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Looking for Leadership

Author: James M. Lindsay, Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair
Winter 2000
Brookings Review

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The end of the Cold War relaxed tensions in Europe without bringing harmony to Washington. American foreign policy is, if anything, more contentious today than it has been in 60 years. Whether it is Russia, peacekeeping, chemical weapons, trade, the United Nations, China, foreign aid, global warming, or arms control, almost no policy enjoys broad support. Officials at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue routinely complain that foreign policy–making has broken down and badly needs repair.

Attempts to explain this discord typically, and mistakenly, blame an isolationist public and Congress. Among the public, the problem is not antipathy toward international engagement but apathy. Most Americans see little to worry about abroad even as they continue to favor engagement in world affairs. The public’s apathy toward foreign affairs would be unimportant, perhaps even a blessing, if Washington agreed on what should replace containment as the central organizing principle of American foreign policy. But it doesn’t. Instead, elites argue over what America should do in a world in which its engagement is based on opportunity rather than fear. It is this combination of public apathy and elite dissensus, not a yearning for Fortress America, that has made foreign policy–making so contentious.

Short of the appearance of a Soviet-style threat, neither of these underlying dynamics is likely to change. As a result, the central task of foreign policy governance is to prevent political differences from overwhelming fairly broad public and elite support for American engagement in world affairs. Success ultimately rests with the president. Today more than ever, presidents need to mobilize public opinion and to manage relations with Capitol Hill. If presidents fail to recognize that winning foreign policy coalitions need to be built rather than assumed, the result will be legislative gridlock and an incoherent foreign policy.

Are Americans Embracing Isolationism?

For a decade now journalists and political commentators have warned about resurgent U.S. isolationism. While the claim that Americans are, to borrow Arthur Schlesinger’s colorful phrase, seeking to go "back to the womb" makes for good copy, scant evidence supports it. Public opinion polls repeatedly find that substantial majorities of Americans favor an internationalist foreign policy. For example, when the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations surveyed Americans in late 1998, it found that 61 percent of those polled agreed that it "will be best for the future of the country if we take an active part in world affairs." Although the share was down 4 percentage points from 1992, it was up 7 percentage points from 1982, and well within the range that such questions have elicited since they were first asked back in 1947.

The public’s refusal to return to the womb can also be seen in its reaction to the Kosovo war. According to Gallup, public support remained above 50 percent over the course of the air campaign, even though it quickly became clear that the Clinton administration had badly misjudged Serbian resolve. A majority of the public did oppose sending combat troops to Kosovo— hardly remarkable given that President Clinton initially ruled out sending ground troops. More telling is that four out of ten Americans nonetheless supported sending troops.

The strength of the internationalist pull on the American public can also be seen in presidential politics. For all the talk about isolationism, it has fared poorly on the campaign trail. Presidential candidates, who have a strong incentive to tell voters what they want to hear, mostly avoid taking isolationist positions. Two who haven’t, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, saw their popularity fall rather than rise during the 1990s. Indeed, Buchanan’s recent defection from the Republican to the Reform Party is an admission that his mix of isolationism and social conservatism is a losing formula.

Americans remain broadly internationalist because internationalism has deep roots in American society. Most adult Americans came of age when internationalism was a given and isolationism a relic of the days of top hats and canes. Such ingrained political attitudes are difficult to break. After all, it took two world wars to discredit isolationist policies and push the United States firmly into the internationalist camp. Thus far, no event has destroyed the rationale for an activist foreign policy. As badly as the Clinton administration handled the deaths of 18 Army Rangers in Mogadishu in 1993, Somalia is not Pearl Harbor.

At the same time, internationalism remains a relatively low-cost policy that demands little of individual Americans in terms of either blood or treasure. Very few Americans have died in foreign adventures over the past decade. Spending on foreign affairs accounts for only about a penny out of every federal dollar. And most Americans recognize that defense spending provides jobs as well as security.

