In his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, the prominent historian, argued that it is in the area of foreign policy that American presidents are regularly less accountable than they are in domestic affairs. This, he said, gives rise to the imperial presidency.
Considering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the endless “War on Terror”, President Donald Trump has inherited just such an imperial presidency.
While some argue that it is the US constitution’s ambiguous foreign affairs-related provisions that have permitted the expansion of presidential authority in foreign affairs, there is no inevitability to such overreach on constitutional grounds. Under the constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief of the army and navy, but until the White House acquired new powers after 9/11, only Congress had the power to declare war, in addition to their control of the budget required to raise an army and provide a navy. The president can also make treaties and appoint senior officials and ambassadors, but not without the “advice and consent” of the Senate, the upper chamber of Congress.
In fact, there are other factors that have allowed American presidents to conduct foreign policy virtually without any checks. These include voters’ indifference to foreign policy issues, the monopolisation of foreign policy-making by the White House, Congress’s abdication of its war powers to presidents, and heightened congressional partisanship. In the case of Trump, this foreign policy freedom, combined with his impulsiveness, his hawkish new advisers such as John Bolton, who has called for the bombing of both Iran and North Korea, the current global crises and the president’s own personal troubles, create a combustible mix that should trigger alarm-bells. While Congress is constitutionally equipped to restrain presidential foreign policy-making, it is unlikely to do so unless Democrats take back either or both houses in the midterm elections later this year.
We cannot count on voters to hold sitting presidents accountable for foreign affairs at the ballot-box. Unless there is wartime conscription, foreign policy rarely decides elections. Presidents and their aides formulate foreign policy without the high level of scrutiny they face over domestic policy. Having to concern themselves less with voters’ preferences, foreign policy-makers are freer to make decisions motivated by political expediency and personal ideology than by what is in the national interest. Often, policy-makers leave public office long before the consequences of their decisions become clear. For instance, some have argued that Bill Clinton’s decision to expand NATO into former Soviet bloc countries in the 1990s sowed the seeds of the adversarial relationship between Russia and the West today.
While not critical electorally, presidents recognise the value of foreign policy in enhancing their stature. As a result, it should be no surprise that American presidents have centralised foreign policy-making within the White House. The foreign policy staff of the president, known as the National Security Council (NSC) staff, is comprised of political appointees and staff on loan from other government departments. The role of the NSC staff has evolved over the last few decades from simply coordinating and mediating policy recommendations made by government departments to one of formulating policies, without the added responsibility of implementing them long-term.
Unlike in the case of other government departments, there is no Congressional oversight over the NSC staff. Bolton, the new national security adviser, who heads the NSC, did not have to go through a Senate confirmation process. In fact, his appointment to the post epitomises the lack of accountability in foreign policy-making, as he was an advocate and an enabler of the 2003 Iraq invasion and remains unrepentant about it. Beyond the NSC staff, the Trump White House foreign policy circle has tightened even further, with the president’s family members playing an increasingly significant role in foreign affairs. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law, who recently had his security clearance downgraded, is in charge of “Middle East peace”.
This tightening circle has come at the expense of the State Department, the American foreign ministry, where many senior posts have been left vacant by the Trump administration. One of the two deputy-secretary jobs and four of the six under-secretary positions – the most senior posts under the secretary of state – have not been filled (one of the two serving under-secretaries is doing so in an acting capacity), leaving the department’s leadership virtually decimated. This has further demoralised the department’s career diplomats, who had in previous administrations been disempowered by political appointees filling their senior ranks and by policy-makers’ over-reliance on military solutions. Trump’s replacement for the ignominiously-fired Rex Tillerson, Mike Pompeo, also a militaristic opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, was confirmed in April by the Senate. His appointment is unlikely to bode well for American diplomacy. While his recent trip to Pyongyang has captured headlines, it is worth remembering that he had earlier suggested regime-change in North Korea. Trump picked him because Pompeo’s views closely mirror his own rhetoric.
Even though Congress has the tools to rein in this presidential takeover of foreign policy-making, it has failed to do so. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress passed a resolution known as the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which has allowed presidents to freely conduct the War on Terror around the world. In effect, Congress relinquished its own constitutional responsibility to declare war in apparent perpetuity.
The partisanship in Congress has also given presidents an excuse to side-step the treaty ratification process, which requires two-thirds of the votes in the Senate, increasingly by signing executive agreements to commit the United States to major international agreements. But such agreements can easily be revoked by succeeding presidents. Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Paris climate accord, which former president Barack Obama had entered with an executive agreement. Trump is now threatening to trigger an American pull-out from the Iran nuclear deal, which the Obama administration entered with a variation of an executive agreement. Trump has to regularly certify Iranian compliance of the deal, as required by Congress, and to waive US nuclear-related sanctions under the deal’s terms. The next deadline for waiver is 12 May. If Trump does not waive the sanctions, America will effectively withdraw from the deal.
Thus, without congressional approval to enter or revoke international agreements, America’s international commitments will be visibly fickle.
Given Trump’s growing domestic legal and political troubles, especially regarding the Russia investigation, we can expect that he will use foreign policy issues to distract the public and change the narrative, as have other presidents before him. As long as the Republican party controls both houses of Congress and many Republicans are willing to go along with Trump opportunistically, it is unlikely that Congress will act to restrain him, allowing him to conduct an increasingly reckless foreign policy that could further destabilise volatile regions.
However, if Democrats win either or both houses of Congress later this year, which seems highly probable, they will have the opportunity to use their newly acquired power to check the administration’s foreign policy. They would need to work with Republicans to ensure that their efforts are not perceived as partisan, but as asserting congressional authority over foreign policy-making for the benefit of the country.
Using Congress’s power of the purse – the fact that Congress has to pass the budget for the federal government – as leverage, they should repeal the AUMF and require congressional approval whenever the president seeks to enter or leave major international agreements. They should also compel confirmation hearings for senior NSC staff, including the national security adviser.
This is a tall order, but by taking these steps Congress could ensure that democratic ideals, such as accountability, become an integral part of foreign policy-making. Doing so will not only make America and the world safer, it would help “de-imperialise” the American presidency, something long overdue.
Arslan Malik is a Fellow at the Institute for the Theory & Practice of International Relations at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. From 2012-2017, he worked at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, the last year of which he served as a political appointee.