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Can Democrats and Republicans Still Cooperate on Foreign Policy?

Bipartisanship is essential to US effectiveness on the global stage.

Words: Jordan Tama
Pictures: Mohamed Ziyaadh

The United States is more divided than it has been at any time since the Civil War. A recent Gallup poll shows that a whopping 86% of Democrats and a minuscule 2% of Republicans approve of Joe Biden’s performance as president. Many Republicans and Democrats also appear to reside on different planets when it comes to their views on issues ranging from Donald Trump’s fitness for public office to the need for government action to address climate change. Meanwhile, elected officials and activists are fighting a fierce culture war over issues like abortion, transgender rights, school books, and diversity programs.

In this context, one might think that it’s no longer possible for Democrats and Republicans to work together on foreign policy. But the reality is that, outside the limelight, bipartisan cooperation on international issues continues to occur routinely in Washington. This cooperation, however, often coincides with divisions within one or both parties. For instance, on US policy toward Ukraine, internationalist Democrats and Republicans are lined up against the “America first” MAGA wing of the GOP. In this way, bipartisanship today is usually not synonymous with national unity, and it is difficult for the United States to speak with one voice or act as a reliable partner on the global stage. 

Why Bipartisanship Matters

Bipartisanship is not necessarily good in and of itself. Democrats and Republicans can agree on a misguided policy, as most members of both parties did in supporting the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Vigorous debate over policy options should always be preferred to unthinking consensus.

Bipartisanship today is usually not synonymous with national unity, and it is difficult for the United States to speak with one voice or act as a reliable partner on the global stage. 

But some degree of bipartisanship is necessary to carry out an effective foreign policy in a system of government where the president is not all-powerful and can be replaced every four years. Without any backing from the other party, policy initiatives are unlikely to last. And when US policies swing wildly from one president to the next, other countries question whether they can trust American commitments. The Biden administration would have had an easier time persuading Iran to sign back on to an agreement imposing constraints on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions on it if Iran hadn’t been burned a few years ago by Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal.

Bipartisanship and Great Power Competition

Bipartisanship is most evident today in the US approach to great power competition. Despite all their differences on other issues, Trump and Biden have adopted broadly similar approaches to China. The two presidents have instituted an array of policies designed to counter China’s rise, from trade and investment restrictions to a heightened military presence in the Asia-Pacific. This tough approach toward China has strong support from both parties on Capitol Hill. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have traveled to Taiwan to demonstrate US support for the threatened island, and Congress is likely to approve funding before the end of the year for a slew of military modernization initiatives designed to keep America a step ahead of its biggest rival.

US policy toward the war in Ukraine has also featured a strong degree of bipartisanship, but this area of cooperation is under increasing strain. In 2022, large majorities of Democrats and Republicans voted together to impose sanctions on Russia and approve more than $100 billion in military, economic, and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Today, Democrats remain solidly behind the Biden administration’s approach to the war, but Republicans have become split. Hawkish internationalists in the party, such as Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, and Mike Pence, argue the United States should step up its military aid by providing Ukraine with more potent weapons, while inward-looking Republicans, such as Trump, Josh Hawley, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, call for sharply cutting or ending US assistance. The next test of this dispute between the two wings of the GOP will come in September, when Congress takes up the Biden administration’s request for over $20 billion in new aid for Ukraine. At stake will be America’s ability to see through its commitment to the embattled country.

Bipartisanship and Global Health

Perhaps the greatest bipartisan success story of recent decades has been the massive US effort to address the transmission of HIV/AIDS around the world through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Since 2003, Congress has provided more than $100 billion for this program, thereby saving some 25 million lives in low-income countries. Strong bipartisan support for PEPFAR over the years has been fueled by supportive advocacy from a politically diverse coalition spanning humanitarian NGOs and Christian groups. But now PEPFAR is coming under attack from anti-abortion activists based on a charge that the program has provided funding to organizations that offer abortion services, resulting in another split within the Republican Party. With the program up for reauthorization by Congress this fall, another test of America’s ability to sustain important foreign policy initiatives is around the corner.

Overall, the bipartisanship glass may look half empty or half full today, depending on one’s outlook. When compared to an ideal of harmony, the glass certainly looks rather empty. But complete harmony has never existed in foreign policy, and we should not necessarily wish for it. It’s also worth noting the areas where some degree of bipartisan cooperation continues to exist. 

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that citizens and activists have the power to influence the positions of their elected officials on foreign policy as on other issues. In that sense, neither bipartisanship nor polarization is foreordained.

Jordan Tama

Jordan Tama is Provost Associate Professor in the School of International Service at American University, Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Co-Director of Bridging the Gap. He is the author of Bipartisanship and US Foreign Policy: Cooperation in a Polarized Age.

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