Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

America's Polarization Is a Foreign Policy Problem, Too

| Mar. 11, 2019

Partisan politics, one sometimes still hears, are supposed to "stop at the water's edge." Domestic political quarrels might be intense and occasionally personal, but Americans are supposed to temper their disagreements and link arms when dealing with the outside world.

This notion was always a bit of an exaggeration—if not an outright myth—even in the heyday of the fabled "Cold War consensus." The supposed need to suppress partisan differences didn't prevent nasty accusations about "who lost China?" in the 1940s and early 1950s, along with angry debates over the war in Korea, the broader phenomenon of McCarthyism, the supposed "missile gap" of the late 1950s, or the deep divisions that emerged during the Vietnam War. Nor do I recall a lot of bipartisan restraint in the late 1970s—when Republicans attacked former President Jimmy Carter over everything from Iran to the Panama Canal—or the 1980s, when Democrats accused former President Ronald Reagan's administration of a cavalier approach toward nuclear war and giving illegal support to right-wing death squads in Central America. Moreover, too much consensus can be as harmful as deep disagreement. If the foreign-policy elite becomes wedded to a bunch of bad ideas and to a flawed grand strategy, the result is likely to be a protracted series of failures. You know: like the past 25 years....

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“America's Polarization Is a Foreign Policy Problem, Too.” Foreign Policy, March 11, 2019.

The Author

Stephen Walt