One noteworthy feature of the ideological divide in Washington is how immune the country’s foreign policy practitioners have been from the disfiguring aspects of hyper-partisanship. Take any random left-wing specialist in constitutional law and a counterpart from the Federalist Society, and odds are they will believe they have little to say to or learn from each other. Something similar holds on questions of inequality and the tax code, and on social issues, if any of those are left to argue about.
On foreign policy matters, this hasn’t generally been true. It’s not that the intensity of the party identification of those working in this arena is lacking. But Democrats and Republicans alike have to work in a world in which U.S. foreign policy is subject to external constraints in a way domestic policy is not. The constraints on domestic policy are mostly up for grabs; this intensifies partisan feelings. The constraints on foreign policy are not only beyond the reach of any American ability to dictate terms—even for the “sole superpower”—they are also dangerous and need to be understood. Both sides have to do business with the same world.
It doesn’t mean they reach the same conclusions on the particulars. But they understand that the most dangerous threats to the United States come from abroad, not across the aisle. And when something isn’t working, the first alternative to explore usually comes from interlocutors on the other side of the American debate. In the first Bill Clinton term in the 1990s, for example, Senate GOP leader Bob Dole was a huge spur to more effective action from the administration in the former Yugoslavia.
The disaster that is the 2016 presidential election seems to be disrupting this general pattern. It’s going to take some time to sort out the new landscape in foreign policy. We will have to wait for the election results, then for the process of recrimination and the exaction of reprisals to work itself out. Twitter will face its greatest test as the premier medium of our times for deliberation and debate. Meanwhile, however, the dimensions of the problem are starting to come into relief.
Consider, for example, these statements by a senior foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign in response to a question about the United States imposing a no-fly zone to try to tamp down the violence in Syria: It’s “off the table because of the implied military commitment that it would require in order to effectively enforce it. . . . It would be dangerous” and “would likely require a greater U.S. military commitment. And all of that would come at the expense of our ongoing efforts to focus on . . . destroying” the Islamic State.
Apologies. Those are not actually the statements of a senior foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. They are the statements in late August of Josh Earnest, President Obama’s White House spokesman. Likewise, when Donald Trump called out our NATO and Asian allies as “free-riders” who fail to pay their fair share for security, it was not Trump but rather President Obama himself who used that term to exactly that effect. So maybe retrenchment, resentment of entangling alliances, and the tendency to wish international problems away is not a Trump innovation after all. These views are hardly those of the foreign policy practitioners’ mainstream, but they seem to be growing in salience outside of it and on both sides of the partisan divide. And, of course, those articulating it on each side have thoroughgoing contempt for their opposite numbers.
Consider, also, the apparent Russian hack of the email servers of the Democratic National Committee. In the good old days, you could count on Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham to be out front on criticism of Russia. Democrats would be busy urging everyone to put the Cold War mentality to rest, as President Obama urged Mitt Romney to do in their 2012 debate. But though neither McCain nor Graham seems to have changed spots, many Democrats now describe Russian behavior in conspiratorial terms at least as paranoid as those making the rounds in Moscow. And it remains the case that perhaps the biggest Washington hotbed of anti-Russian sentiment these days is the State Department. Career Foreign Service officers who made their bones expanding the frontier of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe now denounce Russia as a threat worthy of the Cold War. Trump, while hardly consistent on this or any other issue, plainly admires Putin as a strong leader and seems to favor a realpolitik according him due respect for his sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, a number of former senior GOP foreign policy officials have repeatedly and emphatically broken ranks with the Republican nominee. Some of them have endorsed Hillary Clinton, left the GOP, or both. Clinton, for her part, seems happy enough to have them—though the left-wing base of her party, which has barely gotten past her support for the Iraq war, will never forgive the neoconservatives.
Rather than confronting the surging antiestablishment sentiment on foreign policy within her own party, a President Hillary Clinton may simply try to reconvene the old foreign policy establishment around her administration as if nothing has happened. That won’t sit well with the left, and she will accordingly have a vexing internal problem to deal with. Will she foster a new generation of foreign policy professionals from the left—and well outside the current, soon-to-be-former mainstream—by giving a new cadre of people jobs in her administration? If so, they will likely be deeply suspicious of their own Old Guard, let alone of the Republicans, whom they tend to perceive not as acting on principle but as having opportunistically deserted a sinking ship.
In any case, it’s hard to envision a straightforward return to the old spirit of bipartisanship, given the unprecedented break many Republicans have made with their nominee. To have split with the party over the foreign policy views or leadership temperament of its nominee implies at least that one regards the other candidate as no worse. To know whether defectors from Trump will reintegrate into the GOP foreign policy mainstream, one would need to know what the GOP mainstream will look like after the 2016 election. No one does.
Finally, this presidential season has been fraught with a more comprehensive disingenuousness than is typical. You can see it in reelection-seeking John McCain and in House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. They all clearly despise Trump. Yet they see no path forward in which they oppose the nominee of their party. And, indeed, there is no such path. The most basic definition of a political party is a group whose purpose is to advance a slate of candidates for office: one slate, and “advance” in at least the minimal sense of “not oppose.”
Members of a party can vote as they please. Top party leaders can do so only in the privacy of the voting booth. Those who have been denouncing Ryan and McConnell for refusing to repudiate Trump evidently have a novel view of what a party is, at odds with its basic principle, and they should probably explain how that would work. Ryan and McConnell can apologize for supporting Trump after he loses. It will be an especially painful reminder that the classical root of the word “hypocrisy” lies in playing a role.
The disingenuousness this year, though most notable in the GOP, is not confined there. And on this point, we have data. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’s now-annual public opinion survey (on whose advisory board I sit) has for some time been asking a fascinating question on American exceptionalism or greatness: “Some people say the United States has a unique character that makes it the greatest country in the world. Others say that every country is unique, and the United States is no greater than other nations. Which view is closer to your own?”
In 2012, 70 percent of Americans said the United States was “the greatest country in the world” and 29 said “no greater than other nations.” Two years later, the figures were 65 percent and 34 percent, respectively—a noteworthy decline in the perception of American exceptionalism. I have this year’s figures for you: 61 percent “greatest country,” 38 percent “no greater.” The decline continues.
The question gets even more interesting broken down by partisan affiliation. Among Republicans, 78 percent now say “greatest country” and 22 percent “no greater than others”—down from 85-15 four years ago. Democrats have grown significantly more skeptical in the same period: from 66-34 in 2012 to a pretty close divide in this year’s survey, 55-43. (The split among independents is now 53-45, down from 63-36.) So Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to be skeptical of the “exceptionalist” view that the United States is the greatest country.
Donald Trump wants to “Make America Great Again,” which suggests that the country isn’t as great as it ought to be. This doesn’t directly contradict the proposition that the United States is “the greatest,” because that’s a comparative judgment. But the emphasis is on a current-account deficit in greatness in a party that breaks almost 4-1 in favor of the view that America is the greatest.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has emphasized her view that America is indeed currently a great country (though again, not necessarily the greatest)—accentuating the positive notwithstanding that 43 percent of Democrats feel no special sense of American greatness.
So those inclined toward skepticism about American exceptionalism are getting a steady diet of American greatness from their candidate, whereas those most inclined to embrace American exceptionalism are getting a stream of negativity from theirs. That’s politics American-style, 2016, in an election whose lessons are going to take a long time to process.