4

I read the following phrase in the topic of foreign policies of a country,

"It stops at water's edge."

What does "politics stops at water’s edge" mean?

7
  • 5
    It means that political disputes are internal matters, and they should not be reflected in dealings with other nations. "Water's edge" is a metonymy for "national border". (The phrase is famously applied to bipartisan action in the US during the cold war, where politicians who naturally would be rivals acted together to forge and promote the policies of that era.) Commented Dec 23, 2019 at 23:11
  • 1
    Please make that an answer. Commented Dec 24, 2019 at 3:40
  • @Kris - I see why Mike does not want to spend time researching, but I heard this term multiple times. It applies only to politics of USA. Finding support materials would be lots of effort, because this common knowledge was always assumed. Commented Dec 26, 2019 at 19:54
  • @MikeGraham If you can cite a reliable source in support, that can make for an answer I suppose.
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 27, 2019 at 9:22
  • @MikeGraham I would call it a metaphor, not really a metonym.
    – Barmar
    Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 22:06

3 Answers 3

2

Wikipedia mentions "politics stops at the water's edge" as "forging bipartisan support for [Truman's] foreign policy" (by a Republican senator supporting a Democratic president).

Vandenberrg official biography also mentions "we must stop “partisan politics at the water's edge," he cooperated with the Truman administration in forging bipartisan support for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and NATO"

Google will provide many more examples of the phrase, some with explanation, many without (because understanding of the context is assumed).

0

It means that political divisions that exist between citizens inside the nation are (or should be) suspended when we go abroad.

For example, nine days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Natalie Maines, lead vocalist of the Texas-based band Dixie Chicks, told the audience of a a London concert, “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States [George W. Bush] is from Texas.” Had this happened in the US, it would have been ignored, but as Maines chose a foreign country to make the statement — breaking the “politics stops at water’s edge” rule — reaction from Americans was vociferous and negative. The Dixie Chicks were widely denounced in the press, many people boycotted their recordings, radio stations refused to play their songs, and the band did not tour again for seven years.

0

Peter M. notes in his answer that Senator Arthur Vandenberg (a Republican senator from Michigan) used the expression in the context of used the expression in 1947 or thereabouts in the context of adopting a unified front in foreign policy with the Democratic Party (then led by President Harry Truman) "in support of the Truman Doctrine the Marshall Plan, and NATO."

This is not, however, the origin of the expression. A Hathitrust search finds instances of the exact phrase "politics stops at the water's edge from as early as 1916 and of a closely related form of the phrase from 1814.

The original source of the expression appears to have been Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. From "Speech of the Hon. Daniel Webster : delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States, on the 14th January, 1814, on a bill making further provision for filling the ranks of the regular army, encouraging enlistments, and authorising the enlistments for longer periods of men whose terms of service are about to expire" (1814):

A naval force, competent to defend your coast against against considerable armaments, to convoy your trade, and perhaps raise the blockade of your rivers is no chimera. It may be realized. If, then, the war [of 1812] must continue, go to the ocean. If you are seriously contending for maritime rioghts, go to the theatre where alone those rights can be defended. Thither every indication of your fortunes points you. There the united wishes and exertions of the nation will go with you. Even our party divisions, acrimonious as they are, cease at the water's edge. They are lost in attachment to national character, on that element, where that character is made respectable. In protecting naval interests by naval means, you will arm yourselves with the whole power of national sentiment, and may command the whole abundance of the national resources.

In this instance, "at the water's edge" is not merely a metaphor for a nation's borders; it is a specific reference to the Atlantic coast of the United States, beyond which the fearsome British navy patrolled, threatening U.S. ports and shipping.

For the next 85 years, Webster's speech (including the "water's edge" line) appeared in multiple texts on oratory, American history, and Daniel Webster himself.

From 'Speech of Hon. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, in the United States Senate, March 7, 1900" (1900):

The questions involved in the future management of these islands [the Philippines] and in our policy in the far East are of a nature to demand the highest and the most sagacious statesmanship. I have always thought with Webster that party politics should cease "at the water's edge." He spoke only in reference to our relations with foreign nations, but I think we might well apply his patriotic principle to our dealings with our own insular possessions, both in the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Philippines should be an American question, not the sport of parties or the subject of party creeds. The responsibility for them rests upon the American people, not upon the Democratic or Republican party. If we fail in dealing with them we shall all alike suffer from the failure, and if we succeed the honor and the profit will redound in the end to the glory and benefit of all.

Walter Lippmann, The Stakes of Diplomacy (1915) uses variations of the expression in four different places:

When Mr. [Woodrow] Wilson [the Democratic President] decided to seize Vera Cruz, he had to go to Congress for permission. I am told on good authority that a large number of the Congressmen were against the expedition. But they "supported" the President; "politics ceased at the water's edge"; the people's representatives voted Mr. Wilson the power he asked.

...

