During the Cold War, facing off against a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, sharp partisan politics in America stopped, in the phrase of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, “at the water’s edge.” Back then, as much as we fought about domestic issues – and, we can personally attest, there were some bruising battles – we knew we had to close ranks and present a united front to the world.
Today, while a single existential threat may be gone, the challenges we face now are just as grave and complicated. China and Russia are revisionist powers, looking to overtake the U.S. and set the rules of the road. North Korea has developed a nuclear weapon and missiles to deliver it. Iran may soon decide it needs to restart its nuclear program and continues to sponsor terror throughout the region. The Middle East is a hodgepodge of civil wars and proxy fights between regional and world powers. The European alliance is fraying and democratic freedoms in formerly “safe” democracies are being rolled back. Countries like Venezuela are on the verge of collapse, and allies like Turkey and Hungary are sliding toward dictatorship.
Yet the bipartisan approach to national security has evaporated, boiled away by the same raging political fires that have consumed so many of our domestic issues. The world needs America to present a united front, where our political factions understand we’re better off working together than undercutting each other.
Historically, bipartisan cooperation has improved national security. Returning to that cooperative spirit would make America safer. Sen. Lugar, for instance, worked with his Democratic colleague Sen. Sam Nunn (Ga.) to secure and dismantle the recently-collapsed Soviet Union’s weapons of mass destruction, thereby leaving far fewer of these powerful weapons available to despots and terrorists. Similarly, Rep. Hamilton served with Republican Thomas Keane as Vice Chair and Chair, respectively of the 9/11 Commission, whose findings have helped prevent any other mass terrorist events in the U.S. since that horrible September morning 17 years ago.
Bipartisan cooperation has improved our national security well beyond the two of us. The list of other bipartisan accomplishments that make Americans safer is a long one. The Goldwater-Nichols Act reorganized the Department of Defense to optimize it to combat modern threats. Democrats Rep. Tip O’Neill (Mass.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (Mass.) worked closely with President Ronald Reagan on the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which helped to end the bloodshed in Northern Ireland. In 2005, our late friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a bipartisan group of senators in passing the Detainee Treatment Act, which helped to restore America’s moral authority in the wake of torture allegations against the United States.
Our partisan divide leaves us weaker as we face the world. A bitterly split Congress, for instance, could come up with no reasonable replacement for the Iran Deal following the president’s decision to pull out. Partisan gridlock has meant that when the country launched military adventures in Libya and Syria, Congress stood paralyzed, abdicating its constitutional responsibility to authorize or even debate such actions. Our use of sanctions is defined not by agreed-upon national interest but by whomever happens to sit in the Oval Office.
Military alliances, traditionally a bedrock of our national security, once had bipartisan support but now are buffeted by shifting political winds. It has become virtually impossible to ratify any substantive international treaties in the Senate because partisans exploit the process for political gain.
There is no simple path back to bipartisanship in foreign affairs. It will take leadership, courage, and a renewal of trust that has been so badly eroded in recent years. It starts at the top, with President TrumpDonald TrumpJudge rules Alaska governor unlawfully fired lawyer who criticized Trump Giuliani led fake electors plot: CNN Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE. We call on him to hold a series of bipartisan meetings with congressional foreign policy leaders to seek common ground on key foreign policy issues and a framework for civil debate going forward.
We also call on Congress to do its part. Following the bitter partisan meltdown over Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, both parties need to step back and implement a cease-fire. Comity and trust will be difficult to restore, but one place to start is with discussions over national security issues, where there is more agreement than is apparent in the current toxic atmosphere. There should be efforts like the Problem Solvers Caucus in the House and the No Labels movement focused on foreign policy and national security.
Civil society and the voters can also contribute by highlighting and encouraging bipartisanship. The Lugar Center, for instance, publishes a Bipartisan Index that singles out those legislators who work hardest to reach across the aisle and co-sponsors bipartisan staff outreach on arms control and global food security. Other organizations could arrange bipartisan staff forums on foreign aid, global health, non-proliferation, military posture, democracy-building, human rights policy, and the like.
None of this will be easy, but few worthwhile things are. Putting country first – particularly when it comes to national security – is not only possible, but crucial.
Former Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar (1977–2013) and former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton (1965–1999) are distinguished professors of practice at the Hamilton Lugar School of Global & International Studies at Indiana University. The Indiana University just renamed its School of Global and International Studies the “Lee H. Hamilton and Richard G. Lugar School of Global and International Studies” in their honor.