Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Lame-Duck Foreign Policy

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Lame-Duck Foreign Policy

Article excerpt

Since the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment, term limits have put predictable "sunsets" on the administrations of presidents who manage to earn a second term in office. The inadvertent consequence was the expansion of the lame-duck problem that the Twentieth Amendment, ratified just 18 years prior, had attempted to alleviate. (1) While the span of time between a new president's election and actually taking office is now just 10 weeks, long before that point the outgoing administration begins a gradual slide into political isolation. As remaining time in office recedes, the incentives for the opposition to wait out the sitting president increase and the loyalty of co-partisans in Congress diminishes. This leads to waning support for the president's policy preferences. Making matters worse, as the length of the presidential campaign increases this process seems to begin earlier every cycle--so much so that the lame-duck period is now popularly understood to begin shortly after that the midterm elections of a president's second term.

These final years of presidential administrations are commonly derided as ones in which relatively little is accomplished. In this article, I offer a counter argument: though this period is characterized by weakness, it tends to generate high levels of foreign policy activity. As the sun sets on an administration, the president faces incentives to secure their historical legacy. But mounting constraints on their preferences, meaning that their desire for meaningful action coincides with the absence of nearly all opportunities for substantial domestic accomplishments. This dearth of options pushes presidents into policy areas in which they are less constrained--most notably, foreign policy (Wildavsky 1966). I find that lame-duck periods are associated with meaningful increases in presidential diplomatic engagement, executive agreements including bilateral investment treaties, and the use of force.

These efforts, however, are typically unsuccessful, which is unsurprising because they are accompanied by neither the credible commitment of long time horizons, nor significant presidential power. However, it would be a mistake to assume that they are benignly ineffective. Rather, these diplomatic forays can, under some circumstances, lead to strategic setbacks.

Lame Ducks, Power, and Policy

Although the body of academic research on presidential foreign policy decision making in the lame-duck period is relatively slim, the few scholars who have addressed the issue consistently find it to be a period of presidential weakness. (2) Shogan (2006) examines the possibility of a "sixth-year curse," for presidential administrations placing part of the blame on weakened political coalitions and midterm electoral defeats. Combs (2001) also provides evidence for presidential weakness at the end of administrations, arguing that foreign affairs powers are usually at their weakest during the lame-duck period, both because of the sitting president's diminished political position and because foreign actors shift their focus to the incoming administration. Notably for the argument made here, Combs' point is about foreign policy efficacy rather than foreign policy activity.

It goes almost without saying that presidential weakness matters for foreign policy outcomes. It has been broadly noted that foreign policy in democracies is responsive to executive power. Koch and Sullivan (2010), for example, link conflict termination to variation in executive power in terms of popularity. Similarly, Baum and Potter (2015) find that democracies in which the executive is less constrained (i.e., stronger) by strong partisan opposition and media institutions are more likely to initiate the use of force and otherwise engage in foreign policies counter to the preferences of their citizens.

While the weakness is generally agreed upon, the extent to which it is the product of term limits or the broader political cycle is a matter of some contention. …

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