From Wilson to Trump: The Evolution of the Presidency and Foreign Policy

Mitchell Nemeth
Nov 9 · 12 min read

The fundamental importance of the American Commander-in-Chief has been growing along with the United States’ footprint in foreign affairs and with globalization. “The American Century” featured countless wars against tyrannical regimes, many of which came to involve the United States. Today, the President is the “leader of the free world.”

Over time, our expectation of the President has transformed. As technology advances, the concept of non-geographical borders fades and boundaries between domestic and international affairs have become difficult to discern. Today, international agreements and treaties are far-reaching, touching every industry and facet of society. In fact, traditional domestic policy decisions have more impact in today’s economy than at any point in history. To understand where this trend began, it is useful to review the history of American foreign policy and how the presidency has expanded as a result.

It is often said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. To the extent this is true, it bodes well to understand what justice is and who determines how justice is served. In the American sense, justice tends toward Liberalism, or freedom and democracy, rather than authoritarianism and coercion. This notion of justice has pervaded America’s foreign policy since World War I, over the course of “the American century.”

A Brief History of American Foreign Policy

“To be sure, the President’s control over foreign affairs had been growing since the Theodore Roosevelt administration (and still grows today). [President Roosevelt’s] acquisition of the Panama Canal Zone preceded Woodrow Wilson’s decision to enter World War I,” writes Robert Dallek at Smithsonian Magazine. After the end of World War I, the United States, France, Britain, and Italy (the Big Four) led international deliberations to decide how the losing nations should be reprimanded. At the 1919 Versailles Conference, the victors sought to divide up the territories of the losing nations. One such proposal was to carve up the Ottoman Empire and create an independent Kurdish state (one of President Woodrow Wilson’s proposals that did not materialize). Additionally, the Big Four sought a stable intergovernmental framework, thus they established the League of Nations, now known as the United Nations.

The League of Nations was the world’s first intergovernmental body and President Woodrow Wilson’s leading piece of architecture. Prior to his presidency, Woodrow Wilson was a professor; Wilson once said, “When foreign affairs play a prominent part in the politics and policy of a nation, its Executive must of necessity be its guide; must utter every initial judgement, take every first step of action.” Wilson imbued the Presidency with this view, which has shaped every administration from then on.

Only a decade later, the Great Depression radically altered the status quo of international affairs. This period of time was characterized by a stock market crash, bank runs, poor economic policy via tariffs, and the excesses of Federal Reserve policy. Financial institutions in America were becoming intertwined with foreign markets, so these incidents had world-wide impact. In times of crisis, this “made presidents into virtual dictators in ‘emergency’ situations on the home front.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and his Administration were of the belief that “experts in the executive branch must devise and administer programs,” as Congress did not have the expertise.

Thus, President Roosevelt was given the “unparalleled opportunity” to broaden his authority. This opportunity arose due to the catastrophic nature of the financial system in the United States and the rise of Fascism in Europe. Simultaneously, the American people looked to the President to provide assistance both at home and abroad, although America’s involvement in World War II came later.

Initially, President Roosevelt took unprecedented steps in domestic affairs. Roosevelt used his “bully pulpit” to pressure the Supreme Court to adjudicate according to popular preferences and “was able to purge dissidents from Congress.” It was only until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that the United States entered the war. When the United States did enter the war, the American people looked to their President for leadership in combating the evil, genocidal National Socialists (Nazis) and the Japanese.

As part of a holistic strategy to counter domestic espionage, President Roosevelt ordered wire-taps on “suspected spies” and on people “suspected of subversive activities” counter to the National Foreign Policy Agenda. The President’s wiretapping of “suspected spies” grew out of a fear of subversion; these xenophobic fears were common during the early 1900s, as evidenced by the Espionage Act of 1917. Ultimately, the Allied Powers were victorious over the Fascist Nazi regime.

The war did, however, leave Western Europe decimated, with cities entirely leveled. Many Western European nations were struggling to cope with economic conditions, so the United States developed the Marshall Plan, a program to provide $15 billion in aid to Western Europe. In addition to the challenges of rebuilding, Communism now posed a threat to democracy.

Following a series of regional security incidents, “the Truman Administration proposed forming a European-American alliance that would commit the United States to bolstering the security of Western Europe.” In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by the United States, Canada, and several Western European nations. The key provision of this agreement is Article 5 “regarding collective defense, which asserts that, ‘an attack against an Ally is considered as an attack against all Allies.’” The main aggressor at this time was now Communism in the form of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics and its satellite nations.

