America has been able to maintain a global hegemony as a result of pursuing a foreign policy that has emphasized on playing a leading role in the international politics. A look at this foreign policy over the years indicates however that sometimes it is riddled with inconsistencies. One regime may opt to pursue an aggressive expansionist and interventionist plan whereas a second regime on the other hand might be advocating for isolationism and non interference in the global conflicts.
Such inconsistencies are as a result of the huge discretionary powers held by the president meaning that each and every leader pursues his policy depending on whims and the prevailing circumstances. Though these foreign policies may not have glaring differences to warrant a sense of disillusionment, such policies have been a great pointer to each leader’s idiosyncratic variables. The raging question has been on what has been the role of the congress in influencing such policies vis-a-vis its mandated authority. It is this issue that shall remain the key focus of this paper.
It will outline the key responsibilities of the president and the congress in regard to the foreign policy and also illuminate any instances of conflict or cooperation between the two, highlighting which between the two organs ought to be playing a dominant role in foreign policy. Any modern progressive nation’s constitution clearly stipulates on the separation of powers between its key organs. The three arms of the government, the executive, legislature and the judiciary as outlined by the United States constitution have been given specific powers that do not in any way conflict.
The architects of the United States constitution recognized the essence of this. Madison, one of the framers of the constitution explicates on the separation of powers concept stating that “if it be essential to the preservation of liberty that the legislature, executive and the judiciary powers be separate, if it is essential to maintenance of the separation that they should be independent of each other. ” (Cited in Goldwin & Kaufman 147) Indeed this independence has continued to be espoused if only in theory.
In foreign policy however, a look at the reality on the ground indicates the president has wielded immense powers and has been making the most crucial decision in regard to war. The United States confers both the congress and the executive powers to substantially influence Americans foreign policy. Though the general assumption is that these powers lie with the president, no excerpt from the constitution points to this. Indeed both bear equals powers as Perkins and Cohn point out:
What the constitution does, and all that it does, is to confer on the president certain powers capable of affecting our foreign relations, and certain other powers of the same general kind on the senate, and still other such powers on congress, but which of these organs shall have decisive and final voice in determining t the course of the American nation is left for events to resolve. (70) The framers of the constitution were seeking to avoid placing of the full responsibility of foreign policy on the executive pointing out that the decision on when to go to war is not to be left to a single individual.
The congress is a representative of the people and hence was seen as the most accountable institution to be charged with such a responsibility. How the congress has been able to cede this authority is still a point of concern to many scholars. The president and congress are supposed to share this responsibility. It is important to look at both the congress and the presidential responsibilities in regard to foreign policy. The congress as the legislative authority is vested with powers to make resolutions.
A look at past scenarios indicates that these resolutions despite the congress lacking in the implementation responsibility go along way in influencing foreign policy. An example is the S. Res. 71, a resolution on environment and weaponry. A further example is H. Res. 321 which was able to influence the United Nations to respond to the plight of refuges in Asia in late 1970s. Though it is not always that these resolutions may pass in the floor of the house, the mere debates of congressional issues exerts influence on the foreign policy.
Some debates occurring in the house on international matters go along way in giving an insight into the stand of the congress regarding a certain policy. As a legislative organ, congress also acts hand in hand with the president over certain foreign policy especially with regard to war. Though the president may supersede the congress decision and take unilateral steps, there have been instances when the congress has indeed as the authorizing agent, paved way for military action abroad.
In the 1960s for example, the congress passed a resolution allowing the president to intervene and send military personnel to the Dominican Republic. The same action was taken during the Yugoslavia conflict allowing the president to deploy troops despite an earlier legislation that stated that funds availed through the Defense Appropriations Act “should not be made available for the purposes of deploying US armed forces to participate in implementation of a peace settlement in Bosnia” (Simone, 187) Another way through which congress exerts influence in the foreign policy is through legislative pressure and directives.
