Capitol Hill, Washington, DC (VinothChandar / flickr)
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.