Nikolas K. Gvosdev: The Limits of Bipartisanship


Greetings to the readers of the Washington Note, and thanks to Steve for the opportunity to guest post. To introduce myself, I am the editor of The National Interest ( and of its online supplement In the National Interest. Some of you may be familiar with us via the joint events that the magazine and the New America Foundation have sponsored over the last several months.
I wanted to pick up on a point that Charles Brown raised earlier today; his hope that “the impassioned, bipartisan opposition that [Bolton’s] candidacy generated could have an enduring impact on American foreign policy.” This follows up on Steve’s post yesterday about the formation of the Partnership for a Secure America and his belief that it “is possible to put forward a bipartisan national security foreign policy that is not just a lowest common denominator approach.”
There has been a great deal of discussion about the need to find a new foreign policy consensus around which a bipartisan “center” can coalesce. John Hulsman and Anatol Lieven, writing in the summer issue of the magazine, identify “ethical realism” as the way forward, as an international strategy based on prudence; a concentration on possible results rather than good intentions; a close study of the nature, views and interests of other states and a willingness to accommodate them when possible; and a mixture of profound American patriotism with an equally profound awareness of the limits both on American power and on American goodness.
In the forthcoming fall issue, Richard Haass makes the case that containment – the bipartisan consensus of the Cold War era – must now give way to a new approach, the doctrine of integration:

An American foreign policy based upon a doctrine of integration would have three dimensions. First, it would aim to create a cooperative relationship among the world¹s major powers built on a common commitment to promoting certain principles and outcomes. Second, it would seek to translate this commitment into effective arrangements and actions. Third, it would work to bring in other countries, organizations and peoples so that they come to enjoy the benefits of physical security, economic opportunity and political freedom. The goal would be to create a more integrated world both in the sense of integrating (involving) as many governments and organizations and societies as possible and in the sense of bringing about a more integrated (cooperative) international community so that the challenges central to the modern era could better be met.

Integration is thus the natural successor to containment, which was the necessary and correct policy construct for the Cold War.
Intellectually, the basis is there for a new bipartisan consensus supported by both moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. But translating this from Washington salons into actual politics – here I have my doubts.
Lieven and Hulsman made a critical observation about how the “Truman moment” was put into practice, and those of you who were at the New America discussion on July 13 heard them point out that to establish a dominant moderate bipartisan consensus, the “left” wing of the Republican Party and the “right” wing of the Democratic Party, in essence, have to be prepared to battle their opponents within their own party. As they wrote:

The Truman Administration succeeded in politically isolating the left wing in the Democratic Party that favored some form of accommodation with the Soviet Union, epitomized by former Vice President Henry Wallace. The hard-line, preventive-war wing of the Republican Party, symbolized by General Douglas MacArthur, was likewise marginalized, a state of affairs reinforced by President Eisenhower, who essentially continued his predecessor¹s approach well into the Cold War.

Measured against this, I have to say, the anti-Bolton alliance still seems to largely be an ad hoc, tactical grouping. I don’t see in either party, as of yet, a willingness to “do battle” with members of their own side of the aisle for the sake of a new bipartisan consensus. That may change over time.
But, so far, I don’t believe that the Democrats have solved their deep internal divisions over foreign policy, between those who agree with the broad outline of the Bush Doctrine but disagree with the manner of its implementation and those Democrats who simply do not accept at all the approach of the current administration (think “Dean versus Lieberman”). And while conservative realists and American nationalists within the ranks of the Republican Party are deeply disquieted by the direction of the Bush Administration, are they prepared to reach across the aisle – not to appear on the same dais at a think-tank event, but in terms of how they cast their votes? This was Henry Nau’s argument in the winter 2003/04 issue of the magazine – one he has repeated at a forum on conservative foreign policy held at George Washington University on May 10 – that despite sometimes very significant and even bitter disagreements, Republicans always find a way to overcome those differences. He noted:

Conservative wars over foreign policy of course are not new. Conservatives split after the Vietnam War. At that time, neoconservatives, led by Ronald Reagan, attacked Nixonian policies of detente and called for the end – not containment – of Soviet communism. Conservatives quarreled again after the Gulf War. Neoconservatives faulted realists for failing to march to Baghdad and eliminate Saddam Hussein. During both periods – in 1976 and in 1992 – liberals exploited conservative divisions to take the White House. That did not happen this time. But conservatives are tempting fate if they continue these intramural squabbles. Internecine wars are not only self-destructive, they are unnecessary. Conservatives have too much in common to wage war over foreign policy and cripple the Bush Administration’s second term.

Many moderate Republicans are upset with the direction of the current administration; many, for a variety of reasons, do not want to see John Bolton as ambassador to the UN. They have made common cause with Democrats on this issue. But I would be cautious in extrapolating from the Bolton confirmation fight the emergence of a new “radical center”.