Stephen E Ambrose. Foreign Affairs. Volume 70, Issue 5. Winter 1991.
In the half-century between 1941 and 1991 the ten men who have served as president of the United States have scored some stupendous successes in their role as unquestioned world leader, but they have also suffered some spectacular failures. The greatest successes—the turning back of Nazism, fascism and communism in Europe and of Japanese militarism in Asia—are of such an order of magnitude that they must be described as America’s unique gift to the world. That the presidents and their nation did not achieve these triumphs for freedom on their own is obvious, but it is equally obvious that the triumphs could not have been achieved without their leadership and determination. The presidents’ contribution to the end of another “ism”—colonialism—has been of lesser importance, though still a positive one, as also their contribution to the advent of peaceful relations between Egypt and Israel, not to mention the continuing existence of Israel.
The failures, however, have been spectacular. They include the unwillingness or inability to prevent communist takeovers in China, Southeast Asia or Cuba, or to create peaceful conditions, much less prosperity, in the Middle East, Africa and Central America. Although some progress has been made in the past few years, American presidents have failed to realize the hopes of the founders of the United Nations for a genuine collective security or an end to the arms race. And they have been unable or unwilling to slow, much less stop, the international arms trade.
The two giants among the presidents since 1941 came at the beginning of that period. Franklin D. Roosevelt committed a reluctant United States to the leading international role and, more specifically, to unalterable opposition to Nazism, fascism and Japanese militarism. Harry S. Truman committed a reluctant United States to the reconstruction of Europe, to the building of democracy in Germany and Japan, to support for Israel, to NATO and the containment of communism. Four decades later the commitments made by Roosevelt and Truman in the 1940s remain the bedrock of American foreign policy. Their successors have been successful as implementors of established policy, not as creators of new policy.
Almost all the presidents since 1952 have attempted to create their own doctrine, using the Truman Doctrine as a model, but without much success. The doctrines articulated by Roosevelt and Truman established the precedent for future presidents. Although not an easy task, both presidents managed to convince a permanent majority of the American people that the democracy in, and close ties with, Western Europe were in the national interest; Truman, in the immediate postwar period, would include Japan. It has been difficult, however, for successive presidents to persuade a permanent majority that America’s national security is at stake in other areas, except the Middle East.
The Eisenhower Doctrine dealt specifically with the Middle East. In 1957 Congress granted President Dwight D. Eisenhower authority to use American armed forces in the Middle East “if the president determines the necessity…to assist any nation…requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism.” He implemented it in 1958 in Lebanon in a minor but precedent-setting military intervention. In its broadest sense the Eisenhower Doctrine was used by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, also in Lebanon, and by President George Bush in the recent Gulf War. But neither Reagan nor Bush cited it when they acted, in sharp contrast to Eisenhower in 1958 when he cited the Truman Doctrine as a precedent for invoking his own doctrine.
Unlike the Eisenhower Doctrine, which was based on a joint congressional resolution, President Richard M. Nixon announced his own doctrine more or less casually during an informal news conference in 1969. Nixon said that “the United States is going to encourage, and has a right to expect, that this problem communist aggression! will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves.” The Nixon Doctrine, which specifically concerned Southeast Asia, was little more than a clarification of the president’s policy of Vietnamization (turning the ground war over to the South Vietnamese) and had no lasting impact.
The Carter Doctrine addressed the Persian Gulf. In 1980 President Jimmy Carter declared, without congressional authorization, that the United States would repel a Soviet assault in the gulf “by any means necessary—including military force.” The doctrine is now out-of-date, and it was not cited by Presidents Reagan or Bush when they sent U.S. armed forces to the region.
The Reagan Doctrine (circa 1983) had no specific wording and no authorization. It was more a summary of President Reagan’s policies in the Third World than a doctrine. In practice it meant covert U.S. military and economic support for anticommunist forces in Nicaragua and Afghanistan. In Nicaragua democracy triumphed, contrary to predictions from the Reagan administration, which argued that the Sandinistas would never abide by the results of a fair and free election. Whether the Reagan policy of support for the contras accelerated the process and forced the Sandinistas to accept the election results is a debatable point. In Afghanistan the Reagan Doctrine certainly helped the Afghanistan rebels to force a Red Army retreat, but it has not led to the demise of the communist government there.
