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Foreign Policy Doesn’t Need a Mandate

by Michael H. Creswell on Jan 13, 2001

Michael H. Creswell

While President-elect George W. Bush may face at least four years of legislative gridlock, that paralysis need not extend to foreign policy.

The Constitution confers broad authority on the chief executive over foreign affairs. This authority offers a president considerable running room, and the 535 members of Congress find it exceedingly difficult to keep up with a nimble-footed chief executive.

History suggests that even a president primarily committed to enacting a domestic agenda can achieve significant foreign policy successes. For example, Woodrow Wilson, who won less than 42 percent of the popular vote in 1912, took over a nation ideologically divided by the changes wrought by rapid industrialization. Although Wilson wanted to create a peaceful international political order based on the rule of law, he nonetheless pursued an interventionist foreign policy, sending military expeditions to Mexico in 1916 and Russia in 1918, and leading a reluctant United States into the World War I, pulling the Democratic Party along with him. His actions and ideals shaped the outlines of modern American foreign policy.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was another “domestic president” who made his mark on foreign policy. First elected in 1932, Roosevelt became the president of a nation weakened by the Great Depression and wedded to isolationism. After expending considerable energy and political capital in launching the New Deal, Roosevelt, before he died in 1945, wrenched America from its isolationist moorings and helped to lead the United States to victory in the greatest military conflict in history.

Lyndon Johnson confronted an even more daunting task than that facing Bush. Not only did Johnson reach the Oval Office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, but he took over a nation in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and an expanding war in southeast Asia. Johnson also had an extremely ambitious domestic policy program, the “Great Society.” While the Vietnam War must weigh negatively in any evaluation of Johnson’s presidency, we should not overlook his many foreign policy accomplishments.

These successes included negotiating the Non-Proliferation Agreement, which significantly lessened tensions with the Soviet Union, and holding together NATO while blunting French President Charles de Gaulle’s challenge to the alliance. Johnson also successfully negotiated the 1964-1967 GATT round of multilateral trade agreements (the so-called Kennedy Round), demonetarized gold, returned Iwo Jima to Japan in 1967 (setting up the mechanism for the return of Okinawa five years later), and prevented a Cuban-style revolution from occurring in the Dominican Republic.

While these examples tell us nothing about the foreign policy of the incoming Bush presidency, they reveal something about the nature of international politics. Unlike domestic policy, international politics has its own logic and grammar. Even lacking a crisis abroad, a president can ultimately overcome domestic obstacles to his foreign policy.

There are reasons for cautious optimism about the Bush administration’s ability to supersede such obstacles. Although not a serious student of international affairs, Bush has surrounded himself with experienced hands. His primary foreign policy team of Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice possesses the combined experience, influence and bureaucratic savvy to ensure that foreign policy is not neglected at the expense of domestic policy.

Although the legislative branch may force the incoming president to make far-reaching compromises in his domestic agenda, this may not be the case for his foreign policy.  Given his constitutionally mandated authority over foreign affairs, Bush could find that he has much greater room for initiative overseas than at home.


Michael H. Creswell is in associate professor of history at Florida State University. The author of "A Question of Balance: How France and the United States Created Cold War Europe" (2006), he is also a writer for the History News Service.