USA: Lessons of history
William Fisher «View Bio

Though it may be hard to believe in our post-9/11 world, there was a time when US foreign policy was less shrill, less arrogant, and less partisan, and when policymakers understood that democracy could not be imposed from outside.

In the ‘old days’ a Democratic president, Harry S. Truman, could forge a partnership with congressional leaders like the Republican senator, Arthur Vandenberg, to advance American interests in the perilous years following World War II. That partnership resulted in, among other initiatives, the Marshall Plan. As Senator Vandenberg put it, “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” 

America has seen virtually no such bipartisanship since the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, US foreign policy dialog has been strident and insensitive. The executive branch of government has steadily usurped the traditional authority of the Congress to, for example, declare war – very different from authorizing the president to take the nation to war. This in turn has often resulted in debates on detail rather than core substance. By way of example: the Marshall Plan contained no ‘one size fits all’ rhetoric about bringing democracy to Europe, in contrast to the Greater Middle East Initiative offered up by US President George W. Bush.

Perhaps it is time the US re-learned the lessons of its own history. One way to begin is through the choice of Colin Powell’s successor as secretary of state. It is well known that Powell has differed with Bush on many foreign policy issues. But his military background appears to have made him the ultimate team player, even to the point of advocating administration positions about which he has personal doubts.

The choice of his successor is a key element in the return to a far more informed and civil foreign policy.

I would suggest that, if Bush is reelected, he should appoint the Democratic senator, Joseph Biden, to run the State Department. If John Kerry wins the presidency, his secretary of state should be the Republican senator, Richard Lugar, or fellow Republican, Chuck Hagel. This is not just because these leaders are from the opposite party. It is because they are all experts in foreign affairs and diplomacy who might restore some consensus to American foreign policy.

Lugar is an unwavering advocate of US leadership in the world, strong national security, free trade, and economic growth. He is the author of the Lugar Doctrine and cosponsor of the Nunn-Lugar program, developed to ensure that weapons of mass destruction are accounted for, contained, and destroyed.

Hagel has been a member of the Senate foreign relations committee since his election in 1996, and is currently the second-ranking Republican on the committee. He is chairman of the subcommittee on international economic policy. He also sits on subcommittees on east Asian and Pacific affairs and European affairs, and serves as the co-chairman of a Congressional commission on China.

Biden, the ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, is the Democratic party’s chief spokesman on national security and foreign policy issues. One of the most respected voices on national security and civil liberties, he has earned national and international recognition as a policy innovator, effective legislator, and party spokesman on a wide range of key issues.

All three men voted for most of Bush’s foreign policy initiatives. But all have relentlessly, publicly, questioned the way some of these measures have been implemented. Any of them would have the strength and integrity to stand up to the president, and to foster consistency and transparency in policymaking and policy implementation.

It is a pity that party politics prevents Bush or Kerry announcing such putative appointments now – a move that would go a long way toward restoring US credibility in the international community.

William Fisher has managed economic development projects in the Middle East for the US State Department. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration