Does Foreign Policy Stop at the Water’s Edge? Jerusalem Edition

The kerfuffle over the removal and then reintroduction  in the Democratic platform of a reference to Jerusalem as the rightful capital of Israelis seems like a perfect example of how foreign policy sometimes does stop at the water’s edge. Both party platforms endorse Jerusalem’s status as Israel’s capital. Large bipartisan majorities in both the House and the Senate have passed  legislation that would require the U.S. to endorse Jerusalem’s status as a matter of official foreign policy. The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 initiated and funded the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by 1999. The Act was passed by a vote of 93-5 in the Senate and 374-37 in the House. In 2002, Congress passed a law that would allow Jerusalem-born American citizens to list Israel as their country of birth.

Yet, the U.S. Embassy remains in Tel Aviv (as do all other international embassies) and Jerusalem-born American citizens are still not allowed to list Israel as their country of birth. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have claimed that these pieces of legislation infringe on their constitutional authority to conduct foreign policy and protect America’s security. So while President Obama allegedly pushed the Democrats to reintroduce the reference to Jerusalem in the party platform, he himself has refused to implement this as official U.S. policy.

I don’t want to make a case for whether this is legally or morally right or wrong or whether it makes for good foreign policy. All I want to point out is that both Republican and Democratic Presidents have found that in the practical conduct of foreign policy, their estimate of the national interest led them astray of what appears to be good domestic politics. Mitt Romney, despite his public insistence that Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel, would be subject to similar pressures if and when he occupies the oval office.

There is a plausible alternative explanation that rescues a role for domestic politics, albeit a more indirect one. The President has a clearer sense of the kind of conflicts the U.S. would get involved in if it were to rock the boat on the Jerusalem issue.  While domestic political forces point towards recognition, they may point even more strongly towards a desire to stay out of unnecessary conflicts. This argument relies on the notion that there is a strong realist tradition in American public opinion. In addition, lawmakers may feel less constrained to posture on Jerusalem if they do not expect U.S. foreign policy to change, whether it be for domestic or international politics reasons. As Elise Labott puts it: On Jerusalem, political parties are “prone to pander.”

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.