Does America need more bipartisanship in foreign policy? My fellow Foreign Policy columnist, Aaron Miller appears to think so, as he's twice argued in recent weeks that the next president should pick a secretary of state from the other political party. After all, says Miller, "for the first time in a quarter-century, the United States has a bipartisan -- even nonpartisan -- consensus on many of the core issues relating to the country's foreign policy." Indeed, according to Miller, "there's an emerging consensus in U.S. foreign policy that's smart, functional, and welcome. We should build on it."
Along the same lines, Foreign Affairs editor Gideon Rose writing in the Washington Post this past weekend, noted that "the basic template for American foreign policy has been relatively constant for almost seven decades now and needs only tweaking and updating, not fundamental revision."
While both are right that there is foreign policy consensus in the country today, it doesn't necessarily follow suit that this is something good. In fact, what the country needs now is not more consensus, but less. While foreign policy harmony often has positive attributes, it can also constrict national security thinking, limit policy options, and marginalize iconoclastic voices. Instead, the competition of ideas in foreign policy debates -- which as Miller implicitly argues doesn't currently exist -- is far more important than perpetuating a "consensus" that keeps new ideas or strategies from rising to the political surface.
At a time when the U.S. faces no serious security threats -- and the country is transitioning away from to a post-war on terrorism template -- there is no better time to have a robust debate about America's global responsibilities, the role of its armed forces and the nature of U.S. interests in a world that is perhaps freer, safer, and more prosperous than any point in human history. Solidifying the current consensus would have the opposite effect. As former Secretary of State Dean Acheson once wisely observed: "It isn't the fact that [foreign] policy is nonpartisan that's important, it's the fact that it's good."
On the surface, however, it might appear that the United States is in the midst of a rather robust partisan debate on foreign policy. Hardly a day goes by when Republicans miss a chance to attack President Barack Obama's foreign policy as weak, feckless, and apologetic. Yes, on issues like China, Syria, and to a lesser extent Iran, there are areas of reasonable disagreement. But dig down and what becomes visible is more convergence than contrast.
For example, while Mitt Romney likes to assail Obama for cutting the defense budget, the differences between the two candidates on the state of the military are actually not all that significant: Obama wants a giant military; Romney wants a gigantic one. Indeed, after the signing of the debt limit deal last year, which called for as much as a trillion dollars in defense spending cuts both parties practically fell over themselves trying to run away from it. The ink was barely dry before Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was warning that the cuts would invite "aggression" against the United States. And the Republican-led House has already passed legislation that would take a sledgehammer to crucial safety net programs like meals on wheels and children's health care in order to protect the Pentagon's more than $650 billion budget. But the consensus stretches to cover more than just Department of Defense spending.
How about U.S. global alliances, many of which are a vestige of the Cold War and yet remain unchanged 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? For example, the United States continues to massively underwrite and subsidize security responsibilities for Europe (via NATO) and the Far East (via U.S. security relationships with Japan and South Korea) Good luck finding a significant voice in either party who thinks either of these situations -- driven as much by inertia than by actual U.S. interests -- is problematic. What about the U.S. relationship with "allies" like Israel -- which regularly takes actions that are contrary to U.S. policy in the region, but are unquestioned among elite national security policymakers?
Or how about the unshakable agreement within both party elites on the necessity of prosecuting the war on terror via drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen? To be sure, there is certainly a healthy amount of varying opinions between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy tactics, but as Miller rightly pointed out recently: there isn't much difference between Obama and Romney's thinking on major strategic issues. While Romney is more likely to use tough rhetoric on Iran -- and might even talk himself into the use of force -- both men share the view that there is an abiding national interest in preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb (at practically any cost) and that containment of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. Even in today's highly partisan political environment, the areas of contention in foreign policy are frequently less than meets the eye.