His [the traditional diplomat's] idea is to wield the power of his nation as a rapier. He does not wish foreign affairs made the subject of party politics. He prefers secrecy; he desires above all other things to face foreign diplomats with the assurance that a united people is behind him. We in America have accepted this diplomatic ideal. For us "politics ceases at the water's edge"; we announce in "one" voice that we shall act as "one" man; and in a crisis we resent with peculiar intolerance the opposition of anybody to the government's policy. It is call3ed "rocking the boat," and the epithet "treason"trembles at the tip of the editorial pen. We feel that division at home is is weakness abroad.

...

In other words, it is not only politics which ceases at the water's edge, but democracy too. The moment we are dealing with a foreign people, a totally new conception of government appears. We ask to be led by a man to whom we give supreme power. We form behind him and obey. We try to forget all our differences; we drop contentious issues, declare a truce, and make every effort to be unanimous. We believe that unanimity should be purchased at almost any price—if necessary at the price of our deepest convictions.

...

The false unity of nationalism will be superseded by complex facts about which men will differ and argue. ... Agreements and disagreements will cross frontiers. Men will discover that they are more in sympathy with a group in some foreign country than with some of their own fellow-citizens. Politics will no longer cease at the water's edge, and nations will no longer be able to face each other as irritable monarchs. The people will be less easily led by the nose; diplomacy will become more and more the bargaining of groups, and cease to be the touchy competition of "national wills."

It is therefore not surprising that when Lippmann used the exact modern wording of the expression a year later, in "Washington Notes," in The New Republic (March 18, 1916), he characterized it as an axiom:

It is still asserted that the House [of Representatives] is against a forceful policy about armed ships. It is also asserted that the House will support the President no matter what his policy is. There is not in the American Congress any such thing as legislative control of diplomacy. The axiom that politics stops at the water's edge would in a crisis obliterate the real conviction of the House or Senate.

The U.S. declared war on Germany slightly more than a year later, on April 6, 1917, with votes in favor of the declaration in both the House and the Senate.

From in "Praising and Appraising the Next Speaker," in The Literary Digest (March 22, 1919):

Forecasting Mr. [Frederick] Gillett's attitude on public questions, The Sun holds that as "a good Yankee" he believes in economy; and as "no member of Congress has made a closer study of appropriations," he is sure to be an able opponent of reckless extravagance. Further, we learn:

In matters of foreign policy Mr. Gillett [Republican Congressman from Massachusetts], like Senator Lodge [Republican of Massachusetts], believes that politics stops at the water's edge. He was heart and soul for the Wilson Administration, mistakes or no mistakes, during the heat of the world-war. But now that the war is over he feels that common-sense judgment should assert itself and that free and open discussion should prevail.

From John Mathews, "Political Parties and the War," in The American Political Science Review (May 1919):

Upon a question of foreign war, however, there is usually a much greater approach to popular unity and unanimity of public opinion than upon questions of domestic policy. Many persons subscribe to the view that party politics should stop at the water's edge and that, in case of war, it is the duty of every good citizen to support his country, whether right or wrong. It is true that, both in the War of 1812 and in the Mexican War, there was considerable dissatisfaction in certain sections of the country with the war policy of the government, although there was less apparent difference of opinion over these wars than over equally important questions of domestic policy. It may also be noted that the opposltion of the Federalist party to the War of 1812 contributed largely to the demise of that party.

And from "Testing the League of Nations," in Commerce and Finance (August 18, 1920):

The spectre of another European war looms with such menace that the country instinctively returns to the traditional principle that politics stops at the water's edge, and universal approval follows the administration's indignant refusal to have anything to do with that monster of murder and anarchy known as the Bolshevist government. Indeed, there is sharp impatience with the attitude of the present English government, which seems to be drifting into an alarming divergence from the policy of France.


Conclusion

The sense of the expression "politics stops at the water's edge" hasn't changed much in the two centuries since Daniel Webster gave voice to a similar wording in 1814: even people who are acrimonious political enemies on domestic issues must form a united front on matters of foreign policy to avoid weakening the nation against enemies abroad.

The exact form of the expression that the poster asks about has been around since at least 1916. Its earliest occurrence in writing that I was able to confirm was in a news item by Walter Lippmann, who appears to have helped popularize the phrase in the twentieth century as memories of Daniel Webster and his era began to fade. Although Lippmann seems to have taken, at best, an ambivalent view of the saying, subsequent figures have used it with all the enthusiasm of its early advocates.

2
  • Perhaps it further needs clarifying that politics here refers not to the art or science of government but merely to contemptible jockeying for partisan power and advantage--senses 3.a &/or 3.c in the Merriam-Webster entry. Commented Jan 21 at 16:42
  • @BrianDonovan: Your point is well taken. In that regard, it may be instructive to note that Daniel Webster's original formulation referred not to "politics" but to "our party divisions, acrimonious as the are." At the time (1814), the two main (and acrimonious) U.S. parties were the ascendant Democratic-Republicans and the declining Federalists.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 21 at 19:56

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.