US President Joe Biden has declared that “America is back at the table” following the G7 summit of world leaders in the UK. But on such issues as multilateralism, climate change, trade & terrorism, Americans are more divided than ever. The world is discussing the consequences of polarization and America’s ability to enact domestic & foreign policy. Asking. America is back— but for how long and where ?
Biden has convinced allies ” America is back,” says France’s Macron
Allies of the United States are also reacting to its internal politics and, in particular, to a deepening partisan divide that creates uncertainty about the future of U.S. foreign policy. Observing the polarized politics on display in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland noted that many European leaders will “no longer take for granted that they can trust the U.S., even on basic things.”
The fears are valid. Although foreign policy has traditionally been insulated from political polarization, that is no longer true. On such issues as multilateralism, climate change, and terrorism, Americans are more divided than ever. The bipartisan foreign policy consensus among both voters and the politicians they elect is eroding. But even worse, polarization has created broader, underappreciated consequences for the United States’ ability to enact foreign policy in the first place by chipping away at a key pillar of its power: its reputation for stability, credibility, and reliability.
As domestic polarization increases, however, partisan conflict is more likely to extend into foreign policy. In the United States, foreign policy remains less polarized than domestic policy. Even so, public opinion polls and patterns of congressional roll call votes show an increasing divergence between Democrats and Republicans on foreign affairs. As these preferences harden, one should anticipate more dramatic changes in foreign policy when the party controlling the White House changes.
But it isn’t just diverging foreign policy preferences that lead to instability in foreign policy; a rise in the tendency to dislike the opposite party—or “negative partisanship”—also does. This sentiment gives leaders incentives to undo the policies of their predecessors from the opposite party. Some described Trump’s foreign policy agenda as “incoherent” and lacking in a grand strategic vision, yet his agenda did have one unifying theme: dismantling the accomplishments of President Barack Obama. Positioning himself as the “anti-Obama” in foreign affairs, Trump moved quickly to undo his predecessor’s policies on immigration, trade, and climate.
Bipartisan support of a leader’s foreign policy signals credibility in international politics.
Another advantage democracies have over their autocratic counterparts concerns credibility. Because democratic leaders are constrained domestically, they are less likely to issue threats or make promises that they do not intend to keep. In international negotiations and crises, this means that the signals democracies send to foreign adversaries are more reliable. As the political scientist Kenneth Schultz has argued, bipartisan support of a leader’s foreign policy is an especially credible signal in international politics. For example, few doubt the resolve of the U.S. government when a substantial number of legislators from both parties vote to authorize the use of military force.
As polarization increases, these displays of bipartisanship in foreign policy become less common.
It is becoming possible to imagine a world in which the Democratic and Republican parties not only have orthogonal foreign policy priorities but also maintain different relationships with key foreign allies and adversaries. Given the importance of long-term commitments in successful foreign-policy making, alternating party control of the presidency could pose major problems.
Although such a scenario still seems distant, there are early indicators of what is to come should partisan divisions in foreign policy continue to deepen. Consider the different lenses through which Democrats and Republicans saw Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election: although reports of electoral interference should have been condemned by both parties, polarization prevented a swift, bipartisan response. And despite the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia attempted to influence the election to advantage Trump, only one-third of Republicans believe this to be true. Or look at the partisan debates over the Trump administration’s ties to Saudi Arabia: Trump was close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and failed to punish him for ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. In response, congressional Democrats have become increasingly vocal opponents of the Saudi regime.
It is possible to imagine a world in which different parties maintain different relationships with foreign allies and adversaries.Of course, some degree of partisan disagreement over how the United States engages with its allies and adversaries is natural in a healthy democracy. U.S. foreign policy should be subject to scrutiny and debate, and excessive bipartisanship in foreign policy may be emblematic of other pathologies. Groupthink in the national security establishment, for example, may leave key assumptions unquestioned.
But in a highly polarized environment, debates about the future of U.S. foreign policy are unlikely to be constructive. As polarization increases, it becomes difficult to distinguish between sincere disagreement and partisan politics. Many Republican legislators have legitimate concerns about Biden’s foreign policy, but they also have incentives to grandstand and obstruct the White House in order to appease their political base. More extreme voices will make the Biden administration less inclined to attempt to win over moderate legislators and more likely to shut Congress out of major foreign policy decisions. These actions reinforce the perception that the administration is unwilling to reach across the aisle, intensifying mutual distrust between the White House and its opponents in Congress.
A more optimistic perspective sees foreign policy as less susceptible to such partisan antics. Political scientists note ample opportunities for bipartisanship on issues ranging from national defense to human rights. Many experts view the intensifying rivalry between the United States and China as a critical chance to bridge the partisan divide in Washington. The evidence, however, suggests that important foreign policy questions will not remain above the partisan fray. As I have found in my research, responses to national security challenges in the United States have historically reflected existing levels of domestic polarization. When new security threats enter into an environment that is already polarized, they are often quickly politicized. In the current era, this means that the toughest and most consequential foreign policy problems are more likely to be divisive than unifying.
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