Courtesy of Macmillan Center

On Thursday, journalists and international relations scholars discussed the history of bipartisanship, and why it is less possible today, at an International Security Studies program virtual forum.

The forum was titled “Lessons for American Diplomacy and Our Political Future,” and featured three main speakers: New York Times Chief White House Correspondent Peter Baker, New Yorker reporter Susan Glasser and Wilson Center Global Fellow Diana Negroponte. All three speakers have written biographies of James A. Baker III, who has served as Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Commerce and White House Chief of Staff during his career. The speakers’ biographies focus specifically on Baker’s role as Secretary of State in the final years of the Cold War. Christopher Whipple ’75, multimedia journalist and author, moderated the session. 

“As we consider today’s fractured world order and political polarization at home, it is noteworthy that Secretary Baker was able to forge bipartisan consensus on core American foreign policy objectives at the end of the Cold War,” Ted Wittenstein, the executive director of ISS, wrote to the News. “It was wonderful that Peter Baker, Susan Glasser, and Diana Negroponte explored these themes during their engaging talk, and in their excellent new books.”

The forum focused on the lessons that can be learned from Baker’s diplomacy and talked about ways in which Baker’s focus on bipartisan consensus can be applied to the current climate of political polarization and a “fractured” world order.

The discussion began by considering Baker’s unique skills as a diplomat and United States Secretary of State. Negroponte said that Baker relied on other politicians and diplomats to develop the United States’ strategic response to various political events. However, Negroponte also said that Baker brought the ability to focus on the task at hand and use his mind “of a brilliant lawyer” to understand where his opponent was coming from in order to articulate a better response. 

“Jim Baker was and remains a living legend, especially at the US Department of State,” Wittenstein said during the panel. “Secretary Baker was a legendary Chief of Staff.” 

All three panelists stressed the importance of Baker’s role within U.S. foreign policy during the dissolution of the Soviet Union. According to Negroponte, Baker is partly the reason why the dissolution was relatively peaceful. 

Glasser explained that part of Baker’s success could be attributed to his ability to maintain a united front in the United States during talks with the Soviet Union. Even those who did not agree with Baker’s strategies were not allowed to criticize him in order to maintain U.S. credibility on the world stage, he said.  

“Throughout the Reagan years, [Baker’s personality was that of] a competitor,” Glasser added. 

According to Negroponte, after the dissolution of the USSR, many American diplomats wanted to manage the geopolitical situation and look after America’s interests through the existing embassy in Moscow. However, she added that Baker was firmly convinced that the United States had to win the favor of the newly independent Eastern European countries and maintain embassies in every new state. Despite severe pushback from top government aides, Negroponte said, Baker eventually achieved the construction of seven new U.S. embassies.

The three panelists also described the relationship between Baker and President George H. W. Bush ’48. They said that Baker and Bush were friends for several years before Bush’s presidency, and that Baker never would have entered politics without Bush.

The panelists also discussed the importance of bipartisanship. Negroponte explained that Baker made every effort to maintain bipartisanship in U.S. foreign policy. Although he was a Republican, Baker would visit politicians from other parties and connect with his colleagues from across the aisle, Negroponte said. 

Peter Baker, in response to Negroponte, clarified that, even though Baker was highly skilled at fostering bipartisanship, he was also working at a time when bipartisanship was possible — and that bipartisanship is less possible today. 

ISS became a part of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs in Oct. 2021.

Selin Nalbantoglu covers the School of the Environment as a beat reporter for the SciTech desk. Previously, she covered breakthrough research as an associate beat reporter.