Reinventing What for Whom? President and Congress in the Making of Foreign Policy

By Rockman, Bert A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Reinventing What for Whom? President and Congress in the Making of Foreign Policy


Rockman, Bert A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


What are the pressing problems of the presidency in foreign policy decision making, and what, if anything, can and should be done about them? There are several empirical and normative dilemmas associated with this question. First, how much do we actually know about the congressional-presidential relationship in foreign policy? Second, but hardly unimportant, why ought we to assume that foreign policy is the president's to make, and, therefore, the system has to be reinvented to suit presidential needs or conveniences (Edwards 1990)? Third, can we distinguish between the problems of a particular president or a particular set of presidents and those of all presidents? The problems are, at least to some extent, different because not all presidents want the same things or face the same obstacles in achieving them. Presidents, for example, who cut against the grain of conventional wisdom or erode dominant coalitions, whether in foreign or domestic policy, are going to have tougher sledding than do those who follow more conventional routes. Jimmy Carter tried to be the first post-cold war president, for example, just as the cold war was reheating. Fourth, how do we distinguish the president's problems from the country's and the president's interests from the nation's? In fact, it is surely possible that strengthening presidential capability in foreign policy could damage as much as strengthen the country's prospects. In this respect, whether we want to tighten the leash on presidents or loosen it is a function of our theory of governance, whether we are at heart Hamiltonians or Madisonians. How much do we trust a single authority to do what is right?

Related to these issues, ultimately, is the extent to which we conclude that politics has so infused the foreign policy process that it has distorted priorities, stereotyped alternatives, and resulted in poor decisions (Destler, Gelb, and Lake 1984)? Conversely, do we think, as Waltz (1967) had, that the more open the process, the more a president may be deterred from producing grand failures and that, in any event, presidents are rarely deterred by Congress from taking risks?

The president's strengths in the American system lie in inverse relation to the strengths of others with whom the president must deal. To the degree that independent (and, therefore, potentially resisting) forces are stronger, the president is relatively weaker; to the extent that they are weaker, the president is relatively stronger. That, at least, is the institutional part of the equation. But institutions facilitate rather than determine (Weaver and Rockman 1993). Presidents have been effective foreign policy makers when we least expected them to be (Truman during the Eightieth Congress) and least effective when we most expected them to be (Johnson during the Eighty-ninth Congress). Truman built an interparty coalition to help bring Europe back to recovery and assist democratization. Johnson furtively led the United States into a dubious military intervention in the Dominican Republic and escalated disastrously the military intervention in Vietnam. Furthermore, what happens in Washington is frequently, and perhaps more powerfully, a consequence of what happens outside of it the underlying degree of policy consensus or conflict and partisanship, for example (Mann 1990).

Presidential Interests and Conflicting Interests

How can we tell what is in the president's interests from the nation's? To rephrase Sherlock Holmes, one could begin my saying, "It's subjective, my dear Watson" (Rohde 1994). One of the clearest facts of political life is that the amount of discretionary capacity we want presidents to have in making foreign (or any other kind of) policy depends on our judgment of the incumbent president overall, which, in turn, rests heavily on the consonance or lack thereof between our personal party predisposition and the president's party label (Mueller 1973). The fact that the executive and legislative branches have been divided (at least in part) for more than three-quarters of the time since the 1968 elections reinforces the idea that what we each think best for the country is a function of which party holds which branch of government. …

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