National unity is a foreign policy virtue — especially given China's challenge

National unity is a foreign policy virtue — especially given China's challenge
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The passing of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) last month reminded Americans of the forgotten virtue of bipartisanship in policymaking, especially when it comes to national security.

It’s time to bring that principle back.

As a young staffer on Capitol Hill about 25 years ago, I noticed several senators on both sides of the aisle who personified this ethic of solidarity, including Lincoln Chafee (D-R.I.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine). A generation earlier, in 1947, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.) declared that we must stop partisan politics “at the water’s edge” to fight the Cold War.

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I was inspired by the farsightedness of putting country before politics. It also seemed like a personal virtue because it required subordinating the natural inclination of tribalism. Later, in the mid-1990s, when I applied to attend Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the graduate school asked applicants to identify a key ingredient for a successful foreign policy. My answer: Bipartisanship.

Nowadays, it’s often said that Congress is increasingly partisan. This cliché happens to be true. According to Georgetown University's Lugar Center, which is named after the senator and tracks bipartisanship with an index, the concern is warranted. The late senator's blog on the center’s website states that "the last three Congresses have yielded very low scores on the Bipartisan Index. The 112th and 113th Congresses had the two lowest scores among the eleven Congresses that we have analyzed so far.”

The center warns: “This partisanship in Washington and its amplification in media outlets competing for the attention of partisan-based audiences are exacerbating divisions within American society, as a whole. Attempts to vilify political opponents as disloyal and redefine policy disagreements as failures of character or even scandals have become increasingly common.”

A decline in comity around Washington is arriving precisely when the United States is facing a rising challenge from China, possibly the largest threat to U.S. democratic values in history, as I recently argued with Joshua Eisenman of the University of Texas. Unfortunately, there is evidence that internal division in the United States could get worse, thus weakening the country’s ability to respond effectively to this global challenge. 

Earlier this year, with the help of President Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and former CIA director James Woolsey, a Cold War advocacy organization regrouped to focus on China. The Committee on the Present Danger: China, as it is now called, is a quiet group that has had outsized influence in shaping U.S. foreign policy over the past 70 years. Its core mission has been to fight communism and its core instrument has been the U.S. military. 

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The risk is that it might also sow domestic division.

The original Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) began in 1950, under the leadership of Harvard University's president, James Conant, and Manhattan Project administrator Vannevar Bush. That year, the CPD would alter history by influencing the American Cold War strategy encapsulated in the famous secret national security document called “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security,” also known as NSC-68.

The document was promulgated by Truman White House official Paul Nitze, and eventually by President Truman — persuaded by the onset of the Korean War later that year — to defeat communism. NSC-68 is believed to be the last time the United States revealed a grand strategy. NSC-68 rejected detente and containment in favor of a massive militarization of the Cold War, characterized by increased armament spending and military aid to U.S. allies.

Earlier, in 1943, Nitze had established the SAIS program to counter the temptation of American isolationism after World War II. The school joined Johns Hopkins University the same year as the CPD’s founding, 1950. Five years later, SAIS opened a center in Bologna, Italy, and then, in 1986, one in Nanjing, China. On SAIS campuses, students speculate that those two additional centers were launched to fight communist thought in Europe and Asia.

In the mid-1970s, President Gerald Ford’s external “Team B” committee was commissioned by CIA Director George Bush against the advice of Bush’s predecessor, William Colby. This new assessment had CPD support and it inflated the threat from the Communist Soviets, contradicting the assessment of the official National Intelligence Estimate. Team B’s supporters in the Ford administration included Paul Wolfowitz, who would become the SAIS’s dean in the 1990s, and future Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Both were advocates of the Iraq War and the Global War on Terror, as was the CPD.

Then as now, however, the identification of an external threat can lead to domestic paranoia. With echoes of the 1950s' “Red Scare,” Bannon has condemned “members of the elite” and a range of company and entities as being a “sell-out to the Chinese people.” At the CPD’s event, Newt Gingrich blamed the “academic left” and the “infantile” news media on the public’s lack of awareness of the China threat. His criticism may have some merit but, with China already on track to become a wedge issue in the 2020 election, we should avoid recreating the societal divisions of McCarthyism.

What would a more united United States look like, instead? Culturally, it would mean Americans would resist the temptation to brand anyone who disagrees with them as traitorous Nazis or communists. It would mean respecting civil debate and protecting freedom of speech, elevating shared dignity.

In the policy world, unity would mean coming together to: rebuild the national infrastructure so the country can compete globally, pass social programs such as healthcare, invest in new technologies such as clean energy, and work with allies to protect liberal values of democracy, peace and prosperity, individual freedom and free markets at home and worldwide from the challenge of illiberalism, tyranny and national socialism. 

The virtue of unity has a tradition going back to the beginning of the republic. Founding Father John Dickinson warned, “United we stand, divided we fall.” It’s best we recall it. 

Devin T. Stewart is senior director and a senior fellow of the Asia program at Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, New York City. He previously taught international affairs at Columbia University and New York University, was a senior program director for the Japan Society in New York, a Japan Studies fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and a researcher at Japan's Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry. He is a former staffer on the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. Follow him on Twitter @devintstewart