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How a divided Senate can unite us

How a divided Senate can unite us
© Greg Nash

The excruciatingly slow effort in Congress to pass a bipartisan relief package shows how challenging compromise has become. But there is another realm where lasting cooperation is both critical and possible.

Throughout the Cold War, American foreign policy remained consistent and united in its broadest goals: contain the spread of communism, reduce the risk of nuclear war, foster free trade and promote human rights. Although both Republican and Democratic administrations sometimes failed in these efforts, there was bipartisan commitment to these goals.

In recent decades, U.S. foreign policy has swung wildly from nation-building to retrenchment, from free trade to protectionism and from defending human rights to apparent indifference. The Obama administration tried to undo much of what the Bush administration had built. The Trump administration overturned most of the Obama-era achievements. A Biden administration will likely seek to reverse the Trump-era policies. These frequent reversals are destabilizing. They are inflicting foreign policy whiplash on our allies, who can no longer plan on America to stay the course, any course. Our rivals equally doubt our resolve, knowing that if they can wait until the next election, our policies will change. Our enemies delight in our division.

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This constant flip-flopping must end.

America must return to a consistent, nonpartisan foreign policy based on shared values. Democrats and Republicans will always differ on emphasis and approach, but there must be certain broad contours of our foreign policies on which we can agree. We just need to forge a fresh consensus and make it stick.

An almost perfectly divided Senate is the place to start. Even if the Democrats were to pull two rabbits out of Georgia’s run-off hat, the outcome would still be a Senate cleaved in half. No magic tricks can unite us at this point. The only trick that matters is the one that moves us forward — compromise.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee needs a reboot. It needs a working group comprised of non-ideological senior Senate staffers from both parties, area experts who can forge a collaborative foreign policy. The staffers and area experts will operate away from the limelight, insulating their senators from charges of collaborating with the enemy. The effort would seek common ground over foreign terrain. The group would partner with experts from left- and right-leaning think tanks. Together their mission would be to identify American objectives for the coming decades on which Democrats, Republicans and independents can agree. Since there is emerging consensus around the threat from China, the initiative should begin there. 

Crafting a consistent, nonpartisan foreign policy requires shared values. As a starting point, the working group would need all participants to accept certain core concepts, or some reasonable modification of them:

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  • Prudent American leadership is a stabilizing force for good.
  • America’s diplomatic corps must be revitalized, properly funded and supported as the front line in America’s actions abroad.
  • Our military readiness must remain to ensure credible deterrence when necessary.
  • American policies should encourage free trade, and fair trade when practical, to spread prosperity worldwide.
  • America must deal with regimes whose practices it finds repellant, but America should always encourage democratization and oppose human rights abuses.
  • America is endangered by global threats such as pandemics and climate change, and effective solutions require international cooperation.
  • America has lost some influence relative to China, but this deficit can be countered by strengthening our alliances abroad.

The working group’s next task would be to jointly identify our most pressing foreign policy concerns, from countering China’s undemocratic international behavior, to devising new strategies for dealing with a nuclearized North Korea, to combating climate change. We face a lengthy list of challenges. Finally, when the senior Senate staffers, in consultation with the senators they represent, agree on the most urgent issues, they would begin the truly hard part: devising nonpartisan positions on which most participants can agree.

President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE’s deep connections to the Senate should help him to encourage this search for common ground. He has a vested stake in the process. Though the president leads on foreign policy, a divided Senate can refuse to ratify treaties or sabotage support for the executive’s agenda.

Under patriotic leadership, a consistent foreign policy would not only help improve America’s effectiveness abroad, it might even foster cooperation in domestic policy as well.

Failure to unite is not an option. As our country squabbles, China grows in strength. Division does not simply leave us standing still; it sets us back and sinks us down while others push ahead. We can only lead the world if we unify our aims.

Zachary Shore is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies and a national security visiting fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. The opinions expressed above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Naval Postgraduate School or any other governmental entity.