It’s no secret that the 2012 U.S. presidential contest will hinge largely on domestic issues, not foreign policy, barring of course some major international incident. That leaves diplomats in Washington — often relegated to the sidelines in an election year anyway because they can’t vote — spectators heading into November.
But that doesn’t mean diplomats don’t have their work cut out for them, tasked with keeping their governments back home up to date on a nail-biting, roller-coaster race that has confounded even the most seasoned Beltway handicappers.
They must also navigate a political minefield fraught with some of the most intense partisanship in recent memory, looking for allies in a Congress mired in acrimony, division and dysfunction.
Worse still, the foreign policy community just lost a major ally.
Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who was first elected to the Senate in 1976 and whom the New York Times called its “foreign policy conscious,” became the latest casualty of the anti-incumbent, anti-establishment surge sweeping America. His resounding defeat in a May 8 Republican primary to Richard Mourdock also signaled the enduring power of tea party-inspired conservatives averse to the kind of moderation and comity that Lugar, 80, embodied.
When Washington Diplomat correspondent John Shaw began researching his book about Lugar in the fall of 2006, the idea that the senator would lose the seat he’s held for 35 years was not even in the cards. In “Richard G. Lugar: Statesman of the Senate,” Shaw chronicled Lugar’s globally respected work to advance arms control, nonproliferation, effective and humane global food policies, and international law.
But as the release of his book neared in the spring of 2012, Shaw was struggling to understand and explain why one of the most respected American lawmakers in the last quarter of a century was scrambling for his political life. Those outside the Beltway, too, find it difficult to explain.
As former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans put it in a recent op-ed for Project Syndicate, “You wouldn’t expect much interest beyond the United States, or even beyond his own state, when an 80-year-old conservative legislator, who has already served six terms, loses his party’s endorsement to run yet again. But the crushing defeat of Senator Richard Lugar in the recent Indiana Republican primary, in a Tea Party-supported campaign of shocking mindlessness, has reverberated in capitals around the world, including my own.”
So The Washington Diplomat tapped John Shaw, its resident congressional expert, to help diplomats understand the factors that led to Lugar’s fall and, more broadly, shed light on the long-term prospects for foreign policy cooperation on Capitol Hill.
The verdict on those prospects? They’re not pretty, but not completely hopeless either.
Political Perils of Statesmanship
Shaw participated in two recent events hosted by The Diplomat: a policy seminar titled “Is There Any Hope for American Politics?” held May 22 at the Dupont Circle Hotel, where he was joined by former Congressman Bill Frenzel and fellow author Ira Shapiro; as well as an intimate breakfast discussion at the Park Hyatt Washington’s Blue Duck Tavern on May 30.
Both events offered not only political insights, but also the warm hospitality of two top-tier properties.
The Blue Duck Tavern event — which drew ambassadors from Finland, Liechtenstein, Niger and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, as well as diplomats from Cyprus, Guyana, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Singapore and Taiwan — also showcased the restaurant’s new “Influential Breakfast” program. Executive Chef Sebastien Archambault, who joined Park Hyatt Washington in December 2011, designed a new menu that blends his French roots with farm-to-table fare inspired by the American South. In addition to goodies like eggs benedict with pork belly and short rib hash with olive oil, the breakfast features complimentary Wi-Fi, valet parking and newspaper in language of your choice to accommodate busy professionals.
At the Dupont Circle Hotel, guests were treated to an evening reception featuring the stunning vistas off Level Nine, a hotel within a hotel that was built from scratch and added a whole new floor to the property following a major $52 million refurbishment (also see “On Cloud Nine Over Dupont Circle” in the January 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
Before nibbling on lamb, crab and shrimp on the Level Nine balcony directly overlooking Dupont Circle, guests peppered the panel with questions, such as whether the political gridlock will turn away younger voters, or what impact the courts will have on congressional legislation.
The discussion was cordial — in stark contrast to the take-no-prisoners mentality that has seized Congress, a phenomenon that to a large degree can be traced to the rise of the tea party.