Congress wields powers to influence the executive to carry out certain objectives by allocating funds to carry out such activities. This is so as long as the president does not exercise his powers to veto a certain legislation emanating from the congress or if it makes the decision to override the presidential veto. An explication of legislative directive is towards the end of the cold war when congress set aside huge funds and authorized the assistance of the soviet unions to disassemble the existing weapons of mass destruction.
Also being the sole authority that can ratify treaties entered into by the president, it has been at the forefront in ratifying internationally agreed sanctions for example by the United Nations or issuing its own sanctions on countries it deems detrimental to the interests of the United States. Iran and Iraq for example in the past have fallen victims to such sanctions. Congress has the responsibility of checking the financial expenditure of the government both in domestic and foreign spending.
This is one way in which it stumps its authority in foreign policy, regardless of the executive opinion on the issue. One example through which Congress achieved this was when it halted further funding to military activities in Vietnam. Congress also halted the military operations in Somalia in 1993 by legislating against the provision of further funding. Indeed, through the War Powers Act of 1973, the congress stepped in to increase its mandate and play its rightful role in the declaration of war. The WPA emphasized on the powers of the congress to declare wars and provide facilitation through funding.
This constitution tradition is there despite the fact that congress has in very rare occasions stepped in to declare war. Despite the constitutional mandate, the trend has indicated otherwise and “in the recent years congress has devolved considerable powers to the president to declare and wage war” (Hamilton 19) Indeed a look at the recent history and the prevailing events indicates that there was existed a blurred line between the president’s and the congress’ powers to influence the foreign policy of the United States.
The president is seen as wielding immense powers over the foreign although this sometimes boils down to the personality of the presidents. The president wields executive powers which place him at a better position to influence foreign policy relegating the congress to a second fiddle position where it can only respond to the outlined policies; to either affirm or disapprove. According to the United States constitution, the president is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. This puts him at an advantage over the congress as it places him at the helm and at the core of the America’s foreign policy.
As the constitution stipulates, “the president shall be commander in chief of the army and the party of the united states, and the militia of the several states when called into the actual service of the United States. ” (cited in JSTOR 538). This statement has continued to draw controversy and is regarded as the main reference point when determining the extent of the president’s foreign policy in regard to foreign military engagements. Indeed a mention of foreign policy in the United States brings into mind events of war for it is through military engagements that America’s foreign policy can be better discerned.
The immense prestige accorded to the president in regard to national security and being the head of the government extends more influence to the president in regard to the United States foreign policy. He represents the nation in international affairs and possesses the powers to enter into treaties with foreign governments awaiting legislature’s ratification. In addition to treaties, the president may also choose to enter into unilateral agreements without having to necessarily present them to the congress.
This is despite the fact of the underlying requirement for a two thirds majority for treaty ratification. President also negotiates on international trade agreements on behalf of the nation, these agreements are then approved by the senate. Broadly, the status of the president or the elected figure through a popular vote is seen as a rightful mandate for the president to act on behalf of the country. Policy statements made by the president are discerned to be the foreign policy of the US.
America’s president being a key figure globally makes unilateral pronouncements in regard to various issues in the world. Such statements may not be legally binding but they all the same indicate the direction of the nation’s foreign policy. This however does not render the congress powerless as far as influencing foreign policy. It still has the final say in regard to funding. Unilateral actions by the president are common especially in instances where the congress is yet to form an opinion regarding the prevailing issue. The congress may either approve or disapprove the course of action taken.
The congress is seemingly rigid and sometimes leads to the president taking unilateral decisions especially as far as a foreign policy is concerned, as Levinson (108) observes, “the problem with congress is an institutionalized gridlock that blocks the making of timely and effective public policy. ” The successive United States presidents have in the past engaged in unilateral actions citing the untimely response from the congress. The argument being presented in the defense is that most members are too embroiled into the domestic affairs to pay attention to foreign policy.
