The Future of Foreign Policy

By Hehir, J. Bryan | Commonweal, December 2, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Future of Foreign Policy


Hehir, J. Bryan, Commonweal


The elections of 1994 had one overwhelming result and multiple explanations about the roots of the Republican victory. Sorting through the commentators, it was possible to draw one clear conclusion: the election was not about foreign policy. The topic hardly surfaced during the campaign, and no analyst attributed the decisive Democratic defeat to foreign-policy issues. This does not mean the country is satisfied with the Clinton policy; more likely, it is yet another sign that post-cold war Americans define their most threatening problems in domestic terms (even if some of them are rooted in international issues like trade or immigration policy).

Nevertheless, if foreign policy did not influence the election it will inevitably be affected by the results of the Republican victory. Secretary of State Warren Christopher immediately sought to reassure allies and others that continuity in foreign policy would survive decisive change in domestic politics. But a Washington Post editorial, commenting on Christopher's speech, provided the appropriate balance: "There is a continuity to national interest, but foreign policy is set partly on the thermostat of domestic politics. The country has moved to the right, and as a result its international outlook moves to the right, too, in some degree yet to be told."

Testing the meaning of this move to the right requires a comment on the role of Congress in the foreign policy process, the composition of Republican leadership on foreign policy, and the likely response of the Clinton administration to a Republican Congress. In the 1990s the Congress has maintained a low profile on foreign policy. It is standard fare to acknowledge the primacy of the presidency on foreign policy in the American constitutional system. Initiative always rests with the executive; the Congress is inherently a responsive partner whose most potent instruments are the ultimate power to declare war and the power of the purse. The highpoint of congressional engagement in the foreign policy of the 1990s was the debate in both Houses about the Gulf War. Since that quite substantive and significant debate, the concerns of the Congress have been overwhelmingly domestic (NAFTA being as much domestic as foreign policy). The major congressional committees, Foreign Relations and Foreign Affairs, have been marginal actors in the foreign-policy process. More noticeable has been the lack of key congressional leaders with a defined foreign-policy perspective. The role of Senator Arthur Vandenberg in the 1940s or Senator William Fulbright in the 1960s has been approached only by Sam Nunn (D-Ga.). Quite apart from the November elections, therefore, a troubling characteristic of recent policy debate has been the absence of a distinctive congressional perspective.

What perspective might Congress now produce under Republican leadership? At the level of principles and issues, only general predictions are possible. The "Contract with America" and initial statements of Republican leaders want less U.S. engagement in and support for the United Nations, no U.S. troops under UN command, and higher defense spending, although there is little specificity about programs, policies, and weapons systems. Undoubtedly a specific agenda will get spelled out, but that process will likely bring to the surface some pluralism in Republican ranks. The step from campaigning to governing should highlight the difference between a Richard Lugar's (R-Ind.) foreign policy and that of Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

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