Shaw admitted that like many other observers, he didn’t foresee the tea party’s staying power back when the movement emerged as a major force in the 2010 midterm elections, in which control of the House shifted to Republicans.
A congressional correspondent and vice president for Market News International and a contributing writer for The Diplomat since 1997, Shaw said Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana Republican primary could in part be attributed to the tea party’s backing of Richard Mourdock, but it was also due to a “perfect storm” of factors that converged to convince the GOP in that state to oust the six-term senator.
The fracas over Lugar’s lack of residency certainly didn’t help (he hadn’t lived in Indiana since 1977). According to Shaw, Lugar also seemed to waffle between campaign strategies, at times shunning the esteemed foreign policy record that he’d built a career on, perhaps to avoid being branded a “globe-trotter,” which is precisely what Mourdock labeled him.
But in a larger sense, Shaw said the public’s sour mood about Congress — polls consistently show approval ratings in the teens or even single digits — Lugar’s moderate personality, and his willingness to work with Democrats all worked against him.
“Lugar’s soft-spoken, civil, moderate tone is now out of sync with where the Republican base is right now,” he said. “They seem to want angrier, more confrontational political leaders.”
Fellow panelist Bill Frenzel, a Republican congressman from Minnesota who served in the House from 1971 to 1991, also lamented the “mortal combat” state of American politics, in which recriminations and attacks have replaced bipartisan problem solving.
He pointed out that today the opposition is viewed as an enemy, one who is not only wrong, but “terminally evil.”
“We can’t continue on our current path too much longer. The problems the country faces are too serious for that,” said Frenzel, who rose to become the top Republican on the House Budget Committee and was widely regarded as one of Congress’s leading fiscal experts.
Since 1991, he has been a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, where he’s continued to work on fiscal issues. Frenzel advised President Bill Clinton on NAFTA and President George W. Bush on Social Security and tax reform, and he is currently a chairman of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
Frenzel said that in addition to the usual inter-party warfare, where Democrats and Republicans do battle, today’s deeply polarized climate is marked by intra-party warfare, which is more dangerous because it “creates purges to keep the parties’ programs and their representatives pure and usually extreme.”
“Cannibalism has become the norm. Almost no one is right enough or left enough for party activists. Electronic extremists are quick to broadcast the sins of party backsliders,” he said.
On that note, Frenzel blamed some of the gridlock on today’s hyper-partisan echo chamber, amplified by the media, which scrutinizes every move a politician makes. He pointed out that during his 20 years in Congress, he worked in relatively obscurity, which allowed him to get things done.
“No one paid any attention to me,” he happily said.
Frenzel also derided the instantaneous, and often vapid, world of social media like Twitter, where 140 characters hardly makes for an “intelligent conversation.”
The ultimate solution, Frenzel suggested, will be for voters to dig deeper and realize that the toxic partisan environment isn’t helping them or the nation.
“Our politics are now in a bad place and they have to change,” he said. “The American people must demand better politics and better policies from their elected representatives.”
Unfortunately, the American people seem to be just as divided as their representatives. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Americans’ values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Party has now become the single largest fissure in American society, the report said, with the values gap between Republicans and Democrats greater than gender, age, race or class divisions.
Ira Shapiro, an international lawyer, former ambassador in the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office and author of “The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis,” says that traditionally, the Senate was the body best able to cope with crippling partisanship, describing how leading senators from both parties helped guide the U.S. through the challenges of the late 1970s. He said most currently serving senators are “as angry and frustrated about the Senate’s dysfunction as the public is. They feel trapped in the hyper-partisan model that has evolved over the past 20 years.
“But they are not helpless,” added Shapiro, a former senior Senate staffer himself.
He argued that senators can and should work immediately to change the Senate’s rules and install new leaders who are willing to work cooperatively to solve pressing national problems. “The Senate includes many men and women who want their legacy to be a stronger country, not a degraded Senate that fails the American people.”
Loss of ‘Foreign Policy Giant’
America’s political dysfunction may also fail its partners abroad, as Lugar’s loss leaves a deep hole in U.S. foreign policy.