A look at the congress and the president in regard to the United States foreign policy reveals moments of both cooperation and intense conflict. Conflict mostly arises with the president being accused usurping the powers of the congress by taking unilateral actions in clear disregard of the growing pressures in the congress and the simmering criticism from the public. Cooperation is seen when both the president agree and function in unison in the pursuit of a certain objective in foreign policy.
Rather than criticism being leveled against the president for continuously going over his mandate, it is usually directed at the congress for its failure to check on the unilateral decisions of the president. There are claims that congress has waned in its role to contribute to the United States foreign policy. They have lacked in checking the actions of the presidency. History is rife with incidences where the president and the congress have been on the collision path in respect to a certain aspect of foreign policy.
In the 1980s for example during Reagan administration, congress overrode a presidential decision to channel support to the Central American countries. It also insisted on the halting of military mission in Somali against a back drop of president’s support. Most of the conflicts that have arisen mostly revolve around the engagement of the US military overseas. The height of such a conflict can be discerned by taking a look at the War Powers Act which was a legislation passed by the congress in 1973 that requires the president to give the congress a 48 hours notification in case he wishes to send troops on a military mission abroad.
The legislation further states that troops cannot be sent on an oversea mission for more than 60 days without a declaration of war by the Congress. A look at the background of this legislation and the motivations indicates that it was as a result of the increased disregard of the congress by successive president that it was introduced. Unilateral actions taken by the present regarding overseas military combat missions had become the norm. Any government in a progressive nation must exhibit synergy between the three arms of the government.
The congress and the president have in many occasions demonstrated unison with the congress playing its rightful role of legislating and the president implementing the approved foreign policies. In the early 1980s, the congress overwhelmingly supported President Reagan’s military action against Grenada. This was in the mutual belief that an attack on Grenada establishment was vital to halt the spread of communism. As Simone observes, “Congress also supported the president’s action by approving $15 million for grant economic assistance programs to Grenada” (36).
Similar support was overwhelmingly garnered in the congress by the president after the 911 terror attacks. The congress approved a strike against Afghanistan. Similar evidence of synergy between the president and the congress can be seen but it is important to note that this is not always the case and the president has to act persuasively to garner the bipartisan support in the house. However, as Hamilton (10) emphasizes, “fostering a sense of cooperation and partnership with congress –building coalitions of support is typically the path to presidential success. The formulation the best foreign policy in a country must be as a result of concerted cooperation between the president and the congress. The two most important arms of the government as far as foreign policy is concerned, the congress and the executive, should work in synergy in accordance to the stipulations of the constitution. The framers of the constitution had clearly foreseen this and ensured that both these institutions did not override their own authority. Specific checks and balances exist in the constitution to remedy this (James 2).
As a progressive democracy, much of the powers of the government are placed on the elected officials in the congress. It is these who are mandated with the responsibility to check on any instance of abuse of power by the president. There are cases where the president can have an upper hand in influencing the foreign policy of the nation especially when the stability of the nation and the defense of the country is under eminent danger and there is no ample time to consult the congress.
The congress supposedly being a house of like minds with the sole interest of the nation at heart should have the final say in foreign policy. History has taught Americans vital lessons not to trust the president in coming up with the appropriate decisions regarding the foreign policy. The latest Iraq war and the Vietnam War in the 1970s is a clear indicator of how some foreign policies made unilaterally by the president can lead to negative ramifications. The Vietnam and the Iraq war have lost the nation of not only lives and financial loss but also its international standing.
They are a glaring example of the immense powers wielded by the president and how it can have negative consequences if it remains unchecked. What is the most common thing about these two wars is that they were pushed down the Americans throat with despite the criticism from the public. In both instances congress slackened in its role of checking the president and allowed the country to be led into a war it did not need. It is hence crucial that the legislative arm of the government rise up to the occasion and play its rightful role on foreign policy as mandated by the United States constitution.