These days the talk of the town is Bob Gate's gripping memoir Duty about his time serving as Secretary of Defense under two presidents: George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Bob Gates was respected by America's friends, allies and it's enemies alike. To be on the safe side, we must start with a confession: the authors are fans of the former secretary. Unlike us, most Europeans had no idea whether Bob Gates was a Republican or a Democrat. And frankly it did not and does not matter. Most commentaries focus on what Mr. Gates had to tell about Obama and Biden and other U.S. leaders, including former Secretary of State Clinton. All juicy stuff, fun reading, but with little long-term, lasting significance.
In contrast, the most important parts of the book are the ones explaining the polarized nature of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and how and why this makes America weaker. This has a strong message for the future, beyond America. What Bob Gates is talking about is exactly what worries America's allies and friends right now. It should worry Americans too.
As Gates makes vividly clear, page after page, Washington's foreign policy process is broken and dysfunctional, big time. Contrary to the often extreme and divisive positions on Fox News or MSNBC (clearly part of the problem, except for Morning Joe: we kind of like that show!), according to Gates, the current paralysis is not the fault of one party or the other. America's foreign and security policy used to be bipartisan. Today, only the blame is bipartisan.
It used to be that "politics stopped at the waters edge" -- when it came to foreign policy. It used to be that Washington's foreign policy elite could famously simply gather in cigar-smoke filled clubrooms to sketch out a bipartisan foreign policy. It used to be that Tom Lantos, a leading democrat, and Bob Dole, a leading conservative, would travel the world together as best friends. They would explain to their counterparts how different their views were on most things, except for one: no one should count on their differences when it came to America's overall foreign policy objectives.
After World War II, leaders from both political families came together around a hugely ambitious plan to offer security and economic prosperity to war-ridden Western European countries, better known as NATO and the Marshall Plan. Throughout the Cold War, there was little doubt where Democrats and Republicans stood on the issue of the liberation of Eastern Europe. These were great moments of America's leadership of the free world. It was possible because of visionary leaders, and broad political support at home. And most importantly, it was possible because of a broad consensus among Democrats and Republicans.
Whether a bipartisan consensus of such mythical proportions ever existed in reality or not is beside the point. That was the world's perception and it made America stronger. Respected and emulated, at times loathed and even despised, but never considered hesitant on the fundamental values of freedom and democracy, because there used to be one America. It is different today.
Here is why all this is really important, and why we worry.
In a rapidly changing world where China will soon surpass the United States as the world's largest economy, with authoritarian regimes such as Russia on the rise and when the West seems to have lost its way, U.S. global leadership is once again called for. When America fails to lead, the world becomes messy, at times even dangerous. Washington therefore needs a broader, more strategic, more determined and clearly more courageous vision of its global role. It needs to send a strong message to the rest of the world. This will only be possible when true bipartisanship, a willingness to work together in the best American tradition, is back.
After a decade of fighting unwinnable wars in the Middle East and Central Asia, Americans have become war weary. But they must see that it is in their own best interest that America remains engaged globally. Make no mistake: American "declinism" is a myth -- surely one should not fall for the silly comparison between America and the Roman Empire. However, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is up to Americans, its leaders, its president and Congress to decide whether the 21st century will be another "American century" or whether it will be dominated by others; nations who do not share our deep beliefs in human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
We do understand the tectonic social (generational and ethnic) changes that have taken place in America, the enormous impact of technology, and the role of social media. All this should make America more courageous, not less -- more determined to lead, not less. But only if Democrats and Republicans will all come together in that weathered, battered, but still so important consensus. While Democrats and Republicans may disagree on the specifics, the broad objectives of foreign policy must be equally shared and equally tirelessly pursued no matter what.
America can still surprise the world. You can do it! Just take the lead from your Duty, á la Bob Gates.