Lugar, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since 1985, “was long one of the Senate’s foremost experts on foreign affairs,” wrote Murray Hiebert and MeiLee Dozier of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When he assumed the chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in 2003 for the second time, he gave a press conference for foreign journalists, which he began with a 20-minute overview of key issues from every region of the world, including Asia. He effortlessly ticked off the names of leaders and key facts about many countries, all without notes. He then fielded questions, ranging from China to Africa to Brazil and back to North Korea and Russia, for another 45 minutes without skipping a beat.”
Lugar’s track record promoting arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, free trade and food security are extensively detailed in Shaw’s book “Richard G. Lugar: Statesman of the Senate.”
“What I find so striking is how often Senator Lugar is referred to as a statesman and how rarely anyone else in American politics is referred to as a statesman,” the author observed.
Shaw said Lugar boasts many important foreign policy achievements, citing the much-celebrated Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and his role helping to secure Senate passage of the new START arms control treaty with Russia in 2010.
Yet Lugar’s role in the debate over the Iraq war was not one of the best chapters in his career, Shaw argues, questioning the senator’s decision to voice his reservations about the war privately to leading members of the Bush administration rather than expressing his concerns in a more forceful and public way.
Still, despite some missteps, Shaw concludes that Lugar has probably been the most important U.S. senator in the foreign policy realm in the last quarter of a century, transcending the line from politician to leading statesman.
So who can replace him? That was the question many in the diplomatic audience asked Shaw, who in turn pointed out that even Lugar evolved into the position, so only time will tell who picks up the foreign policy mantle in the Senate.
Shaw mentioned Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) as one possibility who seems somewhat willing to reach across the aisle. On the Democratic side, he noted that Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is rumored to be eyeing the job of secretary of state, while Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), his possible replacement on the committee, may be too polarizing to cross party lines.
Diplomats in Washington crave those kinds of tidbits in such a history-making election year, but Shaw warned there might not be many foreign policy insights in the months ahead, as GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney will probably avoid divulging policy details that might needlessly stir up controversy.
With many former advisors to President George W. Bush migrating to the Romney team, some analysts have gleaned that Romney’s foreign policy agenda could mirror Bush’s. But other than calls to label China a currency manipulator (unlikely given Romney’s business acumen) and tougher rhetoric on Iran and Syria, so far Romney’s foreign policy prescriptions don’t differ all that much from Obama’s.
That gets to the larger question of Romney the hard-line candidate versus Romney the pragmatic businessman, Shaw said, and which version would emerge if he won the presidency.
Regardless of who occupies the White House or Congress, Shaw advises diplomats in Washington to find areas where they can promote their bilateral interests — and do so relentlessly.
Shaw’s first book, “Washington Diplomacy: Profiles of People of World Influence,” is based on more than 60 profiles he wrote for The Washington Diplomat, while his second book, “The Ambassador: Inside the Life of a Working Diplomat,” profiled veteran Swedish envoy Jan Eliasson.
Eliasson, who served as Sweden’s ambassador to the U.S. from 2000 to 2005 and later became Sweden’s foreign minister and president of the U.N. General Assembly, was hugely successful in elevating Sweden’s profile in the United States, Shaw explained.
“He was relentless in finding ways to connect Sweden and the United States. He pursued every possible angle to advance his goals, to tell the American people about Sweden,” Shaw said.
The ambassador also had a “thick skin” when it came to penetrating Washington, Shaw added, noting that Eliasson never minded waiting around outside a senator’s office for a brief meeting — understanding that Sweden wasn’t a priority for most American politicians.
Nevertheless, Shaw admits that Lugar’s exit from the halls of the Senate will have both diplomatic and domestic consequences. First, Congress’s leading expert in foreign policy will be departing Capitol Hill in January 2013, leaving a huge policy void and the loss of considerable institutional memory. Second, lawmakers from both parties see Lugar’s defeat as a clear warning about what could happen to them if they work with members of the other party to tackle key problems.
“The departure of Senator Lugar from the Senate will be a real loss for the country and for the diplomatic community,” Shaw said. “He will be replaced eventually, but it’s hard to imagine anyone really filling his shoes anytime soon. He has been a foreign policy giant.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.