The Washington Times

American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been characterized by substantial bipartisan agreement on the basics overlaid with sharp partisan quarreling at the margins. The fate of the test ban treaty defeated in the Senate last week is illuminating not because it is typical of partisan foreign policy tangles in recent years but because it is highly unusual. It brought into sharp relief a major area on which fundamental differences between the parties remain.

First, a few words about the bipartisanship, since this phenomenon can easily get lost in Washington’s hothouse environment. It is necessary, first, to draw a distinction between outside policy advocates seeking to influence the direction of the policy-makers of their party, on one hand, and the policy-makers themselves, in the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, on the other. The outside advocates play an important role; they are a resource for those inside to draw on and, in addition, offer cues to the policy-makers about the partisan political concerns, or the principle concerns, of their natural allies. Yet it is not the fate of the usually sharp disagreements between the advocacy communities to be adopted willy-nilly by the policy-makers, and it would be a mistake to take the decibel level of the outside debate as a true indication of what is going on inside.

Notwithstanding the surrounding discord, here are some noteworthy points on which the parties do not differ: The United States must remain engaged in Europe; NATO is the principle instrument of U.S. engagement; and NATO expansion was an appropriate affirmation of transatlantic engagement. The United States should seek to encourage Russia as a responsible international actor. The United States should remain committed to a freer, more open environment for international trade. The United States should keep trade ties with China open and try to draw China into the international community; and China must understand that a resolution of the Taiwan issue by force is unacceptable. The United States remains committed to the defense of South Korea. The United States believes rogue states such as Iraq must be contained. The United States remains committed to a process of negotiated settlement of disputes, preeminently in the Middle East. Finally, there is this lesson brought home from the breakup of Yugoslavia: The United States should act in concert with other nations whenever possible but should not count on the ability of others to organize an effective international response to a crisis without U.S. leadership.

To be sure, there is ample disagreement on subsidiary questions among the policy-makers, and the competence of the execution of foreign policy remains an issue, but the amount of bipartisan agreement on principles is, in a word, a lot – enough for the United States to conduct foreign policy without substantial danger of paralysis due to failure to agree at home.

Except in one major area, and that is arms control. Here, the difference remains fundamental, and it accounts both for the Senate’s determined repudiation of the test-ban treaty and for the extreme vitriol of the administration’s response, a rhetorical level so overheated you would have to go back to the Cold War policy disputes during the Reagan administration to find its equal.

Which is, of course, the point. Republicans in general have a deep and abiding skepticism about the ability of arms control agreements to improve the security of the United States. Their first question is: What is the United States giving up? The second: How will we know that others are doing what they have promised?

Democrats, by contrast, in general stress the importance of nations coming together to address serious concerns collectively. They believe that the creation of an international environment of cooperation will encourage responsible behavior and will add moral weight to the condemnation of bad behavior. They believe that negotiations can be conducted so as to accommodate the particular concerns of the United States and that what the United States must, in the end, give up will be of less utility than the benefits to the United States of the agreement itself.

This partisan gap over principle is deep – and currently bridgeable only in extraordinary circumstances. (Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott went along with the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 because it was the price of the Clinton administration’s signature on the balanced budget agreement.) The question is to what extent international agreements of this kind are central to U.S. foreign policy? If they are central, we have a basic division at the center.

Clearly, the administration, and the president in particular, is now insisting on the centrality of such agreements. He proposes to define Republicans as isolationist for their opposition to this treaty. Given the bipartisanship catalogued above, the charge is ridiculous. Congressional Republicans as the opposition to a Democratic administration are no more isolationist (i.e., obstructionist) than congressional Democrats in opposition to Republican administrations.

But Mr. Clinton’s angry charge is not merely politics. It is sincerely the product of the most prominent genuine difference over principle between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy.