Overcoming Political Disunity to Address Emerging National Security Challenges

Senator Richard G. Lugar
CNA Nitze Award and 70th Anniversary Event
November 17, 2012


I am deeply honored to receive the Paul H. Nitze Award and to have this opportunity to join in celebrating CNA’s 70th Anniversary. Throughout this long history, CNA has commanded the trust and respect of policy makers. In an era of limited budgets, our national security depends increasingly on the sophisticated assessments of problems and the technological and strategic innovations that are at the heart of your work. I am confident that CNA will continue to grow in its capacity to provide invaluable service to our country.

A focus of my tenure as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has been to reinvigorate attention to energy within America’s national security apparatus. I have benefited greatly from the work on energy and climate change undertaken by CNA’s Military Advisory Board, which has made a major contribution to our understanding of how complex energy markets and dynamic environmental systems may impact U.S. military posture. Let me pay special tribute to Sherri Goodman for her dedication to that effort.

We gather tonight less than two weeks after an election that settled few questions related to U.S. national security. I am often struck by the frequency with which commentators and pundits will assert around election time that we are entering the most dangerous period in American history, or our way of life is at the precipice of decline, or we are suffering through the worst American government in memory. Most of these pronouncements are politically driven and have little connection to reality. Applying some historical perspective, we should realize that every era is dangerous. Every era involves mistakes and failures of leadership. And every era comes with unique national security challenges.

That being said, as someone who has served in the U.S. Senate for 36 years, I have witnessed a great deal of change in American society and our relationship to the world. Our position has evolved. Both absolute and relative measures of our security and prosperity change over time. I am frequently asked what is different now from the past? What represents a fundamental change in the world order that will affect our security and standard of living?

One can classify concerns about our future security in innumerable ways. But I would highlight four that represent genuine shifts in global realities to which we must respond effectively. The first is the rise of China and India as economic, political, and military powers. The Obama Administration has conspicuously announced a “pivot” to Asia that recognizes Asia’s vastly expanding impact on global affairs. I am more optimistic than some that the United States and China, which have become extraordinarily co-dependent, can continue to improve our relationship over the long run. But this will be a complex process that carries exceptional risks.

The second concern is the specter of global resource constraints, especially deficiencies of energy and food that could stimulate conflict and deepen poverty. We have made startling gains in domestic energy production, but we remain vulnerable to our dependency on oil. Perhaps more important, even if we are able to sustain higher levels of domestic energy production, we cannot insulate ourselves from energy-driven shocks to the global economy. In other words, we have to cooperate with other nations in improving the global system of manufacturing and moving energy supplies. This is as much a diplomatic problem as it is a technological one.

Many observers would agree with the need for dramatic action on global energy security, but the potential global crisis over food production is less well understood. Whereas research is opening many new frontiers in the energy sphere, the productivity of global agriculture will not keep up with projected food demand unless many countries change their policies. This starts with a much wider embrace of agriculture technology, including genetically modified techniques. The risks of climate change intensify this imperative.

The third concern is managing the effects of the explosion of information technology. Access to the internet and social media has deeply altered international politics, in most cases for the better. But it also has contributed to instability through sudden upheavals like the Arab Spring; it has allowed destructive movements like al Qaida to franchise themselves; and it has intensified risks of cyber-attacks, espionage, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We have not yet come to grips with asymmetrical warfare and terrorism that depends on taking full advantage of widely-available information technologies.

A fourth concern is how we maintain the competitiveness of the United States in the global economy. For decades we took this for granted. We must see education, energy efficiency, access to global markets, the attraction of immigrant entrepreneurs, and other factors as national security issues. I appreciate very much CNA’s leadership on some of these concepts. My own view is that the fundamentals of American society still offer the best hand to play in the global competitiveness game. No other country has the same quality and variety of post-secondary education. We have the broadest scientific and technological base, the most advanced agricultural system, and the most influential culture in the contemporary world. Our population is younger and more mobile than in most other industrialized nations. We still can flourish in this global marketplace if we nurture the competitive genius of the American people that has allowed us time and again to reinvent our economy.

But even as we take up these and other challenges, we are finding that the unity in American society necessary to move forward is increasingly difficult to achieve. In institutions like CNA, one probably can find strong agreement on steps that we should take to address national security challenges like the ones I have cited. But it has become increasingly difficult for our political system to translate thoughtful analysis into policies.

As I said earlier, I tend to resist hyperbolic assessments of the condition of American society. But when I reflect on what is different now from when I entered politics, it is clear that partisan divisions are much sharper than they were in past decades. Moreover, these divisions routinely affect U.S. foreign policy in ways that they rarely did in years past. It was never strictly the case that “politics stopped at the water’s edge.” During the Cold War and the Vietnam War, for example, it was common for some candidates to be attacked as being soft on Communism and others to be attacked as being war mongers. But there almost always was an undercurrent of bipartisanship and communication between party leaders on national security issues that enabled action when it was needed.

That is not the case today. In recent years, the U.S. Congress has been unable to act decisively on foreign policy, or in many cases, to even debate international issues. Faced with reflexive partisan roadblocks and the growing number of unresolvable hot button issues that get attached to foreign policy bills, Congress has retreated from legislation dealing with foreign policy.

Consider that since the beginning of 2007 -- roughly the last six years -- only two foreign policy initiatives have come to the Senate floor in an amendable format. These were the New START Treaty in December 2010 and the reauthorization of America’s global efforts to combat AIDS and other communicable diseases in 2008. We have had some votes on foreign policy nominations; a few smaller measures have passed without a floor vote; and some stray foreign policy questions have reared their heads on omnibus appropriations bills. But only in these two occasions, could the Senate be characterized as publicly working through a foreign policy issue on the Senate floor. It is extraordinary to think that foreign policy gets only one turn every three years on the Senate Floor.

