Party Politics - A curious neglect

Over the years scholars have produced some excellent special studies of the interrelationship between politics and diplomacy. What is striking, though, is how often studies altogether omit mention of domestic politics. Some do so because they tell the story in the old-fashioned way, recording exchanges of diplomatic notes and making no attempt to get behind the formal documents. Others dig much deeper yet still treat the professional politicians involved in the making of foreign policy as though they were not politicians at all.

Historiographical trends among diplomatic historians, it is clear, have conspired against a prominent place for domestic politics. Most of the early giants in the field, among them Samuel Flagg Bemis, Dexter Perkins, and Arthur Whitaker (Thomas A. Bailey was a notable exception), focused on state-to-state interaction, on high U.S. officials and their counterparts in the countries with which Washington dealt. The research of these "orthodox" historians was often intelligent and exceptionally valuable, but they tended to frame their questions in a manner that allowed them to avoid inquiring into the domestic political calculations that helped shape policy, or the partisan disputes that often accompanied the implementation of that policy. Perkins's three-volume study of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, for example, takes more or less as a given that national security concerns brought about the doctrine, while Bemis's book on Jay's Treaty concludes before the bitter debate in Congress in 1795–1796 on the treaty's implementation. Herbert Feis, an orthodox historian of the early Cold War, likewise focused exclusively on the White House, the State Department, and state-to-state relations in his effort to assign responsibility for the origins of the Soviet-American confrontation.

This emphasis among orthodox historians on high politics met with a spirited response from a group of "revisionist" scholars who came of age in the late 1950s and 1960s. But although revisionists distinguished themselves by emphasizing the importance of domestic forces in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, they paid curiously little attention to party politics. No less than the traditionalists, they treated the U.S. government as a monolithic actor, albeit one shaped largely by the economic and ideological interests associated with the U.S. government's capitalist structure. The emphasis was on internal sources of foreign policy, but not on partisan wrangling, election-year maneuvering, or other political concerns. Thus, Walter LaFeber's The New Empire (1963), which dealt with Gilded Age foreign relations, gave little room to the congressional coalition that time and again thwarted the expansionist initiatives of the high officials that are a chief concern of the book. In William Appleman Williams's classic work The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) one looks in vain for any sense that partisan concerns have on occasion played a key role in shaping American foreign policy. In this and other Williams works, congressional speeches and campaign pronouncements were generally cited only to show the supposed consensus behind American economic expansion. As the historian Robert David Johnson has rightly noted, revisionist interpretations of the Cold War by the likes of Gabriel Kolko and Noam Chomsky share little or nothing in common with Herbert Feis apart from a tendency to treat the U.S. government as a unitary actor unencumbered by internal dissension.

The emergence in the last two decades of the twentieth century of "postrevisionists"—a loose collection of scholars of the Cold War who did not fit easily into either the orthodox or revisionist camps—did not change the pattern. John Lewis Gaddis, a founder of postrevisionism, gave close scrutiny to domestic politics in his first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, but gave steadily less attention to it in his subsequent works—to the point that in We Now Know (1997), Gaddis's major reinterpretation of the early Cold War, party politics figured hardly at all. Melvyn P. Leffler's A Preponderance of Power (1992), a highly important volume on the Truman administration's national security policy, likewise gave little space to the interplay between foreign policy and party politics, a characteristic shared as well by Marc Trachtenberg in his prizewinning book A Constructed Peace (1999). Trachtenberg's study, subtitled "The Making of the European Settlement, 1945–1963," says nary a word about domestic politics, and his American policymakers appear to operate in a rarefied geopolitical stratosphere that keeps them largely immune to domestic pressure.

What is striking about these and other postrevisionist studies is not that they have tended to place geopolitics at the top in their hierarchy of causality; given the neorealist or national security perspectives to which many postrevisionists adhere, that is to be expected. Rather, what is striking is that domestic politics appears so far down in that hierarchy, if it even makes it on the list at all.

To a remarkable degree, then, scholars of American diplomacy, whatever their other disagreements, have tended over the years to agree on one important point: partisan wrangling and electoral strategizing have generally not been significant determinants of the nation's foreign policy. It is a perspective that accords with the popular belief that political differences among Americans should, and in fact usually do, stop at the water's edge, that it would be improper and indecent to mix politics and foreign policy, and that American leaders generally have avoided doing so.

In 1974, when the Watergate scandal was catching up with President Richard M. Nixon, Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger was asked if the resignation of the chief executive and the resulting damage to the Republican Party would change the course of American diplomacy. Certainly not, retorted Kissinger, everything would be the same. "The foreign policy of the United States," he maintained, "has always been, and continues to be conducted on a bipartisan basis in the national interest and in the interest of world peace." Others have voiced like sentiments, though usually without introducing quite so much historical error. Operating here is the traditional belief that national patriotism holds Americans together against the outside world. However much citizens may disagree on domestic questions, runs the argument, they must—and will—present a united front on foreign relations, in the national interest and to uphold the nation's honor. Discussions of this subject can become heated and bring forth Stephen Decatur's celebrated toast given at Norfolk in 1816: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."

It is a comforting notion, since it protects America's leaders from charges of "sordid political calculation" or "playing politics with the national honor." But it also separates diplomatic history from reality. It fails to consider the plain fact that there inevitably are differences of opinion on foreign policy, and that in a democracy these differences are put before the people, if at all, through the political process (that is, through politics)—facts that professional politicians are not likely to forget.

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