Political polarization in the United States seems to be at an all time high. That is not to say that some level of this phenomenon has never existed; ever since political parties were established on the national level the ideological gap between them has caused tension.
What is new, though, is the extreme level of polarization and the anger with which the two parties view one another. This trend is often talked about in a purely domestic context, and with good reason, as that is where the effects are most keenly felt. However, there is evidence that the extreme polarization we are experiencing in the United States is having a damaging effect on our foreign policy and national security.
How did this happen, what are the ways this is playing out on the international stage, and is there anything that can be done to salvage the situation?
What’s Causing This?
In their 2018 survey, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that Americans rated political polarization as one of the top 5 threats to the United States, behind other topics like international terrorism and rogue nuclear-capable states like North Korea and Iran.
Clearly, this issue is one that the american public is not only aware of, but also mindful of the detrimental effects of. But how did we get to this situation? What is causing a surge in partisanship? One answer could be the fact that America has an unrivaled spot on the world stage.
According to Foreign Policy, the fact that the United States beat out the USSR to win the Cold War has lead to a scenario where the US does not have a major threat to its power. This lack of a common enemy means that politicians are becoming more vocal and aggressive in their opinions without fear of undermining American unity in the face of the Soviet Union.
Besides the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the US has not faced a major threat capable of unifying the parties and the public since the fall of the USSR. This explanation is just one of many that can explain the current state of polarization; the rise of social media and neo-tribal connections can also be pointed to as the cause of our current situation. What’s clear is that polarization is here in a big way; what is becoming more clear is what kind of effects this will have on US foreign policy.
The Threat of Polarization to Foreign Policy
Political Polarization undermines United States foreign policy interests in a number of ways. For one, the extreme and growing gap in foreign policy goals between the two parties means that from one administration to another radical shifts in policy can occur. This oscillation between two extremes makes US foreing policy seen as unreliable and voilitle to other powers, which contributes to another effect; the belief that the US is becoming an unreliable ally and partner on the international stage, and that US values might not be as strong as they once seemed.
As Foreign Policy said, “The more bitter, divided, gridlocked, venal, and downright stupid American politics become, the less appealing the American system of government is to outside observers.”
Polarization among the public and government has created a siutation where America is seen as unreliable and unstable. Finally, polarization has opened up America to potential outside influences that can undermine domestic politics and institutions, threatening our national security. As seen in the Russian interference in the 2016 election, the divisiveness in the United States has been harnessed by other powers to weaken confidence in the American government and potentially hijack political processes. Polarization affects our image abroad and our security at home.
What We Need to Do
Does this process of polarization mean that American foreign policy will never be as reputable as it once was? Or are there steps that could be taken to remedy this issue and restore faith in the United States?
For one, Congress could attempt to take back some of the foreign policy powers that are constitutionally guaranteed to the legislature, such as the power to declare war. This move would ensure that even as presidential policies become more polarized, certain important elements of foreing policy would still go through Congress. With presidential power weakened the speed and extremity with which foreigh policy goals change could be reduced.
Another “solution”, if you can call it that, would be the emergence of a major threat on the international stage, akin to the USSR. While this might ease domestic polarization, the trade off is less than ideal. If what the US needs to overcome excessive partisanship is an existential threat, perhaps that’s a price that we shouldn’t be willing to pay.
To say the least, polarization is an issue that will not be easily solved. However, for the sake of US foreign policy and image abroad, it is important that partisan divisions are healed over time.