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Can Congress Fill Foreign Policy Vacuum Created by an ‘America First’ White House?

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Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been mostly a force for order in the world. But many analysts argue that during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, America has become a deeply destabilizing country.

Trump is often described as volatile and provocative, dispensing with, and often shattering, established norms of international behavior and civil discourse. He has derailed the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, disparaged NATO and withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate accord. He has scolded America’s most loyal allies in Europe and elsewhere, taunted enemies such as North Korea and praised Russian President Vladimir Putin even as Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election continues to dog his administration.

Critics posit that Trump’s White House staff is inexperienced and lacks top-tier policy experts. The administration has dueling power centers and a weak inter-agency process. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has struggled to find a clear role in shaping American foreign policy. He has left scores of senior jobs unfilled and has supported deep cuts in the State Department budget. Tillerson is also frequently and publicly undercut by Trump.

a3.foreign.policy.senate.storyA question cascading across the United States and in overseas capitals is whether Congress will step in to fill the void and stabilize American foreign policy during this time of disruption from the White House.

“That’s the big question and the answer is not clear to me,” said Leon Panetta in an interview with The Diplomat. Panetta is a former congressman, White House budget director, White House chief of staff, CIA director and secretary of defense. “We are in uncharted territory. We have never had a president like this, certainly in modern times. We need to have some checks on this president who is impulsive, who governs by tweets and whose tweets are usually based on impulse and emotion, not any real analysis. Can Congress provide this check? Probably not by itself, but it can be part of the answer,” he said.

Panetta pointed out that the president is always the main driver of America foreign policy. “It’s really clear that in our system the president has the primary power to deal with foreign policy. Congress has a role to play, but it’s frankly a secondary role. It’s very difficult for 535 members of Congress to get their act together to direct foreign policy and to get it in a better place. It’s very difficult for Congress to agree on coherent alternatives to the president’s policies. This is an inherent challenge and it’s made much worse now by our current partisan divisions. There is no reason to believe the Republican leadership in Congress is willing to challenge Trump on foreign policy,” he said.

That is not to say that Congress is powerless, especially because it holds the all-important power of the purse — i.e., funding the government. This means lawmakers can exert their will over the presidency in a variety of ways. For instance, GOP defense hawks have largely dismissed the steep budget cuts Trump has proposed for the State Department. Congress has also pushed through tough sanctions on Russia and North Korea. And because Trump has punted the issue of the nuclear deal with Iran to Capitol Hill, it is now up to lawmakers to decide whether to reinstitute sanctions on Tehran and potentially scuttle the agreement.

Lawmakers can also use the bully pulpit to spotlight issues. This is what Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — who has publicly questioned the president’s fitness and criticized his fiery rhetoric on North Korea — did with a recent hearing examining the executive’s authority to use nuclear weapons.

But Corker told The Diplomat that while Congress has considerable foreign policy powers, the president’s power is more substantial. “Under our system, the executive branch has a lot of authority in foreign policy. Congress can play a role. We can ask questions, hold hearings, explore issues,” Corker said. He added that Congress has control over the nation’s finances but this often wields limited influence over foreign policy. “We do have the power of the purse, but when you have American troops in harm’s way, there is an understandable reluctance to cut off funds.”

Some analysts dispute the assertion that Trump’s foreign policy is perilous. Matthew Kroenig, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University, argues that while this president’s approach is unconventional, his policies are basically sound. In an April 2017 essay in Foreign Affairs, Kroenig said Trump has been hammered by a negative and unfair press that has focused heavily on early policy missteps, slowness in staffing national security positions and controversial statements. He argues that critics often fail to give Trump sufficient credit where credit is due. Trump’s foreign policy, he declares, is “for the most part, well suited for the challenges ahead.” He adds that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Tillerson constitute a top-notch foreign policy team.

Both House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) often say it’s more important to pay attention to what Trump does than what he says, adding that Trump’s actual policies are conservative and sound.

Still, the prevailing perspective among foreign policy experts in both parties is that Trump’s approach to foreign policy is at least disruptive and often dangerous.

In an October 2017 essay in The Atlantic, Eliot Cohen, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a former official in the George W. Bush administration, charges that Trump’s policies have substantially weakened the United States. He concedes that Trump inherited a difficult set of international problems but says he has made them much worse through incendiary language and ill-conceived policies.

“Trump seems incapable of restraining himself from insulting foreign leaders…. He cannot himself articulate a worldview that goes beyond a teenager’s bluster. He lays out his resentments, insecurities, and obsessions on Twitter for all to see, opening up a gold mine to foreign governments seeking to undermine and manipulate the American president,” Cohen writes. “In short, foreign leaders may consider Trump alarming, but they do not consider him serious. They may think they can use him, but they know they cannot rely on him…. And so, already, they have begun to reshape alliances and reconfigure the networks that make up the global economy, bypassing the United States and diminishing its standing.”

Cohen also contends that it is now apparent Trump will not change. “Matters will not improve. Trump will not learn, will not moderate, will not settle into normal patterns of behavior. And for all the rot that is visible in America’s standing and ability to influence global affairs, more is spreading beneath the surface,” he asserted. “Even barring cataclysmic events, we will be living with the consequences of Trump’s tenure as chief executive and commander in chief for decades.”

a3.foreign.policy.china.story2The Constitution divides foreign policy authority between the legislative and executive branches. It gives Congress the power to declare war, raise military forces and regulate commerce. The Senate is also charged with providing advice and consent on treaties and nominations. Much of the president’s foreign policy power comes from his executive authority and his role as commander in chief of the military. The president has the explicit power to appoint and receive ambassadors and, thus, the power to recognize foreign governments and conduct diplomacy. Analysts say the president’s most significant informal power is having the most prominent platform and the loudest megaphone to set the agenda of American foreign policy.

