The Legacy of Richard Lugar

The Legacy of Richard Lugar

A look at the foreign-policy accomplishments of the senator's distinguished career.


While Republican primary voters in Indiana treated Richard Lugar harshly this week, history is likely to view him far more generously.

Richard Lugar entered the Senate in January of 1977 as an ambitious politician and has achieved the status of a statesman. He has been perhaps the most influential U.S. senator in the realm of foreign policy since Scoop Jackson. Soft-spoken, deliberate and steady, Lugar has worked for nearly thirty-six years with presidents and lawmakers from both parties to solve difficult problems. In the realm of foreign policy, the two-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has many major accomplishments: promoting arms control, containing nuclear proliferation, trying to fashion coherent American energy policies, confronting the global food crisis and generally greasing the machinery of U.S. foreign policy.


Disarmament’s Brand Name

There is little doubt that Lugar's central legislative accomplishment is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act. Working with Democratic senator Sam Nunn, he developed a plan to begin securing and then dismantling weapons of mass destruction in the Soviet Union as it was collapsing in 1991. Facing an indifferent administration and opposition from many in Congress, the two senators were able to cobble together a modest program that was acceptable to President George H.W. Bush and legislators.

Nunn-Lugar, which has grown over twenty years, provides U.S. funding and expertise to help the countries of the former Soviet Union (and now other nations) safeguard and dismantle their stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, related materials and delivery systems. Among other things, the program helped achieve the removal of all strategic nuclear warheads from Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Lugar proudly observes that the program has eliminated more nuclear weapons than the combined arsenals of France, China and the United Kingdom.

While Nunn played a central role in developing the program, he retired from the Senate in January of 1997. Since then, Lugar has been the program’s chief advocate on Capitol Hill. He has kept it going and even expanded it. Serious analysts describe the program as a major achievement, worthy of being referred to in the same breath as the Marshall Plan. Nunn and Lugar even were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Lugar also played a major role in helping secure Senate approval of important arms-control treaties over the last several decades, including the START treaties, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Agreement, and the Chemical Weapons Treaty.

Always Out Front

In 1986, Lugar's leadership on legislation that imposed economic and political sanctions on South Africa marked a turning point in the U.S. response to apartheid and represents one of Lugar's finest moments in the Senate. He helped persuade the Reagan administration to embrace a more forceful role in opposing apartheid. That same year, he also helped persuade the Reagan administration to recognize Corazon Aquino as the winner of the disputed presidential election in the Philippines against incumbent Ferdinand Marcos.

The senator has been a staunch champion of free trade over his career, arguing that trade is the engine of growth and employment. He supported the North American Free Trade Agreement even when it was controversial at home and was a lead author of the African Growth and Opportunity Act even when it was little noticed back in Indiana.

During his long Senate service, Lugar has been willing to do the important but unglamorous work of making American foreign policy function. He has served as a presidential envoy to Libya, a key election observer in the Philippines and Ukraine, a congressional observer to arms-control talks and an American representative to a ceremony announcing the Nabucco pipeline.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar played a central role in winning congressional passage of the U.S.-India Civilian Nuclear Agreement. This landmark law remains controversial as it pertains to nuclear proliferation, but it has helped forge a new American relationship with India. Lugar argues this is the kind of strategic initiative that should more often characterize American foreign policy.

Because of this record and deep interest in international affairs, Lugar has often served as Congress's de facto foreign minister. He is usually one of the first American lawmakers diplomats wish to meet when they visit the United States. He has been a gracious and informed host to thousands of envoys visiting Washington, and a strong supporter of American diplomats and embassies.

Lugar took this diplomatic streak to the domestic political realm, showing that bipartisanship in foreign policy is possible—not only declaring it in speeches but also demonstrating it in action. A proud and loyal Republican, he has worked closely with many Democratic lawmakers over the years including Sam Nunn, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Bob Casey, Evan Bayh, Chris Dodd and others. And he has cooperated with both Democratic and Republican administrations to advance the national interest.

Few Blemishes

For all of Lugar's achievements, there are areas of his record that deserve criticism. Many believe, including some of the senator's strongest supporters, that he should have been more forceful in challenging the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war. In the fall of 2002 and the winter of 2003, Lugar was concerned the administration had not fully thought through the impending war in Iraq. During hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before the war began, Lugar raised hard and prescient questions. But when the administration failed to provide persuasive answers to concerns about how Iraq would be governed after a U.S. invasion, Lugar decided not to challenge the administration publicly. And while Lugar warned for years that officials needed to pay more attention to Afghanistan, he supported the war in Iraq, a mission that clearly distracted Washington's attention from the struggles in Afghanistan.

Even with these weaknesses, Lugar has made a considerable mark on American foreign policy. Senate historian Don Ritchie believes Lugar will be remembered in the same breath as Senate foreign-policy giants William Fulbright, Arthur Vandenberg and Scoop Jackson. “When it comes to shaping foreign policy, Lugar is near the top of the class,” Ritchie argues. “You would be hard pressed to find many senators who have been more influential on America foreign policy over the last quarter century than Senator Lugar.”

John T. Shaw is a vice president and congressional correspondent for Market News International. He is the author of Richard G. Lugar: Statesman of the Senate: Crafting Foreign Policy From Capitol Hill, recently released by Indiana University Press.