Imagine picking a fight with your spouse at a new acquaintance’s home, or even at your parents’ house, or the home of a friend. Manners prescribe that we do not do this, or “air our dirty laundry in public.” Personal disputes, like those we may have in our relationships, are generally held to have little place when we’re in public.
This same principle is implied in the statement, “Politics stops at the water’s edge,” first suggested by Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg about 1947. The idea was widely adopted under the Truman administration by the US. Vandenberg is recognized for abandoning his isolationist views of American foreign policy in favor of a more international view, and he worked in a bipartisan way to gather support for things like the creation of NATO. One of his principal statements was that American politicians should always present a united front to other countries, despite political disagreements on their own turf. To air these disagreements at events aimed at internationalism weakened America’s show of strength. Thus politicians visiting elsewhere took on the doctrine that politics stops at the water’s edge, since raising partisan disputes would not best represent the united front of a strong, whole America.
Vandenberg certainly wasn’t implying that politics stops at the water’s edge meant stopping partisanship within the US. Just as couples can fight it out in their own backyard, so can senators, presidential candidates and the like. But many have felt that events in the US, particularly in the 2000s, have led to increased violation of the rule that politics should stop at the water’s edge.
It seemed that America and both major political parties had momentarily abandoned this concept that politics stops at the water’s edge, and had done so in a flagrant display of dirty laundry airing. Although parties often issue a defense of statements made, it certainly can be argued that people outside the US are aware of the deep division and partisanship existing in American policies. Vandenberg’s vision, not surprisingly, didn’t foresee a day when people with Internet access and so many television channels could read all the newspapers produced by a country or watch most of its news.
Some people contend that any difference of opinion with the current presidential administration should not be discussed in foreign countries so as not to violate Vandenberg’s concept. Others believe that it’s virtually impossible to avoid saying something that won’t be construed as partisan or political, given the tendency of the two major political parties to disagree vehemently.