In the past two decades, some of the most divisive debates in American politics have been over the role of multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy.

Many Democrats, for example, believed that the Bush administration's apparent embrace of unilateralism did great harm to existing international institutions and to the United States' reputation abroad. As Charles Kupchan and Peter Trubowitz argued in Foreign Affairs ("Grand Strategy for a Divided America," July/August 2007), "The Republican Party, virtually bereft of its moderates after the 2006 elections, has little patience for cooperative multilateralism -- and will gladly deploy its power in the Senate to block any programmatic effort to bind Washington to international agreements and institutions."

Meanwhile, many Republicans portray Democrats as enamored of multilateral rules and processes for their own sake and neglectful of some of the United States' security needs. As the Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote of the Obama administration's Libya policy, "for Obama, military objectives take a back seat to diplomatic appearances. The president is obsessed with pretending that we are not running the operation."

Yet how deep is the partisan divide over the place of multilateralism in U.S. foreign policy? To explore this question, in the past year we sent a survey to foreign policy professionals: 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, who had served in a mid-level or higher foreign policy position in the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations, or on Capitol Hill. The respondents included 23 Democrats and 20 Republicans.

The results of our study reveal that the parties are not as divided about multilateralism as the conventional wisdom suggests. First, strong majorities of both Republican and Democratic respondents said they believed that working closely with other nations serves U.S. interests and makes the country's foreign policy more effective. Second, foreign policy leaders from both parties agreed that international economic institutions and free trade agreements are valuable, and that working with regional and global multilateral organizations such as NATO and the UN is important. 

Several institutions that have their roots in the end of World War II enjoy robust bipartisan support. Large majorities of the Democrats and Republicans surveyed hold favorable views of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. Likewise, both groups held strongly favorable views of NATO and support bilateral alliances with traditional partners. Even some multilateral initiatives of more recent vintage enjoyed bipartisan favorability, such as the U.S.-India relationship, NAFTA, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Although the parties broadly agreed on the importance of multilateralism, however, they weighed the decision to join in multilateral groupings differently. Republicans, for example, were more sovereignty-minded in their multilateralism. They universally agreed on the need to preserve the country's freedom of action and overwhelmingly affirmed that protecting U.S. sovereignty is important (94.7 percent). They were often willing to forgo a degree of sovereignty if a multilateral policy appeared to be effective, and, in turn, they generally opposed a multilateral initiative that they believed would undermine sovereignty without delivering sound policy outcomes.

A majority of Democrats still agreed on the need to preserve freedom of action and to protect U.S. sovereignty, but they were less unified on the question than Republicans were. Instead, they tended to be more concerned with how well multilateral opportunities addressed the vulnerabilities created by interdependence, such as the risk of financial contagion. And for Democrats, policy effectiveness hinged more on whether international partners view an approach as legitimate. They uniformly agreed that the United States needed to enlist other nations. They also uniformly agreed that the United States cannot solve most problems alone. The Republicans surveyed were not unanimous on the question of legitimacy (60 percent) or on the value of problem-solving with others (70 percent), although these considerations were still supported by the majority of the Republicans surveyed.

The survey findings seem to indicate that Republicans and Democrats use different balancing tests when considering multilateralism. The sovereignty and interdependence of nation-states are both realities of the international system. The tension between the two principles lies at the heart of the differences between Democrats and Republicans on multilateralism as well as on specific institutions and initiatives. For example, respondents of both parties largely agreed that the UN Security Council is an important place to defend U.S. interests (100 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans), but Democrats were more favorable to the institution itself than Republicans were (over 77 percent compared with 30 percent) and much more likely to agree that the UN is important because it has global legitimacy (almost 91 percent of Democrats compared with 25 percent of Republicans).

Similarly, the officials we surveyed were in agreement that WMD nonproliferation is a priority issue that requires a multilateral response. Yet they differed over how. Democrats were overwhelmingly in favor of working through formal rules-based entities such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (100 percent), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) (96 percent), the Chemical Weapons Convention (96 percent), and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) (96 percent) to address the problem. Republicans were less sure: only 60 percent, 45 percent, 55 percent, and 45 percent of them favored working through those bodies, respectively. They were much more in support of informal U.S.-led structures, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) (83 percent).

In terms of human rights, Democratic respondents were much more favorable toward the International Criminal Court than Republicans were (72.7 percent compared with only 20 percent). But they were less likely to identify human rights as a "very important" policy priority for the U.S. government (almost 50 percent compared with almost 85 percent of Republicans). And on climate change, Democrats were much more supportive of the Kyoto Protocol (almost 73 percent compared with zero Republicans) and more likely to say that the issue is very important (76 percent compared with about 11 percent). Republicans seemed to judge Kyoto to be ineffective and an abridgement of U.S. sovereignty and to regard climate change itself as a low priority issue.

Other major divisions were over bilateral relationships; Democrats were much less favorable toward partnerships with Afghanistan (nine percent compared with 55 percent), Iraq (about 14 percent compared with 75 percent), and Israel (about 46 percent compared with 100 percent).

Observers of American politics expect that the country's foreign policy debates will continue to be hopelessly acrimonious and polarized. And our survey evidence shows some serious partisan disagreement. However, it also shows a number of issues on which bipartisan cooperation is possible, particularly international trade and traditional security alliances. Both groups firmly believe in addressing common global problems through multilateral engagement. And even in Congress, where partisanship may be at its highest point in decades, party elites have shown an ability to work together on multilateral issues. After all, they passed the New START treaty in 2010 and recently concluded bilateral trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

Foreign policy partisanship may be an enduring theme in American politics, but so is bipartisan agreement on multilateral initiatives. At the outset of the Cold War, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg led his party to give crucial backing to Truman administration initiatives such as the Marshall Plan and NATO. Later, the Ford administration negotiated and signed the Helsinki Accords, which were designed to improve relations between the First and Second Worlds. The agreement overcame initial controversy -- it was at first perceived as recognition of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe -- to enjoy substantial support from congressional Democrats and the Carter administration. And more recently, the Obama administration embraced PSI, which was first developed by the Bush administration.

The commitment of policymakers in both parties to multilateral engagement may help explain the continuities in foreign policy across multiple presidential administrations. Think of the similarities between Bush and Obama administration policies toward Asia, on support for the WTO and NATO, and on the P5 plus 1 process for Iran's nuclear program. All are initiatives that balance policy effectiveness, sovereignty, and interdependence. In terms of their Asia policies, both the Bush and Obama administrations attempted to allay regional allies' fears of China's rise and ambitions through a mix of bilateral security guarantees and participation in regional organizations. On Iran, both the Bush and Obama administrations attempted to use a combination of UN Security Council resolutions, IAEA inspections, increased bilateral security commitments to Persian Gulf countries, and multilateral sanctions to persuade the Iranian regime to give up its suspected nuclear weapons program.

As history and our survey demonstrate, even on areas with significant partisan difference, ideological orientation need not result in acrimony and policy paralysis. Vigorous partisan debate can improve the quality of policy by restraining overreach by each side, injecting new ideas into the debate, and helping the United States drive a better bargain on the international stage. So although partisan differences over foreign policy will inevitably surface, and may even become quite severe, the American foreign policy community need not be destined for an ideological struggle over multilateral engagement. Perhaps international partnership begins at home.

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  • JOSHUA W. BUSBY is Assistant Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas–Austin. JONATHAN MONTEN is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. WILLIAM INBODEN is Assistant Professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
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