Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2001

When the Democrats took over control of the Senate two weeks ago, pundits and politicians predicted that President Bush would find it difficult to get his legislative program passed by this Congress. Some warned that he would be viewed as a weakened president in foreign capitals because Democrats would likely challenge many of his foreign policies. That question was clearly in the air when the president visited Europe last week.

Europeans roundly criticize Bush for rejecting of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty, and they voice opposition to his plan to build a missile defense shield because it would violate a 1972 Antiballistic Missile Agreement (ABM) with the U.S.S.R.

However, European criticism on the Kjoto warming accord is duplicitous. In reality, none of the E.U. governments has ratified this flawed agreement which exempted such major countries as China and India from its toxic emissions standard.

On the president's national missile defense program, European opinion seems more concerned about not antagonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin than providing new types of defenses that are needed in the 21st century. As a result of their first meeting in Slovenia on Saturday, Bush and Putin may well find a way to amend the ABM treaty in order to accommodate the U.S. missile defense project. .

Strong partisans in the Republican and Democratic parties argue that the best way to govern in Washington is to elect a president and Congress of the same political party. That way, they claim, the president has a real opportunity to implement his program and let the voters decide after four years whether he has done well enough to deserve a second term. These party stalwarts envy Tony Blair's newly-elected majority in Britain because, they say, he doesn't need to compromise his policies with the defeated Conservatives. But our founding fathers were opposed to giving the new federal government so much power, and they adopted a constitutional "checks and balances" system to prevent either the Senate, the House of Representatives, or the president from exercising unrestrained power over the citizenry.

In matters of foreign policy, American history in the 20th century is mixed on whether divided government is harmful, or helpful in the formulation of the country's foreign relations.

A case often cited by critics of divided authority is President Woodrow Wilson's inability after World War I to get a Republican-led Senate to ratify his League of Nations treaty. But a major part of Wilson's problem was his refusal to compromise with Republicans on this crucial international agreement. He insisted that it must be approved as presented, with the result that the Senate eventually rejected it.

In some notable cases, American foreign policy since World War II has benefited from divided government between president and Congress. In a few other instances, serious mistakes were made by presidents when their party dominated both the executive and legislative branches. Harry Truman and Richard Nixon each had to cope with a strongly partisan opposition party in Congress. On the other side, Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter each had the good fortune to have both Senate and House of Representatives controlled by their own party.

Truman's administration laid the groundwork for America's postwar foreign policy. This included getting approval of the United Nations treaty, the Marshall Plan, and the foundation of the North Atlantic Pact from a Senate controlled by Republicans. Truman's willingness to deal with opposition leaders, notably Senator Arthur Vandenberg who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, made bipartisanship in foreign policy a success in those early postwar years.

Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968 by a very narrow margin and was faced with a Congress controlled by Democrats who distrusted him. Yet, Nixon won their approval for his opening of relations with China in 1971, and for a strategic arms agreement (SALT I) with the Soviet Union. Nixon also negotiated America's withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, but many Democrats complained that he was too slow in ending the war, and they passed a resolution, over his veto, limiting a president's ability to use the armed forces except in time of emergency.

The case of Lyndon Johnson is probably unique in recent American political history. His huge election victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964 produced Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Moreover, Johnson had been majority leader in the Senate and had enormous influence there when he became president in 1963. He also courted favor at the Supreme Court by inviting Justice Abe Fortas to advise him on the Vietnam war as well as other issues. Lyndon Johnson's unprecedented personal power in Washington, from 1964 to 1968, resulted in the United States intervening in the Vietnam war without serious congressional opposition, even though three powerful Senate Democrats, Mike Mansfield, Richard Russell, and William Fulbright warned him privately in 1965 that the country would not support a prolonged war. Their assessment proved to be correct, and Johnson left the presidency as a broken man instead of the hero he might have been had he not overreached in foreign policy.

Jimmy Carter too had a Congress controlled by fellow Democrats. But he failed to work with the congressional leadership, notably Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas (Tip) O'Neill. This shortcoming affected his ability to get his program approved by Congress. Carter had several foreign policy achievements, for example, the Panama Canal Treaty and the Camp David Agreements between Egypt and Israel. But he failed to achieve Senate ratification of his strategic arms treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union.

President Carter did not understand the implications of a devastating revolution in Iran in 1979, which brought to power a ruthless, anti-western Islamic regime that organized a mob attack on the U.S. embassy and the seizure of fifty-two Americans who were held hostage for fourteen months. Although Congress would have supported military action against Iran, Carter did not choose to use force. Tthe hostage crisis contributed to his defeat in the 1980 presidential election.

In sum, electing the president and congressional leaders from the same political party does not necessarily ensure good foreign policy. Nor does divided authority between a president and Congress predictably lead to disagreement about the conduct of America's international relations. The key factor for most of the period since World War II has been the personality and wisdom of the incumbent president, and his willingness to compromise with the opposition.

George Bush may find that dealing with a Democratic Senate and a Republican House of Representatives permits him to move closer to the centrist foreign policy that he desires. He will no longer be constrained by the hard-line views of some conservatives, for example Senator Jesse Helms, who want the president to ignore the allies and pursue a unilateralist foreign policy. On dealings with North Korea, negotiations with Russia's Putin, smoothing relations with NATO allies, and brokering peace between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Authority, Mr. Bush may now have a freer hand to seek bipartisan support for a moderate foreign policy.

Given Mr. Bush's record of reaching out to opposition leaders when he was the governor of Texas, I believe he will succeed in building cooperative relations with Senate Democrats and pursue a bipartisan foreign policy that is based on a careful assessment of U.S. national interests.

File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 08:30 PM EST

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