Finally, while globalization may be creating losers in the U.S. economy, it is also creating winners with a stake in an internationalist foreign policy. The Farm Belt provides a good example. For much of the 20th century, the Midwest was home to isolationism. The sizable growth in farm and farm-related exports changed that. Now the financial health of Iowa hog farmers and Nebraska grain growers depends on prosperity in Jakarta and Tokyo, a point the Asian financial crisis drove home. Not surprisingly, many Midwestern members of Congress have become ardent internationalists, figuring prominently in efforts to increase the U.S. contribution to the International Monetary Fund and to rein in the use of economic sanctions, among other legislative battles.

Although Americans remain broadly internationalist and probably will for years to come, their interest in foreign affairs has waned. When asked to name the most important problem facing the country today, Americans overwhelmingly mention domestic issues. Nor do most Americans have well-formed opinions about the country’s foreign affairs priorities. When the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations asked people in 1998 to name the "two or three biggest foreign-policy problems facing the United States today," the most common response by far, at 21 percent, was "Don’t Know."

The "Don’t Knows" predominate because few Americans follow foreign affairs. Take, for example, Kosovo. The Clinton administration began to threaten to use force against Serbia in mid-1998. The threats received prominent media coverage. Yet even as late as February 1999, as the Rambouillet conference convened, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only one out of nine Americans said they followed U.S. policy on Kosovo "very closely." Six out of ten said they followed the story "not too closely" or "not closely at all."

The public’s lack of interest in foreign affairs may be lamentable, but it is not unreasonable. The United States enjoys unrivaled political, economic, and military power. No major challenge to U.S. security exists. While experts warn of threats looming on the far horizon, Americans embrace Calvin Coolidge’s advice: "When you see ten troubles rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you."

Is Congress Isolationist?

The American public may not have turned isolationist, but has Congress? Stephen Kull and I.M. Destler say yes in their important book, Misreading the Public. But has a gap in fact developed between an outward-looking public and an inward-looking Congress?

To be sure, isolationist voices are louder now on Capitol Hill than they have been for more than 50 years. Unlike the Cold War, when identification with isolationism could be an electoral kiss-of-death, some members of Congress proudly embrace the America-first banner. Moreover, isolationist sentiment cuts across party lines. Republicans lead the push to cut foreign affairs funding, and Democrats oppose efforts to give the president fast-track authority for negotiating international trade agreements.

Nevertheless, isolationists remain a minority in Congress and in both political parties. Cuts in international affairs funding owe less to isolationism and more to intense pressure to find politically painless ways to cut federal spending, the well-documented shortcomings of America’s foreign aid programs, and the absence of a compelling rationale for aid in the absence of the Soviet threat. Congressional efforts to force reform on the United Nations gained traction less because members wanted to turn their backs on the world than because of widespread agreement that it is a poorly run organization. The effort to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty failed not because of isolationist opposition but because prominent internationalists, including six former secretaries of defense, argued that it hurt U.S. interests.

At the same time, many congressional foreign policy debates carry a decidedly internationalist cast. However unwise it might be to expand NATO, to impose sanctions on countries that violate religious rights, to terminate aid to countries that acquire nuclear weapons, to recognize Tibet as a sovereign country, to encourage Taiwanese independence, and to punish countries that trade with Cuba and Iran, these are not proposals aimed at disengaging the United States from world affairs.

The crux of the many conflicts today between the White House and Capitol Hill, then, is not whether the United States should be involved abroad but rather how and to what end. The truth is that 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, elite opinion on foreign policy remains fractured. Disagreement persists on both policy diagnosis and prescription. Is China a strategic partner or an emerging threat? Is Russia the issue of the past or the future? Should the United States act multilaterally or unilaterally? Will engagement promote human rights or help perpetuate dictatorial regimes? Much like friends who agree to dine out but can’t agree on a restaurant, foreign policy elites agree that the United States should do something, just not what.

Congress naturally reflects this dissensus, which makes it difficult for the institution to function. Divided by chamber, party, ideology, region, committee, and generation, Congress lists toward paralysis whenever a modicum of agreement and a sense of proportion are absent. The public’s apathy about foreign policy only encourages this. When members gain more freedom to debate, they are more receptive to narrow interests and face less pressure to compromise. Policy coherence can suffer as a result.

