America’s allies and friends around the world breathed a sigh of relief at the defeat of Donald Trump, a president who has scorned and belittled so many of them as well as the institutions they support. The prospect that the United States may rejoin and support the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization, perhaps the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or even the Iran nuclear deal is heartening, but that relief among our friends abroad is tempered by the knowledge that a future American president could simply rip up anything that President-elect Biden may address through an executive order and revert to Trumpian hostility again after another election cycle.
The bipartisan foreign policy parameters that had governed both Republican and Democratic administrations for 75 years were shredded when Trump came to power. Political disputes no longer “stop at the water’s edge,” as the saying goes. Our friends have no assurance that American foreign policy decisions under Biden will last beyond his presidency.
With this in mind, Biden should make every effort to bring Republicans along with him in his major foreign policy decisions, as difficult as this may be with hostile Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in charge.
When President Woodrow Wilson sailed for France in January 1919 for the Paris Peace Conference that would define the shape of much of the modern world, he brought not one Republican along with him. The result was that he could never persuade a Republican-led Senate to ratify the peace treaty with defeated Germany, nor allow the United States to join Wilson’s number one priority, a League of Nations to arbitrate international disputes and join together in collective actions to oppose would-be aggressors.
When Wilson sailed back to the United States after the Peace Conference was over, a young undersecretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt, dined at Wilson’s table, and later, when Roosevelt was president himself, he refrained from making the same mistake as Wilson had made. When it came time to replace the failed League of Nations with a new United Nations, Roosevelt made sure that opposition party Republicans were in on it from the beginning — especially the influential Republican senator from Michigan, Arthur Vandenberg. Vandenberg was instrumental in turning the Republican Party away from isolationism in the Roosevelt-Truman years.
There is no evidence that Wilson would have succeeded had he brought Republicans along with him to Paris, but not including them in his deliberations and decisions guaranteed their failure.
It is said that an American president can do pretty much what he wants in the realm of foreign affairs, as long as he doesn’t call it a treaty. Treaties must be approved by the Senate. But if an American president wants his policies and decisions to stick beyond his or her administration, the chances of success will be much better if the opposition party, or at least some of it, is on board from the beginning.
Biden got off to a good start with his victory speech, reaching out to those who voted against him, saying he wants to be president of all the people, not just Democrats. That principle should extend to foreign policy as well. Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said that dealing with the coronavirus will be the new administration’s first priority. Combating the pandemic both here and abroad could provide the Biden administration an early bipartisan opportunity.
Involving the political opposition in foreign policy decisions may mean fewer successes, but better chances for survival when the next Republican administration takes power. America’s word in foreign affairs needs to be more steadfast and long-lasting than the length of one administration.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editor of the Globe editorial page.