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A Foreign Policy ‘Consensus’ Imposed from Above

Mark Hannah observes that a bipartisan foreign policy consensus stifles legitimate debate and that it is antithetical to democratic politics:

In 1948, after bowing out of a bid to defeat Democratic President Harry Truman, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) declared, “We must stop politics at the water’s edge.” In other words, we should confine our disagreements to domestic policy and project unity to our foreign friends and foes. But that unity was merely a product of the geopolitical realities at the dawn of the Cold War. More often, an elite consensus feeds stale policy, allows bad ideas to go unchallenged and narrows the range of new proposals welcomed as legitimate. There’s a word that describes a politically powerful person making a high-minded exhortation to “stop politics.” That word is not “democracy.”

There is no tradition of — nor enduring allegiance to — bipartisan consensus in America’s international relations. Nor should there be.

Americans have always been divided on foreign policy questions, and it is only when there is a sufficiently grave external threat or there is a concerted effort to impose a particular view that those divisions recede temporarily. These divisions will always resurface because our country is too large and too diverse for our population to reach a settled consensus for very long. When there is a consensus among politicians and foreign policy professionals, it masks these divisions and frequently fails to represent the views of large numbers of Americans. The existence of such a consensus is not a case of politics “stopping at the water’s edge.” It is the establishment of a particular set of assumptions about U.S. power and its role in the world that define the boundaries of what is acceptable in foreign policy debate.

The bipartisan consensus that most of our political leaders subscribe to and reinforce is made first in Washington and then handed down to the country. It has been and continues to be very much a top-down process in which the public is offered a limited menu of options, and they are then told that even most of those options are unworkable. Once they are created, consensus views become excessively rigid, and the policies informed by them lag behind changing circumstances. That produces inadequate and unrealistic policies because new and unconventional ideas are discouraged or dismissed out of hand because they do not follow consensus assumptions. Like any working set of ideas, consensus views may start out being timely and appropriate for their circumstances, but when they settle and harden into an idol they become an impediment to informed and effective policymaking.

For example, the goal of North Korea policy across multiple administrations was to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons and then to pressure North Korea into giving up the weapons that it had obtained. Perversely, the first policy contributed directly to its own failure by driving North Korea to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to test its first nuclear device, and then the last two administrations have tried in vain to reverse that outcome. North Korea’s denuclearization has been a consistent U.S. goal under presidents from both parties, but repeated failure has not yet forced our leaders to adapt and try something else. Everything else related to North Korea has been held hostage to this wild goose chase of seeking complete denuclearization that will never happen. The bipartisan consensus doesn’t just enshrine mistaken assumptions as wisdom, but it actively fights against those that try to make the consensus more responsive to contemporary realities.

Defenders of the bipartisan consensus discourage and penalize analysts and writers that diverge too much from it on the assumption that the consensus is somehow integral to maintaining U.S. security. Instead of recognizing the rigidity of the consensus as a weakness that leads to repeated failures, defenders of the consensus see rejection of consensus assumptions as the real danger. This is what leads to ritual denunciations of “isolationists” and “appeasement” and “being soft” on this or that government. Adherence to consensus assumptions also means never having to say you’re sorry for any costly policy failures that they produce. One reason why there is no real accountability in foreign policy is that adherents of the bipartisan consensus never penalize their own for causing debacles overseas, so that even the authors of the greatest crimes and blunders are gradually rehabilitated and feted as wise men and women. When so many of the same people with the same assumptions are permitted to set policy, we should expect to see one failure after another, and sure enough that is what we have had for decades.

One of the things that many advocates of restraint have talked about in recent years is the need to democratize U.S. foreign policy. That not only means holding the government accountable for what it does and insisting on Congress’ role in matters of war, but it also means accepting a much wider range of views on how the U.S. should be acting in the world. It would mean actually forging a consensus that is much more representative of what Americans want our government to be doing in the world.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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