The Washington Times

Foreign policy is not much on the American voter’s mind these days, according to all the polls ranking the importance people attach to various issues. Up to a point – but only up to a point – this is not an altogether bad thing: No one would like to return to Cold War-era levels of American anxiety, nor to the days of frustration at seeming U.S. impotence when faced with Iranian fanatics, communist revolutionaries in Central America, etc.

At the same time, however, the major risk to the continuation of U.S. dominance in the world is domestic complacency. In the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and an erratic and dangerous communist government in North Korea, we have committed ourselves to vigilance to contain their disruptive potential. Other governments pose lesser but serious problems no less in need of sustained attention. The American military, meanwhile, although still the most powerful in the world by a wide margin, is facing serious budget pressures and will need sustained increases in the years ahead to ensure the next generation of U.S. pre-eminence.

The problem with vigilance is the number of ways it can slip. Distraction, boredom, fatigue, tunnel vision – the sentry’s perennial problems. A presidential election year, even one in which foreign policy is not a top concern, nevertheless offers each party the opportunity to prod at the positions taken by the other. This partisan jabbing, though often decried by observers specializing in high-mindedness, can play a useful role in clarifying issues. The Democratic candidate ought to be called to account for administration policy toward China and North Korea. The Republican ought to say whether he opposes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as the Republican Senate did, and why.

There are indeed some areas of deep differences between the two parties. Republicans are quite right to point to an excessive fondness among Democrats for multilateral agreements that constrain U.S. action. Democrats will rightly attack the isolationist streak in the GOP. What is equally striking, however, and ultimately a source of reassurance about the stability of U.S. policy, is the amount of ground the two party mainstreams have in common.

A striking example of this came last week with the visit to Washington of George Robertson, the new NATO secretary general. A year ago in Washington, the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Atlantic alliance, coming on the heels of the entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, was clouded by the war over Kosovo. What might have been a celebration of the most successful military alliance in history, and the commitment of its members to keep the door open to like-minded European nations, became for many a time for worry about the cohesiveness of the alliance in adversity, and therefore its future.

A year later, no one would claim Kosovo is a solved problem. But in forcing Mr. Milosevic’s capitulation to NATO’s terms for peace, the alliance demonstrated its centrality to European security. Add as well the to-date successful incorporation of three new members, and the fact that other European nations are if anything more eager to join, and NATO remains the undisputed linchpin of U.S.-European relations.

This fact was much in evidence last week at a dinner for Lord Robertson thrown by the U.S. Committee on NATO. Europe specialists from both parties rubbed elbows in an uncommon election-year display of bipartisanship. And representatives from a number of European countries currently outside NATO turned out to restate their commitment to the alliance’s vision of a Europe “whole and free.”

In the years ahead, Americans and Europeans have to deal with the changing role of the European Union, the new security challenges posed by the Putin government in Moscow, and the ongoing problem of Slobodan Milosevic’s barbarism, perhaps next to manifest itself in Montenegro. Inevitably, members of the alliance disagree over any number of things. Lord Robertson, an ebullient Scot who was formerly defense minister in Tony Blair’s Cabinet, made points by emphasizing key areas of agreement, namely, that NATO is the main vehicle for U.S.-European relations, and that the alliance’s work in Europe is not done.

Yes, the United States is going to have a presidential election, and yes, it is going to be bitterly partisan. Most of the Americans in the room with Lord Robertson will play official or unofficial roles in trying, on behalf of their party’s candidate, to carve his opponent into little pieces. There is a lot at stake, of course.

But not everything is at stake, and that’s a good thing. After the feathers stop flying, Democrats and Republicans will once again work together – not only on NATO, but in other policy areas, ranging from trade to Asian policy to the Middle East. If that ever stops happening, we’ll know we’re in serious trouble – because it will be proof we’ve given up taking foreign policy seriously at all.