The leader of Myanmar (Burma) was in Washington in early September to get something – a lifting of sanctions on her country as it makes a historic transition to democracy. Yet Aung San Suu Kyi also gave something. As has happened during recent visits of other foreign leaders, the Nobel Peace Prize winner thanked both a Democratic president and Republicans in Congress for their decades of support.
In addition to meeting with President Obama, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent time with her leading advocate on Capitol Hill, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, the Senate’s majority leader. Her gratitude to both men was a reminder to Americans that despite a hyperpartisanship over domestic issues, foreign policy can still enjoy moments of national consensus.
Earlier this year, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos, delivered a similar message. He praised the longtime bipartisan backing of a US aid package known as Plan Colombia, which created the conditions for a peace deal with the country’s largest rebel group. And even with an ongoing debate over the US military role in Afghanistan, that country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, recently visited Washington offering appreciation for bipartisan support and American sacrifices since 2001.
Any nation hopes it can present a consistent and solid front in its foreign dealings. All the better to project strength and prevent adversaries from exploiting domestic differences. Yet the United States has had a mixed record throughout its long history in making sure political squabbles end at the water’s edge.
“When we have been successful in national security and foreign affairs, it has been because there has been bipartisan support,” writes Robert Gates, the former defense chief under both Mr. Obama and President George W. Bush.
Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton say they want a bipartisan foreign policy. And in Congress, top Democrats and Republicans on foreign-policy panels try to work together. “Even when we have a disagreement, we have a good discourse and we try to find common ground,” says Rep. Eliot Engel (D) of New York, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Public debate over the US role in the world is essential to solve today’s complex problems, from climate change to the Syrian war. But just as critical is the ability to form a consensus on US values and interests.
In his framing of the successful strategy that won the cold war against the Soviet Union, American diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1951: “Any message we may try to bring to others will be effective only if it is in accord with what we are to ourselves.”
Perhaps an occasional visit of a grateful foreign leader can help remind Americans who they are as a people. That can help them act as one in international affairs.