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What Does "Politics Stops at the Water's Edge" Mean?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 October 2014
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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.

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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.

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aplenty
Post 3

I have never heard this term before reading this article, but it makes complete sense. Foreign policy is such a different game form domestic policy. It does require a unified front. Imagine how the cold war would have turned out if the politicians would have aired out their differences on both sides of the isle. We would have come across as weak, never been able to convince the Western world that democracy and capitalism were the right way, and we would have likely conceded to the Russians. We would have at least seen our country torn to shreds by fighting the proxy wars we did on our own. Presenting a unified America was the only way that the country became the super power that it did.

FootballKing
Post 2

I think that having a literal understanding of the phrase "politics stops at the water's edge" can be very useful as well. Imagine actually getting on a boat with a group of people and taking to the ocean where you have no way of getting off the boat unless you wish to drown.

If the political discussions on a boat become irate or even physical confrontations then there would be nothing but trouble to be had in this isolated moment.

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