The post-Truman doctrines for the Middle East have not had much success. It was President Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt who expelled the Soviets from the Middle East, not the Eisenhower Doctrine. Reagan’s intervention in Lebanon in 1982 was a disaster. And if there were ever any danger of the Red Army moving into the Persian Gulf, it no longer exists—not because of the Carter Doctrine but because of internal Soviet problems.
An obvious reason for these relative failures was American overreach. The United States either could not or would not support armed forces in every part of the world. American influence, and thus presidential doctrines, have been limited to those areas where the nation was willing to maintain large armed forces on a permanent basis. The United States has done so in Western Europe and Japan, where its influence today is great, but it has not done so in Southeast Asia, where its influence is small, nor in the Middle East, where Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush pulled troops and ships out shortly after sending them in.
For whatever reasons—perhaps because the doctrines announced by some of his predecessors turned out to be empty canons—President Bush has not articulated what could be called a doctrine of his own. He has established a precedent of unalterable opposition to naked aggression by one Arab nation against another. As this is based on sound principle and economic necessity, it will have more staying power than some of the earlier doctrines—if the United States is willing to maintain large armed forces in the area.
The great successes in U.S. foreign policy tend to come in those areas in which there is a consensus and thus a continuity in policy. (This is not an iron-clad rule; consensus on isolationism, neutrality and disarmament in the 1920s and 1930s was surely wrong.) Failures tend to come in those areas in which there is not a consensus and thus confusion and inconsistency in policy. The most obvious example of a U.S. policy failure is Southeast Asia. In 1954 Eisenhower refused to intervene in Vietnam to stop communism; in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson entered a major war in Vietnam to stop communism, eventually sending 550,000 troops there; in 1973 President Nixon pulled the last American troops out of Vietnam, and two years later the Vietnamese communists won a total victory. By 1976 Vietnam, described by presidents through the 1960s as vital to U.S. national interest, was inconsequential to American policymakers and forgotten as a policy priority by the American people.
Beyond the absence of consensus about the importance of countries other than those of Western Europe and Japan to U.S. national interest, there are additional important causes for the rapid shifts in American foreign policy. An obvious one has been the absence of continuity in the top leadership positions. In the past fifty years there have been ten presidents, five of them Democrats, five Republicans. They were all markedly different men, in personalities, agendas, experience and political support. Only two (Eisenhower and Reagan) served more than five years; all, including Roosevelt and Truman, had major internal inconsistencies in their policies; each tried to set his own course and put his own stamp on policy; small wonder that the United States lurched first this way, then that (except in Western Europe and Japan).
The swings in the location of control of foreign policy from the White House to Congress contributed to the inconsistencies. The structural cause of these swings is constitutional. The president’s most important asset in asserting control of foreign policy is Section 2, Article II, of the Constitution: “The president shall be commander in chief of the army and navy of the United States.” The Constitution, however, also gives Congress power to shape foreign policy: Section 8, Article I, “The Congress shall have power to…declare war…raise and support armies…and maintain a navy”; Section 9, Article I, “No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law”; and Section 2, Article II, which gives the president the power to “make treaties,” but only “provided two-thirds of the senators present concur.” These simple declarative sentences invite a constant struggle between the executive and the legislative branches for control of foreign policy.
On the eve of Pearl Harbor Congress was in charge of foreign policy, as it had been since the Senate rejected the Versailles Treaty in 1919. President Roosevelt had a clear policy—to get the United States involved in the European war as a major participant on the side of Britain and the Soviet Union and to block further Japanese expansion in Asia—but Congress would not appropriate the monies necessary to raise and maintain armed forces capable of carrying it out, or declare war on the Axis powers.
War came anyway. After Pearl Harbor Roosevelt took command and controlled foreign policy as commander in chief almost without reference to Congress. His two most important policies, the demand for unconditional surrender by the Axis and the Yalta accords with the Soviets, were his decisions alone.
Truman operated differently, though for obvious reasons. The war was over, and thus the power of the president was necessarily diminished. He did not have the political mandate Roosevelt enjoyed, and the Republicans controlled Congress in the critical years 1947-49. Truman needed congressional approval for his great innovations, including creating America’s first peacetime alliance—NATO—and an aid package to Europe, the Marshall Plan. Whereas there had been no significant national discussion about unconditional surrender or the Yalta accords, Truman led a lengthy debate over NATO and the Marshall Plan. He eventually managed to create a consensus for the policies. His third great innovation, the Truman Doctrine, was announced during a speech to Congress on March 12, 1947. The Truman Doctrine committed the United States to contain communism anywhere in the world by aiding countries that requested help against Soviet expansionism. His speech persuaded a majority in Congress to support military aid to Greece and Turkey, but that support came only after a prolonged national debate brilliantly conducted by his administration.
Truman, however, implemented his doctrine in Korea without consulting Congress. This decision turned out to be a mistake. Because of the way Truman entered the Korean War and because of the way he conducted it—twice changing U.S. policy 180 degrees, from stopping aggression to liberating North Korea and then back to stopping aggression, in each case without involving Congress in any way—he lost both popular and congressional support. Two years after he intervened in Korea, Truman’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll dropped to 23 percent, the lowest in the history of the poll (Johnson slipped to 28 percent in the fall of 1968, Nixon to 25 percent in the summer of 1974).
Eisenhower brought back presidential primacy in foreign policy. The threat posed by the Soviet Union, the development of nuclear weapons and long-range bombers to carry them (and by the late 1950s intercontinental missiles), combined with the Pearl Harbor legacy of fear of surprise attack, made Congress content—even eager to leave foreign policy decisions to the president. Eisenhower informed, rather than consulted with, congressional leaders about his major decisions: to accept a ceasefire in Korea without liberating North Korea, to stay out of Vietnam in 1954, to use the CIA to support coups in Iran in 1953 and in Guatemala in 1954, not to go to war with China over the off-shore islands (Quemoy and Matsu), not to support the Hungarian rebels in 1956 or the British/French/Israeli cabal in Suez in 1956, to force Israel to pull out of the Sinai Peninsula in 1957, to extend aid to Tito in Yugoslavia and to hold down the cost of defense. In every case, except Vietnam in 1954, a majority of Republicans and perhaps of Congress as a whole wanted Eisenhower to adopt different policies. But thanks to his immense prestige and congressional fears he got his way.
In his less than three years in office President John F. Kennedy ran foreign policy almost without reference to Congress, most notably in the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, but also in dealing with the problems of Berlin and Vietnam. Kennedy did not have Eisenhower’s prestige or his political mandate, but he was the nation’s leader at a time when Congress was most willing to support the president in foreign policy because the Cold War was at its hottest and American hubris at its highest.
In 1964, in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Congress gave President Johnson even broader powers in Southeast Asia than it had given Eisenhower in the Middle East, another reflection of the congressional attitude that “the president knows best.” But although Johnson managed to get a near unanimous vote for the resolution, he did so in the middle of a presidential election campaign and rushed it through Congress without any meaningful debate. Many congressmen later claimed they had been tricked into voting for the measure because Johnson painted the incident in the Gulf of Tonkin almost as if it were Pearl Harbor revisited. In other words the sense of permanent crisis that prevailed in the worst years of the Cold War allowed Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson to act almost as unilaterally as Roosevelt had during World War II by drawing on their constitutionally given strength as commander in chief.
The agony of Vietnam caused the pendulum to swing back. Congress used its power of the purse to limit President Nixon’s ability to carry out policies he thought necessary and eventually forced him to agree to a ceasefire that left the United States far short of the goals he had set. It blocked his detente initiative by refusing most-favored-nation status to the Soviets. In the 1973 War Powers Resolution Congress attempted to take control of foreign policy out of the president’s hands by limiting his military option through legislation—unthinkable in previous administrations—and it rejected President Ford’s pleas to support South Vietnam in its final crisis.
Perhaps exhausted by its major effort in the Nixon/Ford years, certainly relieved that the Vietnam War was over, Congress retreated from its active role during the Carter presidency. It was not involved in Carter’s major triumph, the Camp David accords, except to provide the money that made the agreement possible, and it played virtually no part in the major crises of 1980—Nicaragua and the Sandinistas, Iran and the hostages, Afghanistan and the Soviet invasion.