In fact, a comprehensive Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill – the flagship legislation that should be passed annually as the partner to the Defense Authorization bill – has not been passed and signed into law since 1985. As Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, in 2003 and again in 2005, I worked to secure unanimous passage of the Foreign Affairs Authorization Bill in Committee, only to have the bill pulled from the Senate floor on both occasions due to controversies.

Even in crises, Congress has been unable to muster a consensus for legislative action. In 2002, Congress authorized prospectively the military intervention in Iraq that occurred the following year. But Congress was unable to coalesce behind a unified perspective as the war evolved. In 2011, as President Obama committed the United States to hostilities in Libya without a Congressional vote, Congress was unable to effectively defend its prerogatives or even decide on the terms of a meaningful debate.

Unfortunately, many members of Congress have reacted to this situation by emphasizing areas of disagreement rather than legislative achievement. Congress’s foreign policy role increasingly has centered on reactive opposition to the Executive Branch.

We have seen this as treaty ratification during the Obama Administration has come to a virtual standstill. Many of you are aware of the travails facing higher profile treaties such as the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. But in this Congress, even bilateral tax treaties with friendly countries such as Hungary, Luxembourg, and Switzerland have been held up. In past years, tax treaties -- which almost always have demonstrable benefits for U.S. jobs and businesses -- have been passed without any controversy.

Increasingly, Congressional foreign policy involvement is starting and stopping with debate on immediate foreign policy controversies that are reflected in the 24-hour news cycle. Ironically, even as Congress is becoming more willing to politicize foreign policy, interest in international affairs among members continues to be spotty. Congress is largely failing to pursue systematic reviews of broader strategic questions in foreign policy. The less meaningful debate we have on genuine foreign policy issues, the easier it is for members of Congress and our whole political class to dismiss foreign policy as a secondary issue that can be gamed for partisan advantage.

Understandably, few members have extensive experience with foreign policy issues. Even fewer would list foreign policy concerns among their primary motivations for running for office. Many will see little connection between foreign policy and their own electoral success. But foreign policy debates in Congress too often are mired in simplistic and impressionistic narratives that have little bearing on the problems that are most likely to confront us.

Some will take the attitude that national security policy is the prerogative of the President, and given Congress’ intensifying partisanship it makes sense for the Executive Branch to go its own way, reaching out to Congress only when it is absolutely necessary. But this would be an extremely dangerous course for our country that would reduce prospects for dealing with the challenges that I have cited.

Unfortunately, neither the George W. Bush White House, nor the Obama White House showed much interest in a foreign policy partnership with Congress. This contrasts with the Reagan, first Bush, and Clinton Administrations, all of which placed a much higher value on Congressional participation in foreign policy.

Although both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton have continued to be personally responsive to their former colleagues, the Obama Administration as a whole has frequently resisted Congressional involvement in major foreign policy decisions and issues. On several key questions, in fact, the Administration has aggressively challenged Congress’s foreign policy powers. Most notably, the President refused to meaningfully engage Congress on U.S. intervention in Libya in the Spring of 2011. He declined to seek Congressional authorization for military action, even though under almost any interpretation of laws and precedents, he should have done so. Less well known is the Obama Administration’s revision of practices related to Congress’s approval of U.S. arms sales that have been in place since the early Reagan Administration. If these revisions stand, they are likely to cause intense controversy in the coming years that will unnecessarily divide the Legislative and Executive branches on a key tool of U.S. global influence.

In my view, President Obama and Congress must attempt to reestablish a closer working relationship on national security. This is not just a matter of process. It is necessary not only to achieve important national goals, but also to undergird national unity in the event of severe crises, such as war with Iran or another catastrophic terrorist attack.

This cooperation depends both on Congressional leaders who are willing to set aside partisan advantage and on Administration officials who understand that the benefits of having the support of members of Congress is worth the effort and political capital it takes to secure that support.

It is not necessary for leaders with divergent philosophies to always be nice to one another. But it is essential that in times of crisis, they are able to interact without suspicion. Currently, that is not happening. To state it another way, what legislators of the opposite party will be capable of being a true partner to the President after the next 9-11? And will the President be capable of calling leaders of the opposite party to the Oval office to make them full partners in a foreign policy strategy?

Regrettably, things may get worse before they get better. Current controversies threaten to deepen foreign policy divisions within our government. I understand the views of those concerned with the Benghazi attack and presentations made by the Administration in its aftermath. They are right to ask questions and probe more deeply into this. I also understand the point of view of the President and his consideration of Ambassador Rice for a higher ranking post. Unfortunately, both sides seem willing – even eager -- to precipitate a public fight at the very time when the end of the election could offer a respite necessary to put U.S. foreign policy on a more cooperative footing. All parties should recognize the gravity of the coming year when decisions on Iran, Syria, and other hotspots are likely.

I would hope that the President in the coming weeks would call national security leaders in Congress to the White House for meaningful talks on the direction of U.S. foreign policy. These meetings should not be mere photo-ops or once-around-the-table affairs. Instead, they should be private, informal, and unhurried to allow for a real exchange of views. They also should be regularized to improve communications and build trust. This is not something that the President can delegate. He should commit himself to the hours necessary for this process to succeed.

Over the course of the next four years, I believe such outreach would yield significant dividends for both parties and could establish a more unified long term national security strategy. The American public would benefit from seeing the President and Congressional Republicans work together on foreign policy. And understandings developed in this area might even elevate debate and soften partisan wrangling over domestic issues.

I remain optimistic about our future and believe that both international divisions and external threats can be overcome. The United States will continue to be at the forefront of global endeavors seeking peace, freedom, and rising standards of living. I applaud each of you for your contributions to our country and thank you again for this generous honor.