Former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) told The Diplomat that Congress has critical foreign policy powers if it chooses to exercise them. “Congress has considerable authority in foreign policy, but it has to focus its demands and be persistent. Congress can do a lot to shape and influence American foreign policy — if it wants to. It can hold hearings and force the administration to explain and defend its policies. It can pass legislation to change policies, but that’s hard to do. It can use its funding powers to support programs and scare the hell out of the administration. This is a powerful tool.”

Hamilton does not anticipate the current Republican-controlled Congress will challenge Trump on international policy, however. “The prospects are not good that this Congress will do much. We seem to be in a period of considerable passivity. The leaders of the Republican Party are deeply reluctant to take on Trump, probably because he remains popular in a strong segment of the Republican Party. If Trump’s support among Republicans erodes further, Republican leaders may become more active. But so far, they don’t want to take on Trump voters,” he said.

Senate Historian Emeritus Donald Ritchie cautioned that Congress’s international reach is limited. “Unlike the presidency, Congress is not a singular institution so it is very difficult for it to act in a coherent way. It’s diverse and diffuse and this makes it hard for Congress to act in a coordinated way on foreign policy,” Ritchie said. “Congress can direct public attention to an issue, interrogate administration officials, ask hard questions, press for answers, request reports. It can pass legislation related to foreign policy, reject nominations and treaties, fund programs or withhold funds from programs. It can have a say on foreign policy, but it’s very hard for it to dominate the foreign policy debate,” Ritchie said.

Former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) told The Diplomat that Congress can play a constructive role on specific issues such as trade, immigration reform and bolstering traditional alliances. He added that lawmakers can also give thoughtful speeches that send messages of assurance to the world. “We do need members to speak out forcefully and to offer an informed view of the world. It takes a certain courage and a clear view of the world. Are there risks? Yes, but this is important work to do and this work is more important than the longevity of individual careers,” Lugar said. He cited Congress’s role in challenging the Reagan administration’s policy on apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and in creating the Nunn-Lugar program to secure weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.

Lugar, as a former senator and a respected statesman, has delivered several wide-ranging foreign policy speeches that challenge Trump’s “America first” policy. He hopes more lawmakers will use their platforms to articulate worldviews that are more in line with America’s traditions. “President Trump’s view of the world is negative. Others need to project hope and optimism and let the world know there is still support for this perspective in the United States,” Lugar said.

Congress will have ample opportunity to project this perspective and influence American foreign policy in the coming months.

There will be renewed attention on the international nuclear agreement with Iran that imposed strict restrictions on the country’s stockpiles of uranium and its ability to enrich these materials. In return, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union agreed to lift sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. Under American law, the president must certify every 90 days that Iran is complying with this agreement. Trump declined to make this certification in mid-October and Congress has 60 days to decide whether to re-impose sanctions. Iranian officials view the certification procedure as an internal American affair, but have signaled that if sanctions are re-imposed, Iran would no longer feel bound by the agreement.

Congress must also approve a fiscal year 2018 budget that funds the federal government. The final agreement is expected to reject many of the spending cuts that Trump proposed for the State Department and other international programs. In addition, many of the major domestic proposals that Congress is grappling with, including tax reform and immigration, have far-reaching international repercussions.

Individual lawmakers have also asserted themselves on various issues during Trump’s presidency. For example, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have reintroduced legislation providing a new authorization for the use of military force to guide America’s battle against terrorism (also see “No U.S. President Has Wanted a New AUMF. Congress Is Starting to Disagree” in the September 2017 issue of The Diplomat).

Kaine also wrote a prominent essay in Foreign Affairs this past summer calling for a new American grand strategy in a hyper-connected world. The nation needs a new bipartisan security strategy, Kaine wrote, but added that “the strategy itself must come from the president, to whom the Constitution gives significant powers to formulate and execute foreign policy.” He said ideas can come from Congress, think tanks, academics, military leaders, diplomats, foreign allies, journalists and citizens. But he observed that Congress has not been assertive in the foreign policy realm. “Most other nations, furthermore, are used to strong executives and expect the same from the U.S. president. So no lasting strategy will ever catch hold absent a clear articulation by the commander in chief,” he wrote.

Panetta, one of America’s most experienced leaders, foresees a challenging time for the United States and the world for the duration of Trump’s presidency. “The best we can hope for is some constraints on the president from a combination of things like the administration’s senior foreign policy team, which takes a much more traditional approach to foreign policy issues than does the president, and senior leaders of Congress’s foreign affairs, defense and intelligence committees. These two forces will hopefully check the president and provide some stability,” he said.

Panetta also noted that lawmakers may be able to soften the strident message that emanates from Trump’s “American first” agenda by articulating a more traditional liberal internationalist perspective that has animated U.S. foreign policy for seven decades.

But the former defense secretary cautioned that the world is on edge. “Whenever I travel overseas, people ask me the same question about this president and his administration: ‘Is this real or is this some awful, convoluted reality show?’ I have to tell them that unfortunately it’s a bit of both.”


About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 2017