Bipartisanship and foreign policy

Kindred Winecoff has a post up regarding a post by Matt Yglesias on the level of partisanship in American politics.  I’ve some thoughts on the issue.  I should also stipulate that I’m coming at this from a strictly foreign policy-oriented perspective.  Some of this bleeds over into domestic politics, but I’m sure there’s a lot that I’m not covering by approaching the topic from this point of view.

Basically, I agree with what Kindred has to say, and I don’t know as though I’m adding anything substantive, but just reaffirming what’s been put out there by others already.  I would argue that the Truman and late Roosevelt administrations marked the high point for bipartisanship.  Truman inherited several of Roosevelt’s Republican appointees and continued to work with many of them under his own administration.  Eisenhower, however, made some pretty important changes.  Ben Fordham has some work that discusses how Republicans and Democrats differed over the allocation of military capabilities—even during the very early years of the Cold War when “bipartisanship” was arguably at its highest.  In an effort to keep costs down the Eisenhower administration pushed for less emphasis on ground forces and more on nuclear weaponry as a means of ensuring America’s commitments around the world.  If there’s an area where we should expect to find partisan harmony, it’s probably most likely to come in national security policy.

McCarthyism is also running rampant during this time period, and this was not just isolated to Joe McCarthy himself.  Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was pretty aggressive when it came to seeking out and purging those suspected of holding communist sympathies from the ranks of the executive branch.  Often this just meant Democrats and liberal Republicans.  My reading of this is that Dulles was enthusiastic in his own right when it came to this sort of house cleaning.  Eisenhower, for his part, was pretty quiet initially and was reluctant to openly oppose McCarthy.  The bottom line?  Party politics and ideology were pretty fierce even during the early years of the Cold War.

There’s been some recent work done by Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz (there’s much more than these two pieces out there) that deals with this notion of the centrist/bipartisan base of American foreign policy diminishing.  Basically, they argue that the sort of bipartisanship/centrism underpinning American foreign policy since the beginning of the Cold War began to seriously break down around Vietnam, but that it took a major hit shortly after the US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Much of this, they argue, has to do with shifts in how different regions have fared as a result of their integration into and exposure to the global economy.  Trubowtiz’s Defining the National Interest is a good take on this process and how such changes have shaped perceptions of the national interest over time.  I would also add that this is also the period where US integration into the global economy in terms of trade and FDI really starts to take off (FDI maybe kicked in a little later?).  Since I haven’t used a picture in a while, I’ll add one now.  (I made this a while ago, so if something seems grossly off base please let me know.)

This is not adjusted for inflation, but the point here being that the era in question saw an pretty dramatic increase in the rate at which peoples’ personal fortunes and circumstances were changing.  It just seems difficult to think of such a dramatic change in economic circumstances and expect that it will somehow not be associated with changes in political conditions (not that they’re really separate, mind you).  I haven’t read it yet, but I think this is along the lines of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal’s book.

Ultimately I think the takeaway is that this emphasis on bipartisanship is really a moot point.  Bipartisanship was essentially a transient result of circumstance.  Partisan divisions, economic interests, and a world war produced the conditions necessary for Republicans and Democrats to come together to shape foreign affairs.  And even then there remained a large element of the Republican party that was opposed to the internationalist agenda that the other half supported.  Frankly, while it’s an interesting national myth, I’m coming more and more to believe that this question of bipartisanship is the wrong question.  If you buy the arguments that folks like Kupchan and Trubowitz are advancing, it’s really the reallignment of social and economic cleavages with party ID that are really driving increased partisanship.  Particular emphasis on the economic cleavages.  If today’s political environment seems more combative with respect to party lines, it’s probably because it is.  But this doesn’t mean that American politics in general is any more combative than it has been in the past.  Basically, this sort of conflict has always been there, but it may have been more readily identifiable on regional divides rather than party divides.  As Kindred remarks, discussing party in this context is really just talking about the window dressing.

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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