Left to Right: Warren Austin, President Harry Truman, Secretary of State George Marshall and Sen. Arthur Vandenberg
in August 1947. Photo by Abbie Rowe, courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration.
For decades following World War II, politicians generally followed the maxim famously uttered by Arthur Vandenberg: “We must stop politics at the water’s edge.”
Lately, the only time we hear anyone invoke Vandenberg’s words is to criticize a member of the opposing party for violating them.
Vandenberg was a Republican senator from Michigan who, despite his own ambitions, worked as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to support the Democratic Truman administration in its effort to secure lasting peace in the aftermath of a devastating world war. His Vandenberg Resolution laid the groundwork for NATO. Vandenberg’s efforts did not further his bid for the presidency; he dropped out of the race only a few months after the Senate approved his resolution. But they did bolster postwar national security in a real way. Vandenberg’s legacy includes his famous call for bipartisan cooperation, or at least refraining from undermining the incumbent administration, in matters of foreign policy.
Today most people who claim that politics should stop at the water’s edge really mean that the opposition party should stay within proper – which is to say domestic – boundaries. Barack Obama used the phrase this way during his 2012 re-election campaign. An economic adviser to Mitt Romney had published an article in Germany attacking Obama’s recommendations for continued recovery from the global financial crisis. In response to a reporter’s question on the incident, Obama said, “I would point out that we have one President at a time and one administration at a time, and I think traditionally the notion has been that America's political differences end at the water’s edge.”
But while this may have been the case in the middle of the 20th century, it was not particularly true in 2012. Or since, for that matter. Former Secretary of State John Kerry (who served under Obama) recently drew criticism from the current secretary, Mike Pompeo, by essentially freelancing in diplomacy after leaving office. Kerry mentioned in an interview that he has met with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” at gatherings such as the World Economic Forum, and that they discussed the Iran nuclear deal and other issues on such occasions. President Trump reacted by calling these meetings illegal; Pompeo did not go so far, but did say Kerry’s behavior was “actively undermining U.S. policy.” A spokesman for Kerry said that his behavior is neither unseemly nor unprecedented, and added that Kerry has passed along detailed reports to the current administration about his discussions with Zarif. It is not hard to understand, however, why an administration that withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal would express displeasure that one of the deal’s architects continued to talk with a senior Iranian official.
Republicans engaged in similar freelancing, at least to some degree, during the Obama administration. When the Iran nuclear deal was still under negotiation, Congressional GOP leaders invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to deliver an address to Congress opposing that deal, without notifying the White House in advance. In addition, 47 Republican senators sent a letter directly to Iran’s leaders warning that any deal the nation reached with Obama’s administration could be reversed by his successor. Their prediction has since come true, but sending such a letter during negotiations is a fairly direct violation of Vandenberg’s exhortation.
As I have observed before in this space, where you stand depends on where you sit. It is easy to feel outage at such interference when leaders you support are in power, and sometimes less so when the underminers have goals to which you are sympathetic. Regardless, the reality is that nothing stops at the water’s edge in today’s political landscape, and it has not for many years now.
Yes, it might be better for this country if we actually had one president at a time, as Obama observed. In part, this has become a challenge because the world is shrinking. Most foreign leaders have access to the American press, as well as to politicians’ websites and Twitter accounts. Refraining from criticizing the president while he is overseas or in foreign media outlets has become something of an artificial line in the sand.
Perhaps more importantly, the goal of “one administration at a time” was also easier to achieve in the era when we had political campaigns that ended on election night, followed by a period in which the winner of the election performed the job, eventually followed by another campaign. Now the campaigning never ends. A 2015 report from the Center for Competitive Politics (since renamed the Institute for Free Speech) found that the average presidential campaign from the 1970s onward lasted 484 days, compared to 286 days in the 1950s and ‘60s. Congressional campaigns are as bad, if not worse. Literally the morning the election results are announced, jockeying for position begins for the next cycle.
With many members of Congress and nearly every first-term president in constant campaign mode, we should be unsurprised at the results. This is the practice of modern political science in the real world, where in order to have an “us,” it is necessary to have a “them” made up of your electoral opponents. It is how you enlarge and fire up the base: Draw the sharpest possible contrast between your side and the opposition. Your opponents can’t just be misguided or wrong. They have to be witless, evil or some combination of the two. You cannot expect, let alone urge, foreign leaders to respect them when you refuse to respect them yourself. In fact, you have every incentive to undermine foreign respect for the opposing party, even if doing so injures your own.
Politics stopping at the water’s edge? It probably worked better right after a world war, in which national unity was a matter of national survival. Except in dire emergencies, Americans too often set aside our common interests to obsess about the much smaller range of concerns where we differ. As practiced today, American politics knows no bounds, watery or otherwise.