Divided Power: Who Decides American Foreign Policy?

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — In 1947, Congress overwhelmingly approved the Truman Doctrine, which assisted foreign governments resisting communism but also contributed to America’s first involvement in the Vietnam War. Nearly 20 years later, Lyndon Johnson found himself facing increasingly tough questions and harsh criticism during public hearings led by J. William Fulbright on the Vietnam War.

In “Divided Power: The Presidency, Congress, and the Formation of American Foreign Policy,” a series of eight original essays edited by Donald R. Kelley, director of the Fulbright Institute of International Relations, Kelley joins other researchers in examining varying rivalries that often divide the government in foreign trade and international affairs.

The executive and legislative branches both have power to influence U.S. foreign policy, but the balance of power shifts often and unpredictably during different administrations.

As Edwin Corwin noted in the 1950s, the U.S. Constitution is “an invitation to struggle” over foreign policy because it does not outline what the policy should be and leaves substantial ambiguity over which branch of government is in charge.

“Today legislators have been reluctant to oppose a president on foreign policy issues unless it directly impacts their constituency or affects their prospects for re-election,” said Kelley.

Each year the president is required to make a judgment call on whether a particular nation has a repressive human rights record. The decision is frequently made on the basis of domestic economic pressures from people who want to trade with that nation.

“If we condemned China for its human rights record, rather than our interest in gaining access to Chinese markets and purchasing commodities from them, our policy would be quite different,” Kelley said.

The Roosevelt and Eisenhower administrations enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Congress on domestic and foreign policy issues because the nation could agree on national priorities and who the enemies were.

“The Gulf War has been framed as an extension of the war against terrorism, so how can you possibly oppose it? Even if you have misgivings about its length or costs, once started, it’s hard to stop,” Kelley said.

The book, published by the University of Arkansas Press, is a result of papers presented at a conference hosted by the Fulbright Institute last year. Kelley and others went back to a question at the center of Fulbright’s political life, the relationship between the president and Congress in defining foreign policy.

“We concluded that presidents today are much more skillful in managing relations with the legislature,” Kelley said. “They are adept at making it difficult for the legislature to oppose them, by framing an issue so that the political costs of opposition are too high.”

When senators make decisions about foreign policy, they are also making decisions about jobs in their district and their prospects for re-election. Kelley refers to these as “nested games,” in which every decision affects every other decision, with each player in the political game weighing different priorities.

During the Vietnam War hearings, senators argued that the foreign policy was wrong, while President Johnson countered that it didn’t matter if they agreed with him or not. He was the one to decide the policy, not Congress.

“Fulbright today would have the same ambiguity he always had - he would both be critical of the short-sighted nature of the war in Iraq but also equally critical, perhaps even more so, of the legislative abandonment of its responsibility for critical thought. He was a patrician who thought himself smarter and able to step back and take the long view. He was equally critical of those who agreed with him in substance but came to that substance for the wrong reasons,” Kelley said.

 

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