President Obama meets with House Speaker John Boehner in the Oval Office on February 25, 2014.

President Obama meets with House Speaker John Boehner in the Oval Office on February 25, 2014. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Rebuilding Bipartisan Consensus on National Security

The rough consensus that once guided American foreign policy has shattered. It’s time to put it back together. By Michèle Flournoy and Richard Fontaine

Politics, despite the saying, has never really stopped at the water’s edge. But these days, it seems, policymakers cannot even get to the beach before the sniping begins. The increasing polarization of American politics and the hardening of positions on issues foreign and domestic have led to deep dysfunction, as last year’s government shutdown demonstrated so dramatically. National security is by no means immune, and the chasm between Republicans and Democrats on key issues has resulted in irrational defense budgeting, unfinished trade agreements and the elevation of personal attacks over policy impacts. It’s time to do better.

The path forward is not to yearn for some halcyon days of yore when foreign policy mandarins guided the ship of state without reference to its political context. Rather, it begins by recognizing just how polarized American politics has become in recent decades and the effect that this has had on national security policymaking. 

Back in 1982, half of the United States Senate was in the ideological middle – that is, dozens of Republicans had more liberal voting records than the most conservative Democrat, and vice versa. As the Washington Post reports, that number has plummeted over the past three decades: today not one Senate Democrat votes more conservatively than any Republican, and no Senate Republican has a more liberal voting record than any Democrat. This move toward greater partisan purity has helped shatter the rough consensus that once guided American foreign policy.

That consensus was already in serious decline following the 1970s crack-up of the national security establishment over the war in Vietnam. The discord that war engendered combined with electoral and other forces to push Democrats in a more liberal direction and Republicans onto a more conservative path. The end of the Cold War, and with it the demise of broad bipartisan support for containment and anti-communism, deepened the ideological divisions between the parties – while post-9/11 disputes over Iraq and the war on terror added fuel to the fire.

In addition, intra-party cleavages now spill over into the national security debate. On Capitol Hill, Republican defense hawks are now challenged by budget hawks who seek to shrink all of government – including defense and foreign affairs spending – and traditional Republican internationalism has been eclipsed in some quarters by those with a much narrower view of America’s proper role in the world. On the Democratic side, those further to the left seek a significantly greater focus on domestic affairs and are uncomfortable with a robust U.S. global economic and military presence.

Overlaying the partisan divide on national security is widespread skepticism about American government and the nation’s ability to engage effectively abroad. A recent poll indicates that a majority of Americans now say that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” – a higher percentage than at any point in the poll’s nearly 50-year history. This disposition is present on issues general and specific; a majority also says that the U.S has mostly failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The combination of all these factors has made it increasingly difficult to get things done and to devise national security policies that will win support across the aisle and from a majority of the American people. Sequestration is a case in point. This particularly draconian and damaging effort to constrain federal spending, including defense spending, stems from the failure to reach a comprehensive and common-sense budget deal that puts everything on the table, including both entitlement reform and tax reform. This challenge is also apparent in the lack of Congressional support for truly strategic trade measures like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. With the U.S. out of Iraq and winding down the war in Afghanistan, there is little consensus about America’s proper global role over the coming years.

An attempt to rebuild that consensus would seek not to end all disagreements but to identify pragmatic and principled national security policies that can win support from Democrats, Republicans and independents. It would bring together liberals, conservatives and moderates in order to fashion innovative approaches to the toughest foreign policy challenges – not to revert to least-common-denominator policy but to forge a sustainable path ahead for American internationalism.

But how? 

We have found one answer in the organization we are privileged to lead. With its roster of Democrats, Republicans and independents, the Center for a New American Security provides a venue for developing innovative approaches to the nation’s greatest national security policy challenges and opportunities. With its CEO and president coming from opposite political parties, CNAS has established a bipartisan space in which to develop creative, new ideas, incubate rising talent on both sides of the aisle, and shape and elevate the national security policy debate. In the process, we seek to provide an environment in which a new, sustainable and bipartisan national security consensus can emerge.

Ours is one effort toward this end, but there need to be many more. The period between now and the 2016 presidential election represents an extraordinary opportunity to articulate a positive case for America’s leadership role in the world. From the world of ideas, to the halls of policymakers, to the arena of politics, new actors and new organizations should take up this charge. In so doing, we – and others – can ensure that the victor of that race, Republican or Democrat, will enter office with the policies, the personnel, and the politics to seize the moment.

Michèle Flournoy is the CEO and Co-Founder of the Center for a New American Security and former under secretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. Richard Fontaine is the president of CNAS and former foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain, R-Ariz.