Congress Is Already Post-Partisan

Agreement Across the Aisle on U.S. Foreign Policy

Obama speaks to a joint session of Congress. (Jim Young / Courtesy Reuters)

U.S. President Barack Obama began his second term last week, and already the prospects for bipartisan cooperation in the realm of foreign policy look bleak. In light of partisan acrimony over Obama's cabinet nominees; the continuing investigations into the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi; the departure of several senators with records of working across the aisle, including Joseph Lieberman, Richard Lugar, Ben Nelson, and Olympia Snowe; and the seemingly never-ending struggle over the federal budget and deficit reduction, many expect that partisan divisiveness will stymie progress on important foreign policy challenges facing the United States in Obama's second term.
Nevertheless, although issues such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran's nuclear program, and the U.S. defense budget may spur sharp partisan disputes, a new survey suggests that in other areas, bipartisanship on foreign policy may still be possible.
Last May, we reported in Foreign Affairs the results of a survey on the foreign policy attitudes of nearly 50 senior Democrats and Republicans, almost all of whom had served in national security positions in the executive branch. The goal of the survey was to capture whether their views on world affairs were becoming more polarized by party, particularly in areas related to international cooperation. Somewhat to our surprise, we found a reservoir of bipartisan support for a number of international organizations, alliances, and treaties -- such as NATO, the World Bank, the WTO, and the IMF -- as well as for the importance of multilateral action on issues such as nonproliferation and international trade. To be sure, the reasoning and priorities attached to these outlooks were often different: Democrats emphasized the legitimacy that multilateral engagement confers to U.S. foreign policy, while Republicans were more concerned about defending U.S. sovereignty and preserving freedom of action. But these differences were relatively small compared with the commonalities.
We wondered, however, whether there might exist greater division in
This new survey is notable not just because it allows comparison with executive branch attitudes but because it provides deeper insight into Congress, whose role in U.S. foreign policy is underappreciated, and sometimes forgotten entirely. On essential issues such as funding for the Pentagon, the State Department, and USAID; authorizing the use of force; ratifying treaties and trade agreements; confirming executive branch nominations; and writing the laws that govern U.S. foreign policy, Congress is both influential and indispensable. Yet we know surprisingly little about what Congress actually thinks about America's role in the world.
Today's severe political polarization might lead one to expect little overlap in the views of Republican and Democratic congressional staff, but our survey found some important areas of agreement (for tables comparing our two survey results, see here). More than 80 percent of aides in both parties think that it is important to protect U.S. sovereignty and that U.S. law takes precedence over the United Nations. Yet over 60 percent of staff in both parties think that most international problems cannot be solved by the United States alone, and that it is less efficient to act alone than to cooperate with others. These data suggest that both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill share skepticism toward international law but recognize the importance of multilateral cooperation.

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