The Washington Quarterly published a fascinating article last month by Stanford University political scientist Kenneth Schultz. “The Perils of Polarization for U.S. Foreign Policy,” the origins of which stem from a July 2017 Twitter thread, discusses how increasing levels of partisan polarization in the United States undermine American statecraft. Schultz identifies four “challenges” increased polarization poses:
- Undertaking risky initiatives, such as treaties or using military force, will be more difficult due to lack of bipartisan support;
- Learning and adaptation will be more difficult due to lack of agreement about the lessons of foreign policy failures;
- Making commitments to both allies and adversaries will be more difficult due to dramatic swings when a new party takes office; and
- Preventing foreign intervention in the political system will be more difficult because such interventions exploit internal divisions.
Until recently, I didn’t consider polarization much of a problem (and, for reasons articulated by the Niskanen Center’s namesake, William Niskanen, believed the gridlock it produced could be beneficial). I’ve changed my mind about that though. I therefore hope to write at greater length about the first challenge Schultz identifies given my interest in the politics surrounding the use of military force. For this post though, I think it’s important to highlight the fourth challenge. It’s worth quoting Schultz at length about the nature of the challenge:
When terrorists struck the United States on 9/11, virtually every American thought “We were attacked,” even if they were nowhere near New York and Washington and did not know anyone affected. Everyone felt the loss. The magic of nationalism is that an attack on a New York skyscraper, or a naval base in Hawaii, prompts all U.S. citizens to feel as if they were targeted, even if they were in fact safe and miles away. And even if the national unity created by the attack later gave way to partisan division, the ensuing debate was over the appropriate means of fighting terrorism, not whether the threat was worth fighting.
The insidiousness of the Russian intervention is that it created partisan winners and losers. By intervening in a manner that benefited the Republican presidential candidate, Russia put its thumb on the scales of our partisan divide. Any sense that “we” were attacked is weakened by the fact that some of “us” benefited. When living under the rule of the other party seems intolerable, foreign support can seem a small price to pay for electoral victory. Indeed, Russian email releases and social media advertisements played into themes that Republicans were already emphasizing, meaning that Republican politicians and voters would have welcomed the content of the messages, even if they were uncomfortable with or unaware of the source. Democrats no doubt would have faced the same tension had the roles been reversed.
The partisan nature of the attack means that Republicans have a political interest in downplaying the severity of the threat and the degree to which Russian actions contributed to Trump’s election. Unless and until more details come out, they can take comfort in uncertainty over what exactly happened and doubt that it was decisive. Democrats, for their part, have a political interest in emphasizing the threat in hopes of undermining Trump’s legitimacy and hamstringing his administration. Not surprisingly, among the public, Republicans and Democrats draw different conclusions from what we know so far. In a recent Gallup poll, 69 percent of Republicans said that Trump had done nothing wrong with regard to Russian actions in 2016; only 4 percent of Democrats shared that view, with most saying that Trump’s actions were illegal (43 percent) or unethical (49 percent).
These divides are important because efforts to prevent or respond to foreign intervention that do not take them into account are doomed to fail. For example, a recent essay in Foreign Affairs by former Vice President Joe Biden and Michael Carpenter of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement recommends a nonpartisan independent commission that would “examine Russia’s assault on American democracy” and craft a policy response But if the party in power, or even one capable of sufficiently stonewalling, does not agree that an “assault on American democracy” even took place, then such a commission is a nonstarter.
Efforts to prevent foreign interference in the political system seem then to require two simultaneous efforts. One must try to bridge the partisan divide domestically. The other must work to prevent or respond to interference knowing that a significant portion of the country has an interest in pretending it doesn’t exist.