Chuck Hagel and Bipartisanship in Foreign Policy


The news surrounding Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan as Secretary of Defense and Director of the CIA (respectively) has primarily been focused on the “controversial” Hagel’s previous statements and positions. Republican commentators have been complaining about Hagel’s nomination, claiming that his nomination sends a powerful signal that the Obama administration is putting more “daylight” between the US and Israel, among other things. Steve Clemmons at The Atlantic has also reviewed several arguments for and against Hagel’s nomination. The turf on that subject has already been covered pretty thoroughly, so I’ll leave the issue be for now. What has received less attention, however, is that Hagel’s nomination represents a continuation of a fairly long history of Democrats appointing Republicans to positions within the foreign policy bureaucracy.

In 1940 FDR appointed Henry Stimson and Frank Knox—both Republicans—to be his Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy (again, respectively). Stimson’s appointment in particular is generally regarded as marking the onset of the bipartisan consensus that characterized the early Cold War period. Having previously served as Secretary of State under President Hoover and Secretary of War under Taft, Stimson was already a widely recognized figure in the foreign policymaking community (such as it was back then). Along with Stimson came John McCloy and Robert Lovett, both of whom were also Republicans and both of whom served as Stimson’s assistants in the War Department.

By bringing these Republicans into his administration, Roosevelt was attempting to build support among opposition Republicans for increasing US activism in World War II. Primarily this encompassed moderate internationalist Republicans from the Northeast. Even prior to his nomination, Stimson and his mentor, Elihu Root, himself previously a Secretary of War and Secretary of State, had petitioned Congressional leadership to introduce some form of draft bill to prepare the US for involvement in the growing conflicts in Europe and East Asia. Stimson and Root had both been devout internationalists in the years leading up to the Second World War, and their appointment marked what many historians have labeled as the beginning of the “Eastern Establishment” in foreign policymaking. The Establishment narrative, broadly speaking, tends to emphasize bipartisanship in the foreign policy bureaucracy specifically, but it also encompasses themes of elite influence, economic interests, and political polarization in foreign policymaking.

This general narrative has been present for several decades in the US foreign policy literature, but it’s largely been isolated to the qualitative political science and historical literatures. Quantitative political science research has delved into the more narrow issue of bipartisanship, but these studies have tended to focus on Congress. Accordingly, the central focus of this large body of work has gone unexamined in a systematic sense, and part of my dissertation research has attempted to address this gap. This is really all a long-winded way of saying that the Hagel nomination provides me with a timely opportunity to briefly share some of my work on the subject. Though I don’t want to give away the farm here, this seems like a fine time to chime in.

Despite the recognition that the foreign policy bureaucracy—indeed, the bureaucracy more broadly—plays a fairly prominent role in the policymaking process, we don’t really have much in the way of systematic quantitative research on the subject. I’ve tried to get at some of these issues in my dissertation by collecting some new data on appointees to foreign policymaking positions within the foreign policy bureaucracy. I primarily focus on the State Department and the Defense Department, but I also focus on some other agencies like the CIA. In total, I’ve collected data on some 1,000+ individuals serving in these posts from 1948 through the present. One of the primary characteristics that I coded for each individual was what, if any, party affiliation that individual had. As a way to get at trends in bipartisanship within the foreign policy bureaucracy, the graph below shows the percentage of appointments included in the data set that are bipartisan in nature.*

Some interesting points: Perhaps not surprisingly, the Truman administration represents an all-time high in the data. This is partially a function of the fact that Truman inherited many of FDR’s appointments, but it’s also partially due to the fact that the foreign policy bureaucracy was undergoing some pretty radical changes during this time period. In particular, the size of these agencies grew dramatically during the World War II period. Coding rules are also partially responsible, as I focused on individuals occupying positions at the assistant secretary level and up (where appropriate). By the early to mid-1950s, however, the rate of growth slows a bit and, while still increasing in size, it does so more slowly than in the first few years of the Cold War. The crash at the beginning of the Eisenhower administration might reflect some of the antics of Joseph McCarthy and Secretary Dulles, both of whom were more than a little keen to go after anyone remotely suspected of being communists. It could also be a function of the Republicans having been out of power for about two decades. Also of note, the late 1970s do see a slight slump in the level of bipartisanship, which is potentially in line with arguments concerning the impact of Vietnam on bipartisanship more generally. The Clinton administration sees a fairly sharp spike near the end, and the Bush administration also sees a dip in its later years, while the incoming Obama administration sees a slight increase.

More broadly, the work that I’ve done so far suggests a few general trends. First, I find some evidence that, all else equal, Democrats tend to be more likely than Republicans to make bipartisan appointments to the foreign policy bureaucracy—Even controlling for the Truman administration. Other models suggest this difference is more acute in the early Cold War period (again, also while controlling for Truman). Additionally, I also find some evidence to support the conventional wisdom concerning the use of bipartisan appointments as a means of building moderate coalitions and as a response to domestic political conditions. In particular Congressional support matters, but is perhaps a little more nuanced than the historical accounts often suggest, as the availability of moderates in Congress also seems to condition this relationship. It also appears as though Presidents make these appointments with an eye towards governing more broadly, as the composition of the Senate alone appears to have little impact.

So what? Well, with respect to current news my work would suggest that Obama’s retention of Bob Gates and his appointment of Chuck Hagel are actually very much in line with broader trends in Democratic foreign policy appointments since World War II. Robert Lovett—formerly Stimson’s assistant at the War Department—went on to serve as Truman’s Secretary of Defense. Kennedy subsequently offered Lovett his choice of State, Defense, and Treasury. Though Lovett turned him down, Kennedy did end up appointing Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy—both Republicans—to important posts. While there are certainly other lesser-known bipartisan appointees, these folks are some of the more prominent. Furthermore, these trends emerged well before the Republicans had fully taken on the identity of the party of national security. Still, even in the early Cold War period the Republicans did attack Democrats for being soft on Communism, so this vulnerability was present in some incarnation. Accordingly, Democratic administrations perhaps had more to gain from trying to draw in Republicans than vice versa, as such appointments could confer some measure of credibility.

Moving forward it will be interesting to see how these trends continue to develop. Despite the much publicized opposition to Hagel’s appointment it is entirely possible that this is just media hype and Republican chest-thumping. David Karol at the Monkey Cage recently wrote about the House Republicans’ position-taking when voting on the recent Fiscal Cliff deal. So it’s easy to imagine that the Republican outcry over Hagel’s nomination is really going to wither when it comes time for the Senate to vote. Though these situations are not completely comparable, giving Obama a hard time seems to be a means of gaining currency in the Republican Party these days. Beyond the current confirmation battle, much of this will depend on how the current debate over the GOP’s foreign policy positions pans out (see Drezner’s latest Foreign Affairs piece, for example). If the Democrats manage to become the party of national security moving forward, perhaps we might see a reversal of these trends. Given the current Republican field, however, I wouldn’t hold my breath.**

* Given that none of this work/data is published (yet?) please don’t cite this post or data. I’m still very much hoping to update and improve this material as I go. I guess this is kind of the norm, right?

** In the off chance that anyone comments, please be aware that I have had trouble leaving comments in the recent past. On the rare occasion that we do get feedback, I feel rude not replying, so apologies in advance if this should happen.

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alabama and will be joining the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University in the fall of 2014 as an assistant professor. 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.

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