Foreign Policy Governance for a Post–Cold War World

The central challenge of foreign policy governance today is to translate a general desire for American engagement in world affairs into practical policies. Doing that requires keeping legitimate differences over America’s role in the world within productive bounds. Whether Washington will meet this challenge is by no means guaranteed.

One solution not to be hoped for is the emergence of a Soviet-style threat. Threats can produce agreement, but only at great cost. At the same time, the solution for which all could hope— a national debate that produces a consensus about America’s role in the world— is not likely. The 2000 presidential election campaign provides the opportunity for such a debate, but public apathy and divisions within the two parties encourage candidates to avoid foreign policy issues. To the extent they do talk about the world abroad, candidates will be looking to allay voters’ fears about their foreign policy competence rather than to rally them around a grand strategy. And anyone hoping that the end of divided government will bring peace to Pennsylvania Avenue should heed Representative Joe Scarborough’s (R-FL) warning: "Any Republican president who expects the House members and probably the newer members of the Senate to merrily go along and rubber-stamp" his national security policies "will be very disappointed." The same sentiments hold true on the Democratic side of the aisle.

With no new foreign policy consensus likely to save the day, the key to avoiding foreign policy gridlock is political leadership. That leadership will not come from Capitol Hill. While Congress can respond to strong political leadership, it is institutionally incapable of providing it. That burden rests with the president. Indeed, presidential leadership is more important today than ever before. During the Cold War, presidents could take congressional and public support for granted. When a policy became controversial, they frequently carried the day simply by calling it "vital" to the national interest. A degree of presidential complacency was the result; unlike domestic policy, where their political skills were constantly tested, presidents to a great extent could command on foreign policy. No longer. Members of Congress are more divided than ever before, and they see less reason to give the president the benefit of the doubt. Presidents now must build winning political coalitions.

The ability of future presidents to build those coalitions rests on three things. First, presidents need to know where they want to go in foreign affairs. The greatest threat to a responsible American internationalism is not a fractious Congress or an apathetic public but a president for whom foreign policy is an afterthought. As Bill Clinton’s first years in office attest, presidents who react to events abroad cede their institutional advantages to the legislative branch. Congress abhors a vacuum and will fill it, sometimes unproductively. Presidents cannot lead Congress and the country if they do not know where they want to go.

Second, as the fate of the test ban treaty illustrates, presidents and their advisers must begin making the case for their foreign policy priorities to the public and Congress before they become controversial. Presidents enjoy a considerable advantage in framing how the public and Congress think about issues. That advantage holds, however, only when presidents act early. With the 1995 Mexican aid package and the replenishment of the IMF reserves, for example, the Clinton administration moved slowly in defining the issue. Its opponents showed no such hesitancy, denouncing both proposals as "bail outs" of profligate foreigners and imprudent speculators. The label stuck, and the administration found itself running uphill. In foreign policy as in football, playing catch-up is always harder to do. Yet presidents and their advisers can take comfort from public opinion polls that make it clear that an internationalist majority exists out there to be mobilized.

Third, presidents and their advisers need to invest in personal relationships with members of Congress. Throughout the Cold War, executive branch officials typically ignored Congress until they faced a showdown vote. Then they couldn’t consult enough. That strategy no longer works. The failed efforts to secure fast-track trade authority and to win Senate approval of the test ban treaty show that last-minute appeals to national security and calls for preserving presidential prerogative no longer move lawmakers. What complicates administration efforts to build ties to Congress is the sheer number of members who must be consulted. As the administration discovered with the battles over Mexican aid and UN arrears, congressional leaders frequently cannot deliver rank-and-file support for agreements they make. As a result, while proposals to formalize consultations between the president and the congressional leadership may do some good, they are a poor substitute for reaching out to a broad slice of the membership.

These three suggestions are not magic bullets. Without a national consensus on America’s role abroad, foreign policy governance will always be fractious. Yet if presidents don’t adapt their leadership styles to the changed conditions of post–Cold War America, foreign policy gridlock is inevitable.