Does Politics Really Stop “At the Water’s Edge”?

According to the punditocracy, 2015 was a banner year for the breaking of political norms regarding the formation of U.S. foreign policy. In March, freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and 46 of his colleagues signed a letter to the Iranian government, attempting to undermine the president’s ongoing negotiation of a nuclear deal—a move The Washington Post called a “stunning breach of protocol.” That same month, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) invited Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to speak before Congress in opposition to the proposed Iran deal.

The invitation and the letter were both widely criticized as injecting a domestic political fight into U.S. foreign policy. With these actions, the conventional wisdom went, congressional Republicans had broken the rule that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” meaning they had allowed domestic political disagreements to jeopardize U.S. foreign policy. Like much of conventional wisdom, however, the truth of American foreign policy is much more complicated. This rule has been broken many times before and will likely be broken again.

Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1947–1949 and rival to President Truman, is credited with coining the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” in the heat of the 1948 election. Since then, the truism—also known as the Vandenberg rule—has become deeply embedded into the American political consciousness. “With few exceptions,” NPR declared after the Netanyahu speech, “Republicans and Democrats have heeded Vandenberg’s words for generations.”

“Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1947–1949 and rival to President Truman, is credited with coining the phrase “politics stops at the water’s edge” in the heat of the 1948 election. Since then, the truism—also known as the Vandenberg rule—has become deeply embedded into the American political consciousness.”

The U.S. Constitution grants the Office of the President the power to make treaties and execute foreign policy with the “advice and consent” of Congress. That tenuous structure has always been open to interpretation. Constitutionally endowed with the power of the purse and a robust regulatory authority, Congress has throughout its history found ways to insert itself into American foreign policy and circumvent the president. Indeed, one of the Constitution’s authors, James Madison, allowed Congress a largely equal role in making policy during the War of 1812.

Presidents after Madison often followed Congress’ lead in matters of war and peace. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson, who occupied the office from 1865–1869, was essentially cut out of the military process of Reconstruction, which was instead run entirely from Capitol Hill. In 1898, hawks in Congress led the charge to declare war on Spain over the objections of the reluctant President McKinley.

Even in the twentieth century, with the growth of the executive branch into an imperial presidency much larger than originally envisioned, Congress has worked around or even against presidential prerogatives in foreign policy. During the Reagan presidency, domestic pressures led Congress to enforce sanctions on South Africa during apartheid over the objections—and veto—of the president.

Of course, the pendulum has also swung the other way. Theodore Roosevelt famously began the building of the Panama Canal on his own authority. “I took the Isthmus, started the canal,” he said, “and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me.”

The idea of a clear line between American foreign policy and domestic politics has always been more aspirational than realistic, and the Vandenberg rule has been honored more in its breach than in its observance. A closer look at American history shows the Cotton letter and the Netanyahu speech to be less of a “stunning breach of protocol” than part of the normal push and pull of American politics.

“The idea of a clear line between American foreign policy and domestic politics has always been more aspirational than realistic, and the Vandenberg rule has been honored more in its breach than in its observance.”

In their letter to the leadership of Iran, Senator Cotton and his colleagues aimed to convince members of the Iranian government that any deal struck with President Barack Obama would not be supported by Congress, and once Obama left office it would become irrelevant. “The president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms,” Senator Cotton and his co-authors explained to the Iranians. “As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then—perhaps decades.”

Cotton and his 46 co-authors were correct to point out the limitations of striking a deal with a U.S. president who does not have support in Congress. Proponents of the nuclear deal with Iran may view the Republican objection to it as short-sighted and irresponsible, but this does not change the fact that presidents are institutionally limited in their authority. Without congressional support, President Obama can reach an executive agreement with Iran, but these can be rescinded by future presidents.

Most Democrats argued that sending the letter was a clear breach of the Vandenberg rule that put politics before national interest, but the authors disagreed. They believed the proposed Iran Deal was to be so damaging to U.S. national security that it would be an act of patriotism to undermine its negotiation—even if it meant bringing politics past the water’s edge.

Going into an election year, it seems unlikely that partisanship will subside enough to allow for any comity or order in foreign policymaking. In January 2017, a new president will take office and may have to deal with a Congress that holds significant objections to his or her international policy goals. An effective president will have to find a way to work with, or around, a hostile Congress. More importantly, he or she will have to recognize that politics has rarely—if ever—stopped at the water’s edge.

Image: A joint session of Congress, convened for the 2011 State of the Union address.


Owen Berger, a historian by training, is a staffer for a Democratic member of Congress. Follow him on Twitter.

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