Why should politics stop at the water’s edge?

Mitt Romney on his current trip has made a big deal of saying that he will not criticize Barack Obama while overseas, thus reinforcing the sentiment that ‘politics should stop at the water’s edge’.

I don’t understand why US politicians should not criticize each other when abroad. Why would it be fine for Mitt Romney to criticize Barack Obama in New York in the morning but wrong to say the same thing that same afternoon just because he happens to be in London? Why must Romney wait until his return to the US to criticize any action that Obama might take in the next few days?

The sentiment that politics should stop at the water’s edge is ascribed to Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg during the administration of Harry Truman, and was suggested by him in 1947 as a means of the US presenting a united front in dealing with other countries or with international issues.

I can understand the utility of such a policy in a time when international communication was not as quick and comprehensive as it is now and there was the fear that one may be telling a foreign audiences things than were different from what you were telling domestic ones, or that the time lag created by slow information flow could cause mixed signals to be sent due to one political leader not being aware of what a fellow leader had said elsewhere.

That clearly is not the case now. The world in now a single global political stage in which political leaders travel to many countries in short times and their public words and actions are instantly transmitted everywhere. The line between domestic and international politics has also become increasingly hard to draw.

As a result, it seems a bit absurd to box political leaders in with such an antiquated rule.


  1. Emu Sam says

    What percent of the time does Obama spend abroad compared to Romney? He could see it as a way to hobble the opposition.

    Probably tied up with American Exceptionalism, though.

  2. Jeffrey G Johnson says

    Here’s the way I understand this: we are allowed to criticize ourselves in ways that others can not. I can call myself ugly or fat, but I don’t want to hear it from someone else. Families will share one another’s pains, weaknesses, and conflicts more openly than they will with non-family because there is a deeper trust. One has little or no fear of being rejected by a parent or a sibling. Just as the British were freely criticizing their own Olympic preparations, as soon as outsider Mitt Romney opened his mouth they closed ranks in defense of Britian (and rightly so).

    Foreigners don’t share all the traditions and the more complex understanding of American politics. They could easily form the wrong impression or miss nuances that are essential to correctly interpreting the meaning and intent of a debate. Just as family members will stick up for one another in public, then turn around and give each other an ear full when they get home, so goes it with members of the American family (or any other country for that matter) no matter how much we hate one another’s politic).

  3. says

    It’s one of the few ways the US acts like the rest of the world is worthy of some small consideration. Conducting your domestic squabbles in someone else’s house is rude, and awkward for everyone involved. And a politician who spends time continuing his “local” politics as another country’s guest will soon find the invitations drying up.

  4. says

    I actually kind of respect Romney for that. I see it as a way to show American solidarity abroad. Yes, it may be a quaint and antiquated notion, but sometimes those have value too.

    Criticizing London’s Olympic preparations was pretty boneheaded, though.

  5. bubba707 says

    The way I see it political leaders should be boxed up in welded steel conatiners and dumped at sea.

  6. anthrosciguy says

    Romney’s doing it. This is a principle which only comes into play when liberals or Democrats say something about a Republican while overseas. Here’s Romney being a hypocrite:

    “President Bush urged (deposed Egyptian President) Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner.”

    That’s in Israel, in an interview to a paper owned by Sheldon Adelson, the big money Romney supporter who runs casinos (and prostitution in them in Macau, according to a former business associate).

  7. Karl says

    It’s a great stance to have if the subtext is to deflect any rest-of-the-world criticism. Those overseas should keep their mouths shut -- how would they know what it’s like to live in the US?

    Of course the very suggestion that the US should follow suit and not criticise other countries would be simply preposterous…

  8. Francisco Bacopa says

    Fortunately, the British press is doing a great job of pointing out how Romney is both dissing Obama and the British people while he is over there. The administration will not need to go negative about this as the British press has already done the work. I expect this to come up in the campaign in a few weeks.

    Any word on debates yet? Debates will put Obama back in top form. Count Percy Romney be goin’ down hard. Anyone remember Obama’s “I will kill people in Pakistan without permission” moment against McCain? Obama came through. I really hate the politics of fear, but at least Obama has his head on a pike. You can’t out hawk Obama. He delivered where W failed and McCain hemmed and hawed about international obligations.

    And you have to remember that Clinton would have killed Osama back in 1999 if someone in Pakistan had not tipped him off. Clinton should never have sought approval for the overflight, and Obama didn’t.

    Pass the word around. Republicans are weak on defense. Did W deliver our enemy unto us? No, and he said he didn’t care about that anymore. Obama got that sucker. Go listen to “Headhunter” by Front 242 five times and tell me that’s not awesome.

  9. Lukas says

    I think it’s just a difference in whom you’re addressing. Obviously, Europeans know perfectly well what Romney is saying about Obama, but while he’s over here, addressing us, complaining about Obama seems disrespectful both to us (his direct audience) and to Americans alike.

  10. lorn says

    I suspect that it is a patrician nod to social convention that ‘one does not air the families dirty laundry in public’. This implies that the public, rest of the world, is a somewhat lower order, and they don’t already have a very fine view of pretty much all of our dirty laundry already.

    Americans are notorious for focusing on what we think about other peoples and nations while showing nothing but disdain for any thought that we might want to know what others think of us. The cowboy hero doesn’t worry about what other people think or do. He does it his way.

    It tends to be something of a shock when the reality of relative US mediocrity and ever declining standard of living compared with other developed nations raises its ugly head. I have friends online who assume the news of French youths burning cars and labor riots represents a daily reality for Europeans. Referring to a news story about the Danish welfare state with 60% tax rate and a huge laundry list of benefits they focus on the “extortionate” tax rate and ignore the benefits and general happiness of the citizens with the scheme. They picture Europe as a living hell while the US is a paradise.

  11. says

    If politics stops at the border, why did Romney bother visiting anyplace outside the US? Oh, wait -- because politics doesn’t stop at the border?

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