Picking on Both Sides of the Aisle

It's time for Congress to put the partisan bickering aside and do what's best on the START and trade agreements.

Since I have already asked President Barack Obama to choose securing key U.S. national security goals over focusing his time and effort on re-election in 2012, it is only fair to make a similar demand of the Congress.

Speaking at the 2010 convocation of the U.S. Naval War College, its president, Admiral James “Phil” Wisecup, talked about U.S. national security being guaranteed by a “wiring of trade and treaty” (to use the phrase coined by Michael Vlahos in a 1979 Journal of Strategic Studies essay.) Especially in the years after World War II, the United States worked to build a global security architecture through a series of agreements designed to foster greater cooperation and trade among the nations of the “Free World”—and former isolationists and political opponents to the Democratic presidencies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman rallied behind this vision of cooperative security. However, Senator Arthur Vandenberg’s famous aphorism that “politics stop at the water’s edge” no longer seems to be a guiding rule on Capitol Hill. Important foreign policy goals seem to be subordinated either to partisan politics or to domestic interests—making it difficult for the administration to move forward with its efforts to rebuild America’s leadership of the community of nations. The Hill doesn’t seem all that interested in the benefits that accrue from a “wiring of trade and treaty.”

Let me pick equally on both sides of the aisle, starting with the Democrats.

Obama has called for reinvigorating America’s relations with its neighbors in the hemisphere, and for developing a new trans-Pacific partnership. Part of this process involves the expansion of free trade areas to create incentives for security cooperation through shared economic interests. This is why the president “has asked Congress to approve a free-trade pact with South Korea, while seeking other such bilateral agreements in Asia that can measure up to similar pacts already won by China.” Yet these agreements—most notably with Colombia (ratified by their Congress back in 2007) and South Korea—still continue to linger in legislative limbo.

I recognize that trade agreements are not painless. They are a product of compromises that inevitably produce winners as well as losers in any society. U.S. negotiators have worked into these compacts clauses that attempt to deal with the concerns of different domestic economic sectors, trade unions and environmental groups. But it seems that the stance of some of the Democrats in Congress is that unless a free trade agreement is cost-free to Americans, then it must be opposed.

The administration has shown that it is prepared to take action under current provisions contained in existing free trade agreements to address safety and labor concerns—and there is no reason to believe that effective enforcement would be lacking should the FTAs with Korea and Colombia went into effect.

Part of the genius of the postwar American-led international system was to offer alliance on easy terms. Preferential trade arrangements with allies in Europe and East Asia gave them a very real material stake in supporting the United States. Extending the zone of prosperity and security from the trans-Atlantic realm to encompass the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific rim helps to guarantee America’s position, even if there are short-term economic costs to be borne. Moving forward on these trade agreements would enhance the administration’s efforts in this area.

Meanwhile, some Republicans appear to be playing partisan games with the New START treaty, painting it in apocalyptic terms as a major threat to U.S. security—and seeking to deny the administration a foreign policy “win” (and the comments of Senator John Kerry have not helped matters, by implying that ratification of this treaty does play a role in Democratic electoral politics). The concerns seem to be shifting all the time—initially, it was over the non-binding preamble to the treaty that linked offensive and defensive strategic systems, which was supposed to be an impediment to the U.S. deploying limited missile defense capabilities against states of concern like Iran and North Korea. Then the question of verification was raised. But, as Steven Pifer has noted, “When they were examined it didn't really hold up.” Now, the emphasis is on whether the administration plans to support modernization of the U.S. nuclear force, a topic that deserves serious consideration, but is not particularly germane to ratification of the treaty.

Just as Democrats who have held up trade agreements argue that there is no need to rush, so to Republicans contend that the new START agreement is not particularly urgent because Russia’s economic situation does not permit a massive reconstruction of its nuclear force. But just as the trade agreement send important signals about the U.S. commitment to friends and allies, the START treaty is important both for making progress in the U.S.-Russia relationship (and perhaps laying the groundwork for a follow-on treaty dealing with the question of tactical nuclear weapons) but also for demonstrating that even with its massive superiority in both conventional and nuclear capabilities, the United States is willing to entertain some limits on its military force—a signal which may be important in the years to come if we are to persuade China that its rise in the international system does not need to lead to inevitable conflict, as John Mearsheimer again predicts.

Neither the trade agreements nor the new START are perfect. On balance, however, the benefits of these agreements outweigh their defects—most importantly, because they help to “wire” a new global architecture for our time, developing a current web of trade and treaties. These compacts should not be held hostage to the vicissitudes of U.S. domestic politics.