American domestic policy has always had an outsize influence on foreign policy. Our size, wealth, ‘continental outlook,’ and the immunity geography provided in the past makes this inevitable. For most Americans what happens across the oceans sparks little concern and foreign affairs has never decided a national election. In fact, popular disinterest in foreign affairs enables the few Americans who do care to get their way. Countries such as Israel, Ireland, and Greece have all benefitted from the fact that a determined minority of American citizens rush to their defense when they (rightly or wrongly) perceive a threat. They rarely get any pushback from their fellow citizens. The current trend towards isolationism, amplified by seemingly endless engagement in the Middle East, is the American default position. But isolationism is no longer an option. The world has changed, and protecting our prosperity and national security depend on active international engagement. Unfortunately, American political polarization has paralyzed the conduct of that engagement as never before. Instead, the current ‘Republicans’ have prioritized political advantage over the national interest.
Today’s Republicans openly brag that they will do their best to deny the Biden administration any success, no matter what the damage to the national interest. In one particularly ugly manifestation of this policy, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) has delayed, exploiting arcane Senate procedures, confirmation of seventy (70) Ambassadors to foreign countries. Only thirteen have gotten through the process so far. Cruz has delayed the ambassadors to key NATO allies France, Germany, and the UK. He does not appear to care that we must work with them to prevent war with Russia over Ukraine. Despite professing concern about illegal immigration, Cruz has blocked the ambassadors to Honduras and El Salvador, the countries from which most migrants have fled. The migrant crisis can only be addressed at its source, since when they get to the border it is too late. We need Pakistan, more than any other country, to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for jihadists. Cruz has blocked the nomination of our Ambassador to Pakistan. As of this writing, ambassadors to seven Arab states wait for Mr. Cruz; seven Arab states which either host major American military bases and/or play a major role in dealing with Israel and Iran.
Most damaging of all his actions, Senator Cruz has thrown a monkey wrench into U.S. dealings China. China presents a challenge that we have never faced before. Germany, at the zenith of its power, never posed an existential threat to the United States. It and the USSR both lacked the population, the industrial capacity, and enough allies to have had any chance whatsoever of prevailing in either war or economic competition with United States leading democratic allies. Unlike Germany and the USSR, China does not seek to dominate the world through military conquest. Rather it seeks to do so by making most of the globe its economic and commercial dependency. This is a contest for which we are woefully unprepared. China has four times our population. If its per capita wealth reaches a third of ours, its overall economy will dwarf ours. With a population that large, China has far less need of allies to contribute to its warfighting potential. In fact, China has no need to defeat the United States militarily; it only needs to make an American attack unacceptably costly while it pursues economic dominance. We need active diplomacy across the globe – not the largest defense budget in our history – to manage this threat.
We need the full force of American diplomacy to deal with these challenges – Senator Cruz would rather indulge in his political fantasies, even if he undermines American security. Cruz does not seem to care that China has made Africa a priority, seeking to tie up the raw materials it needs for industrial expansion and potentially deny them to the United States. Not a single nominee to an African country has gotten past Cruz. In Asia, Cruz has blocked the Ambassadors to India, South Korea, and Japan – the countries whose cooperation and assistance we need most in our competition with China. In fact, the indomitable Mr. Cruz has even held up the confirmation of the Ambassador to China!
Embassies cannot function properly without Ambassadors. Ambassadors speak with the authority of the President; an authority no charge d’affaires, the deputy who runs an Embassy in the absence of an ambassador, can command. In addition, failure to send an ambassador often appears as a diplomatic insult to the receiving country. (I’ve been there; I had to explain to a disbelieving foreign minister why I had been left as charge d’affaires in his country for 18 months.)
Few Americans understand that the dominant position that allowed the United States to determine world affairs for more than a century faces an existential challenge. We continue to act as if China is another Germany or USSR to be contained, weakened, and then defeated by overwhelming military force. China is playing a different game. American policy needs a serious rethink. That rethink cannot take place without bipartisan collaboration as in the days of Senator Vandenberg. In 1948, then-Senator Arthur Vandenberg, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that “politics end at the water’s edge” and helped President Truman, a Democrat, create NATO and the Marshall Plan, the key to saving Europe from the tender mercies of Joe Stalin. This was not a popular move; most Americans at the time had little appetite for further foreign entanglements after World War II. Senator Vandenberg must be spinning in his grave at the way today’s ‘Republicans’c hold hostage our country’s ability to defend its interests abroad.