Populist uprisings and the growing prevalence of Socialism and Communism prompted the “Red Scare” and McCarthyism. McCarthyism describes the reactionary nature of the anti-Communist movement in the United States, known for its protagonist Senator Joseph McCarthy. Senator McCarthy and his contemporary, FBI Director Hoover were notorious for spying on left-wing, anti-war, and civil rights activists; prominent individuals and members of the government were found to be compromised as Soviet assets or Communist sympathizers, including the infamous Alger Hiss case. Historian Arthur Schlesinger discusses this phenomenon in his book “The Imperial Presidency,” where he explains “[i]n the late twentieth century Presidents made sweeping claims of inherent power, neglected the collection of consent, withheld information ad libitum and went to war against sovereign states. In so doing, they departed from the principles, if less the practice, of the early republic.”

To investigate the degree to which Communists infiltrated the government, Congress established the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The young California Representative Richard M. Nixon, who later became a notorious anti-Communist President, began his career interrogating witnesses before the HUAC. All the while, the United States’ Anti-Communist crusade continued to dominate public discourse. Public fear of Fascism and Communism led Congress to pass laws that bolstered the foreign policy prerogatives of the nation. Congress passed:

· Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA): Enacted in 1938, FARA requires “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal.”

· Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (The Wiretap Act): Prohibits “the unauthorized, non-consensual interception of ‘wire, oral, or electronic communications’ by government agencies,” “establishes procedures for obtaining warrants to authorize wiretapping by government officials,” and “regulates the disclosure and use of authorized intercepted communications by investigative and law enforcement officers.” The act notably provides exceptions to the requirement that the government obtain a warrant prior to interception, most notably the exception “reasonably determines that an emergency situation exists that involves conspiratorial activities threatening the national security interest.”

· The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA): FISA came as the result of congressional investigations into Federal surveillance activities conducted “in the name of national security.” FISA has been amended numerous times to establish procedures “for the authorization of electronic surveillance, use of pen registers and trap and trace devices, physical searches, and business records for the purpose of gathering foreign intelligence.” For targets, who are U.S. persons, FISA has specific requirements namely, “agents of foreign powers include agents of foreign political organizations and groups engaged in international terrorism, as well as agents of foreign nations.”

These three laws are demonstrative of the fear that crept into American society. Together, they provided the Executive vast powers to conduct investigations into suspected agents of a foreign power or political organizations, while simultaneously laying the boundaries of these powers. Civil libertarians view these powers as tools as unconstitutional tools to quash dissent or disfavored viewpoints in furtherance of “national security concerns.” The institutionalization of authorized surveilled grew as a consequence of these laws.

President Harry Truman understood how intelligence gathering and sharing could benefit the national security, as well as our allies. The practical application of these tools was critical in succeeding during the Cold War. The Five Eyes intelligence alliance embodied this priority. This alliance consists of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The existence of this intelligence apparatus and the seven-page memorializing document, the UKUSA Agreement, was not publicly acknowledged until 2005, long after the end of the Cold War.

Additionally, the continuous presence of American and United Nations forces around the globe sparked a sense of resentment and in some ways further agitated revolutionaries and Communists, a phenomenon still true to this day. Even the Middle East was used as a proxy during the Cold War. Subsequently, President Eisenhower declared “the Eisenhower Doctrine,” which allowed Middle Eastern nations to request American military aid if they feared outside attack, as the Soviets utilized the Middle East as a proxy to further their interests.

As Communism spread throughout Asia, the pace of American interventionism spread along with it. Many voters felt there was no end in sight to conflict. “Unlike Truman, Kennedy was already quite aware that the success of any major policy initiative depended on a national consensus,” writes Robert Dallek.

Early into President Kennedy’s term, he announced the creation of the “Alliance for Progress, which would encourage economic cooperation between North and South America, and the Peace Corps, which would send Americans to live and work in developing nations around the world.” These programs would demonstrate America’s priorities abroad, namely promoting peace and democracy. However, continued Soviet aggression, mutually assured destruction, and the global conflict continued to plague American politics.

Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all continued the fight against Communism around the globe. Voters rightfully saw the Cuban conflict, Korean War, and the Vietnam War as extensions of the larger Cold War with the Soviet Union. During the Nixon presidency, Congress passed the War Powers Act.

In passing the War Power Act, Congress sought to restrict the power of the president to unilaterally wage war without congressional approval. However, presidents from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan ignored it. “Since that time, no president of either party has taken the War Powers Act seriously, despite its clear prohibition on the president’s power to unilaterally declare war.” Summarily, President Reagan defeated the Soviet Union with his emphasis on heavy spending on the military, while simultaneously ignoring the boundaries Congress placed on his unilateral authority.

Today’s Foreign Policy

After the fall of the Soviet Union, or as Reagan called it “the Evil Empire,” the global threat largely came from terrorist organizations, rather than sovereign nations. Although the Russian Federation, formerly Soviet Russia, remains a threat to Western interests, the central threat stems largely from decentralized Islamic fundamentalists, or Jihadists, and totalitarian states like Iran and North Korea. This threat has been much more difficult to eradicate.

