If the Republican Party moves so far to the right that liberal internationalists have no home other than with the Democrats, their brand of international engagement and moderation risks becoming just another political football tossed about in the partisan scrum of Washington politics. In that case, U.S. foreign policy will continue to vacillate wildly whenever power changes hands between the parties, the congressional opposition will keep stubbornly obstructing the president’s foreign-policy initiatives out of a sense of duty and ideology, and the perceived erosion in the quality of U.S. global leadership will persist. Meanwhile, the ongoing quest for a bipartisan, post–Cold War consensus on America’s rightful role in the world will remain quixotic [bold mine-DL]. That’s not a prescription for American exceptionalism but rather a narrative of continued American decline.
Bipartisan foreign policy consensus is greatly overrated. There has been significant bipartisan consensus on “America’s rightful role in the world” since the end of the Cold War, and the consensus has been wrong with worrisome frequency. On at least three major issues, the consensus has been dangerously in error. The first of these was obviously the perceived threat from Iraq that supposedly required the U.S. to invade and overthrow its government. The second is the ongoing bipartisan obsession with Iran’s nuclear program, which currently poses no threat at all to the United States and won’t pose much of one in the future. A less noticed but no less foolish mistake supported by a broad bipartisan consensus has been the ongoing effort to expand NATO into the former Soviet Union. NATO expansion deeper into the former Soviet Union may seem impossible for the time being after the August 2008 war, but it has not yet been entirely abandoned as an idea. It could once again become a major irritant in the relationship with Russia. The U.S. would have been better off if there had been less consensus on the supposed threat from Iraq and more genuine debate about the assumptions that informed the consensus view. Likewise, the U.S. would be better off if there were not a bipartisan consensus on Iran and NATO expansion.
On most issues, U.S. foreign policy is hardly in danger of vacillating wildly between diametrically opposing poles. On the contrary, it has become commonplace to observe that the differences between presidential candidates on most issues are so small that they are obliged to exaggerate them to create the illusion of real disagreement*. The limits of debate and the range of acceptable policy ideas remain remarkably narrow, and continuity between administrations is still the rule. There is value in maintaining continuity between administrations on foreign policy when that continuity exists to secure a genuinely national interest. When such continuity is the product of inertia or an unwillingness to abandon unsustainable or unwise positions, it is harmful and undesirable. The consensus view on Iran’s nuclear program is unwise and will commit the U.S. to a disastrous conflict if it is taken to its logical conclusion. The consensus view on NATO expansion could very well oblige the U.S. to make security guarantees that it will not be able to fulfill, or worse still it could create the conditions for escalating a local conflict into a major war. We could stand to have quite a lot more disagreement between and within the two major parties on the proper U.S. role in the world. The last thing we need to worry about at present is a lack of bipartisan consensus.
* There are a few real and significant differences between the two presidential candidates this year, but these are still the exception.