Hoover Daily Report

Why Politics Should Not Stop at the Water’s Edge

Monday, November 15, 1999

Presidential election seasons inevitably lead to calls for bipartisanship in foreign policy. We saw just such pressures during the Kosovo war. Only Senator John McCain, among the leading presidential hopefuls, publicly opposed President Clinton’s strategy. Those candidates who endorse the idea that partisan politics should end at the water’s edge are portrayed as wise statesmen. Those who criticize the position of the president are accused of seeking personal advantage at the expense of the nation’s well-being. Partisanship, however, helps democracies avoid foreign policy adventurism and provides other important advantages. Politicians should not hesitate to express disagreement when they believe America’s foreign policy is mistaken.

Why is partisanship important in shaping effective foreign policies? National leaders always want to keep their jobs. Their domestic opponents want to depose them and gain control over government; to do so, they must win electoral support. Opposition politicians are ill served in their ambition for office if they go against effective policies. Voters look at incumbents records in an effort to decide whether to keep them or throw the rascals out. Historically, democratic leaders, more than autocrats, risk losing office if they are unsuccessful in foreign affairs. Their choice of foreign policies is restrained by the risk that their opponents will point out weaknesses.

Open political competition gives leaders incentives to choose policies carefully. If rival politicians are silent by a misplaced commitment to bipartisanship, then incumbents are encouraged to believe that their foreign policies will succeed. When opponents speak out, the president pauses to ponder whether his strategy is a good one or one that will lead to his party’s defeat in the next election. The concern for electoral defeat encourages careful policy decisions.

Foreign adversaries are given a sobering lesson when U.S. politicians who have previously opposed the president’s foreign policy endorse his current approach. After all, domestic opponents should only be expected to support the president when they think his policies will succeed. They do not want to resist effective policies because that will hurt their electoral prospects. Politicians in democracies are compelled by their own interests to be responsible in their decisions about national policy. So when politicians who oppose bipartisanship in foreign affairs nevertheless support the president on a given policy, foreign adversaries are more likely to back away from confrontation and opt for negotiation.

Partisanship helps contain excessive gambling by foreign and domestic leaders. Portraying such partisan opposition as base or disloyal only serves to liberate incumbents to gamble on foolish policies, not a desirable outcome. Where domestic politics are suppressed so that leaders do not gain the benefits of competition, the great danger is that they will roll the foreign policy dice. Power, whether applied in a foreign or domestic context, should always be tempered by constraint. Denigrating domestic constraints in the name of the national welfare is a path too risky to be taken.