After the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks, President Bush’s Administration sought retaliation on the perpetrators. As part of the hastened strategy, the Administration enhanced its alliance with foreign intelligence agencies and further broadened its efforts to conduct authorized surveillance. President George W. Bush’s Administration, namely Vice President Dick Cheney, pressured Congress to pass the USA PATRIOT Act, a far-reaching and controversial law governing authorized surveillance and financial institution reporting requirements. Defenders of the law profess that there are sufficient safeguards against abuses, while critics deny the veracity of those claims.

Former NSA contractor and whistleblower, Edward Snowden, exposed the “inherent constitutional violations” in the programs authorized under the USA PATRIOT Act. Snowden also exposed the degree to which the Bush Administration went to continue their unconstitutional “spying” programs, including Project Upstream. Project Upstream targets Internet-based communications as they pass through Internet infrastructure located within the United States, and it is designed to only acquire Internet communications that contain a tasked selector. It filters Internet transactions that pass through the Internet backbone to eliminate potential domestic transactions, using minimization protocols.

Snowden’s unauthorized disclosures to the media also demonstrated the degree to which this information was shared with international counterparts, especially those member nations involved in the Five Eyes arrangement. To this day, Congress continues to authorize the USA PATRIOT Act programs in furtherance of the President’s foreign policy agenda, despite judicial concerns about privacy violations.

Presidents continue to rely on United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corporation which held that that “in international relations, the President is the sole organ of the Federal Government,” and “[h]e, not Congress, has the better opportunity of knowing conditions which prevail in foreign countries and especially is this true in time of war.” At times, members of Congress will attempt to circumvent the Executive’s diplomatic channels, but they are met with allegations of violating the Logan Act. It is the President who is expected to be an exemplar figure, demonstrating the American people’s prerogatives abroad, namely promoting democracy.

As the expectations of President grow, Congress has delegated some foreign policy measures to the Executive. Congress understood the fast-paced nature of international conflict so they delegated authority to the President to unilaterally impose tariffs during emergencies. This can become problematic when the nature of an emergency changes.

In today’s politics, members of Congress fret when President Trump seeks to unilaterally impose tariffs on allies and foes, alike, while, nonetheless, failing to recognize the legislative solutions that may alter such behavior. Similarly, Congress sits idly by as the President shifts military personnel throughout the Middle East in a manner inconsistent with their preferences. Instead, Congress prefers to condemn such actions through resolutions and media pressure. Congress recognizes the inherent differences between the Executive’s foreign policy role and their own.

Foreign policy experts and diplomats, including former Secretary for the Department of Defense, General James Mattis, worry about the current President’s level of commitment to international institutions like NATO and the United Nations. So far, much of their worries seem unfounded in practice, albeit founded in rhetoric. After years of endless foreign commitments, the American voter has tired of forfeiting vast sums of resources and American lives.

As Dominic Tierney writes, “The retreat of communism, and the wave of democratization in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, meant there was effectively no unfree world against which to unite. Efforts to put all the bad guys in a big bucket, like George W. Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, failed to resonate.” This explains, in large part, the growing popularity of populist politicians in the United States. Voters do not equate modern rogue states like Iran with the threat of Communism.

While the President very much remains “the leader of the free world,” the President simultaneously reflects the will of the American voter. No longer do voters wish to be excessively burdened with defending the world at the expense of domestic priorities. “The past decade has shown, however, that the U.S. can’t wish away the Middle East, no matter how tempting that may be for American voters. The 2003 invasion of Iraq proved to be a debacle, but subsequent attempts to pivot away from the region or ignore it altogether have contributed to humanitarian catastrophes, terrorist outrages and geopolitical setbacks, further eroding America’s standing in the world,” writes Yaroslav Trofimov at The Wall Street Journal. As one of the senior figures in Saddam Hussein’s government said, “America will open a Pandora’s box that it will never be able to close.” Should the current President or future presidents leave a large enough power vacuum, the outcome could tilt the balance away from freedom. Today, the President continues to be the “leader of the free world,” but what tomorrow brings is dependent upon the priorities of the American voter.


Over the past century, America’s role in foreign affairs has centered on its adherence to promoting freedom and democracy; President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

As America’s commitments have expanded to all corners of the globe, American voters have grown weary of continued conflict. With the defeat of Fascism and Communism, presidents and globalists continue to seek out new opponents. Years of endless war and seemingly flawed proposals to “build nations” on top of failed governments have prompted calls for American retrenchment abroad and increased emphasis domestically. The severity of this anxiety has yet to be seen, but it is certain that change is on the horizon. “The American Century” may be over, but what comes next in American foreign policy is dependent on the will of the American voter.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Mitchell Nemeth

Written by

Interests: Public Policy & Separation of Powers; Twitter: @datdudemn; Completed a Master in the Study of Law from University Of Georgia and a BBA in Finance

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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