When it comes to U.S. elections, foreign policy success means very little.
In 1991, George H.W. Bush should have been riding high on a tide of popularity. The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union was crumbling. An end to apartheid was beginning in South Africa and Bush had arranged an important peace conference in the Middle East. Yet, despite these accomplishments and a high approval rating, his Attorney General, Richard Thornburgh, was defeated in the Pennsylvania senatorial race. His opponent argued that Bush spent too much time on foreign policy and not enough time worrying about domestic concerns. Example: “Recovery from the 1990–1991 economic recession had petered out, Harris Wofford (described by Peterson as — an aging, politically inexperienced, unabashedly liberal college professor) emphasized how heartless George Bush had been in refusing to extend benefits to the unemployed. Health care costs were growing while millions of Americans were unable to secure medical insurance.”
In the 1992 election, Gov. Bill Clinton made the same argument with his catchy campaign slogan “it’s the economy, stupid” emphasizing that Bush needed to refocus his attention.
Peterson points out that, Constitutionally, the only powers given exclusively to the president are the powers to receive foreign ambassadors, grant pardons, and “execute” the laws of Congress. Although the president is named commander-in-chief of the armed forces, only Congress can declare war, raise an army and prepare for the common defense.
Peterson argues that the Watergate scandal and the failure of Vietnam, weakened the presidency and made Congress less likely to defer to the president in making foreign policy.
Despite the Constitutional limitations and weakening of the executive branch though scandal, all sides seem to agree that the right to make foreign policy resides with the president. For instance, in only one term, Jimmy Carter negotiated the SALT II agreement which facilitated arms control between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Carter reversed a policy of detente with the Soviet Union, once the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had taken place, Peterson said. He pulled the U.S. out of the Olympics in protest and helped bring about the Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.
Although foreign policy is ostensibly a unifiying issue among political parties, it has historically been partisan. For example, Harry Truman was accused by Republicans of losing China to the communists and John F. Kennedy was excoriated for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
In a study, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky said there are really “ Two Presidencies.” One is a foreign policy presidency and the other is domestic. In foreign policy, presidents can take fast action and commit resources unilaterally. They do not have to deal with muscular interest groups.
Often, Congress is not even consulted about major foreign policy decisions. Robert Dahl wrote: “In foreign policy the President proposes, the Congress disposes.”
In times of crisis, this steady, consistent leadership can be valuable. For instance, for decades the U.S. and the Soviet Union had a mutual deterrence strategy. Each side rightly believed that the other was directed by a sane, single person. Without this belief, the theory would not have worked. In fact much of today’s foreign policy assumes states can be viewed as “unitary actors,” Peterson said.
But how do foreign policy requirements impact a President’s domestic agenda? Since foreign trade greatly impacts the Gross Domestic Product, it is important that internal squabbles and agendas do not harm foreign relations and, therefore trade, said Peter Katzenstein.
Although the impact of the legislative branch on foreign policy is typically not visible or dramatic, Peterson stresses that it is there: “The sharing of information between key congressional committees and key executive branch agencies, and the close cooperation between these institutions may strengthen the influence of those who are best able to articulate the long-range interests of the country within the framework imposed by the international system,” he wrote.
Salem Solomon (@salem_solomon) is a journalist, graduate student and a teaching assistant at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. She is currently based in Washington D.C. and working on her professional practicum at Voice of America’s Horn of Africa Service.