AMBASSADOR VICTOR ASHE
The divisiveness of American politics has always been around at some level since World War II, but it seems to have reached new heights in 2022. Among negative consequences, some candidates whose qualifications seem hard to discern were elected.
However, we live in a democracy, and voters are entitled to their views even if they may be mistaken. Robust debate is vital, but in many cases candidates from both American political parties have refused to appear together to debate. This is especially unfortunate in my view as voters should be able to see and hear opposing candidates debate each other. The presidential candidates in both Brazil and France appeared together in 2022. Yet it is not clear that 2024 will see our two major party nominees sharing the same stage to debate.
Even on a local level where I live in Knoxville, Tennessee, several Republican candidates from local to federal levels simply declined to debate their Democratic opponents or respond to questions.
Several of those GOP nominees were articulate and could have held their own but opted not to showcase themselves. Such an attitude is wrong in my view and totally driven by narrow partisan political considerations. It deprives voters of a first-hand view of the opposing candidates.
Foreign policy many years ago was considered bipartisan, and candidates of both parties even refrained from criticizing the U.S. President when they were overseas. Or if they differed, they did so in a respectful way.
There are countless foreign policy issues these days that have become part of the domestic landscape. Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel, a possible Palestine state, foreign aid in general and nuclear arms, to name a few. I am not suggesting that discussion and debate of these issues should be off limits, but I am suggesting it should be done in a way to build consensus among Americans.
In the Cold War, Democrats and Republicans alike were together in opposing the “evil empire” as President Ronald Reagan described it prior to the ultimate final collapse of the Berlin Wall.
Democrats and Republican leaders visited Poland as well as other nations behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s when it was under Communist domination, pledging support for those nations’ ultimate freedom.
Poland’s Lech Walesa spoke to a joint session of Congress. The Polish Pope, John Paul II, gave hope to Eastern Europe and Poland in particular (the largest nation in Eastern Europe). The Roman Catholic Church was energized by its new and younger pontiff. He took the world stage in a way no prior pope had been able to do and commanded attention and respect.
Margaret Thatcher was a different kind of British leader, and not just as the first woman to hold that position. She was serious about her goals. Her relationship with President Reagan enhanced her status on the world stage. She quickly moved to recapture the Falkland Islands after the Argentine invasion.
I write this article in November 2022, so some assumptions are based on the current situation rather than as it has likely evolved as you are reading this in 2023. The Republicans won control of the House, and the Democrats won the Senate. President Joseph Biden’s agenda may be stalemated to the degree that it requires congressional approval without buy-in from both parties. The control of the House is narrow, and Speaker Kevin McCarthy will be tested daily to produce a majority against a unified Democratic party.
There will be pressure on Biden to announce his plans for 2024. Some Democrats will insist on his retirement since they do not see him able to win except against Donald Trump. The GOP presidential contest has already started.
American support for Ukraine could be much more sharply questioned as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly backs aid to Ukraine, having personally visited Ukraine in 2022. Speaker McCarthy has been less than definite in his support. His caucus is more divided. President Biden will continue his support, while key staff members will see if there is any possibility of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in order to bring this war to a conclusion.
If not for Russia’s nuclear arms, I feel this war would have been concluded several months ago with a victory for Ukraine. The world has been shocked at the condition of a dreadfully prepared Russian army, its poor morale and basic training. Corruption is rampant. The Russian people, particularly younger citizens, are opposed to this war, and Putin has isolated himself. He has committed and condoned obvious war crimes.
The current war reminds me of a colonial war of centuries back to conquer adjacent lands and incorporate them into Russia. This war is especially cruel, needless and the worst in Europe since World War II. The excuses used by Putin for this invasion are false and diabolical.
Ukraine will be under pressure to negotiate in order to end this warfare in Europe, which has triggered major issues within NATO countries. How long can Western allies stay united?
Americans should be united on this issue, as we were in the Cold War. But sadly, some on the far right in the GOP and on the far left among Democrats feel we should cut back on our support. Should that happen and should Ukraine falter due to lack of American backing, it will be only a matter of time before a NATO nation such as one of the three Baltic nations is invaded by Russia. The cost then will make the Ukrainian costs pale in comparison. Our treaty obligations require us to respond as NATO did when the United States was attacked from Afghanistan on September 11, 2011.
Foreign policy seldom decides a domestic U.S. election. However, it is still significant, and we must try to educate our fellow citizens so that there is understanding of the costs and issues. Taiwan could also become an issue if China decides to invade. The United States is probably not able (or willing) to fight a battle in eastern Europe and the Pacific at the same time.
The so-called “Red Wave” in the November 2022 elections, which Republicans so eagerly anticipated, did not materialize, leaving the Congress more evenly divided, and this gives a few individual members huge bargaining power to shape decisions. Witness West Virginia’s Senator Joseph Manchin!
However, this is also an opportunity to build consensus if able, fair-minded moderates of both parties are willing to make it happen for Ukraine. The late Senator Howard Baker often said that one’s opponent did not have to be one’s enemy, and seldom has this philosophy been more needed than in 2023 in the new, divided Congress.
I am personally convinced that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans want to do what is best for the United States. They may differ on the solution, but most are willing to compromise to get there. This good will be greatly needed for Ukraine if the far left and far right push for disengagement—with a victory for Putin. We cannot as a nation let that happen.
If President Biden decides not to run again, then he is freer to act without his actions being translated into political strategy for the 2024 election.
It will be in the Republicans’ interest to show an ability to govern if they wish to make a credible case to the American people in 2024 for their presidential nominee.
We cannot let this opportunity escape us.
AMBASSADOR VICTOR ASHE was nominated by President Bush to be Ambassador to the Republic of Poland on April 8, 2004, and confirmed by the U.S. Senate on May 21, 2004. Amb. Ashe's history of public service includes serving 31 years in Tennessee state and city elective offices. In December 2003, Amb. Ashe completed an unprecedented 16 years as Mayor of Knoxville, the longest mayoral tenure in the city's 215-year history.