weapons inspections). In fact, partisans are generally more pro-treaty than independents (the gray squares), whose libertarian streak shows in their greater suspicion of foreign entanglements. Both parties strongly prefer cooperation to unilateralism; strikingly, Republicans hardly differ from Democrats in preferring cooperation to U.S. pre-eminence in solving global problems.

In his article, Continetti gives a passing nod to areas of consensus but dismisses them as "only superficial." Well, that's one way of looking at things, although it does seem a bit like calling a zebra a black animal with white highlights. Another way to look at things is more like this:

Overrepresented in their party's top ranks and then empowered by 9/11, a particularly hawkish and unilateralist faction of Republicans took American foreign policy well to the right of the public and, for that matter, of the Republican rank and file. The overshoot cannot persist forever and, indeed, is undergoing correction: In an August 2006 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, almost half of Republicans said they were "concerned that … if Republicans keep the majority, they will get the U.S. involved in too many military operations." No wonder the Bush administration is disavowing aggressive intentions toward Iran and North Korea.

Judging by public opinion, once Bush and the Iraq war—the two great foreign-policy polarizers—cease to dominate the agenda, a bipartisan swing toward a less confrontational, more multilateralist foreign policy appears likely. That correction would hardly end partisan disputatiousness (nothing could do that), but it would bring some relative respite. Where foreign policy is concerned, the post-Bush period may look less like the hyperpartisanship of the Bush years than the muddled bickering of the Clinton era. Who knows? A period of neo-Clintonianism may even be presided over by a chief executive named Clinton.

© Copyright 2007 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.