Nor did Congress play as active a role in the eight years of Reagan’s presidency as it had in the Nixon/Ford years, certainly not in his interventions in Grenada (1983) and Lebanon (1983-84), his air strike against Libya (1986) or his attempt to swap arms for hostages in Iran. Reagan simply ignored the one attempt by Congress to control policy—the Boland amendment forbidding aid to the contras in Nicaragua. (Although in that case Congress was able to use its power of the purse to limit somewhat his intervention.) In general Congress followed the shifting winds of Reagan’s policies. When Reagan was hostile to the Soviet Union, Congress appropriated massive funds to support his military buildup (in large part because of the Soviet buildup of the 1970s). When Reagan turned to detente, Congress went along.
To date President Bush has been able to set and carry out his own foreign policy, although like Truman before the Korean “police action” he has been careful to involve Congress in the debate over the use of force. In the gulf crisis of 1990-91 he persuaded Congress to vote for the functional equivalent of a declaration of war.
One of the president’s assets in the struggle over control of foreign policy is his ability to act, to shoot first and answer questions later. This power was greatly strengthened during the Cold War as the United States built and maintained permanent standing armed forces. The congressional attempt to diminish this asset through the War Powers Resolution has had at best minimal effect.
One congressional asset in the struggle for foreign policy control is the power to investigate, but this can be asserted only after the fact—as in the extended hearings into the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the agreement reached at Yalta, Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. involvement in Vietnam (the prolonged Foreign Relations Committee hearings), possible wrong-doings within the CIA (the Church committee hearings) and the Iran-contra arms deals. Such hearings can embarrass the president and sometimes, as with Vietnam or the CIA, have an impact on policy.
Still, congressional hearings are at best a cumbersome way to make foreign policy, partly because they typically come after the fact, partly because partisanship is seldom more clearly in evidence than in a congressional hearing, and increasingly because of a divided government. Eisenhower was the only Republican president who had a majority in both the Senate and the House. This situation lasted for only two years, and during that time the Republicans in the Senate tried to pass an amendment to the Constitution (the so-called Bricker amendment) designed to limit the president’s power to enter into executive agreements with foreign nations (read Yalta).
Since Roosevelt the only presidents to leave office with high approval ratings have been Eisenhower and Reagan. Truman, Johnson and Nixon had less than a 30 percent approval rate at the end of their terms; Carter and Ford could not win reelection even as incumbents; Kennedy’s approval rate was at about 50 percent when he was assassinated. There were many reasons, mostly domestic, for these relative failures, but certainly not least was the inability of the presidents to achieve their own stated foreign policy goals in “the American century.” Their commitment to the Truman Doctrine played a role. The policy of containment was inherently frustrating and especially so to a nation that had totally defeated the Nazis and the Japanese in an all-out offensive but had to go over to the defensive in dealing with Stalin and his successors.
Roosevelt was successful in achieving the unconditional surrender of America’s enemies, and in the Yalta accords he got the postwar settlement he wanted (whether he would have been better able than his successors to enforce the accords cannot be known but must be doubted). Truman successfully contained the communists in Greece and South Korea, established NATO and the Marshall Plan.
Their successors hoped for, and the public expected, such spectacular victories in other areas of the world, but these have been beyond America’s grasp or willingness to pay. Even so it cannot be said too often that they have all held firm to the commitment to NATO and Japan. Bush was fortunate enough to be in office when the Truman Doctrine won its great victory, the retreat of communism from central and eastern Europe. Credit for this triumph goes to all the presidents since 1945.
One obvious cause of the relative failures in foreign policy has been the shift in the world economy and America’s position in it. When Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower led the United States, it was an exporter of oil, steel, automobiles and other commodities. America was the world’s creditor and enjoyed a highly favorable balance of trade.
By 1965 this situation was rapidly changing; by 1975 the United States was a major importer of oil; by 1985 the country had an unfavorable balance of trade and had become a debtor nation. Europe had recovered and then some; Japan was booming beyond the wildest expectations; the remainder of noncommunist Asia was not far behind. America was richer than ever, but its relative position in the world economy had been sharply reduced. This hampered the presidents in their attempts to be the world leader. For example, in 1956 Eisenhower was able to force the British and French out of Suez and Israel out of Sinai by threatening an oil boycott and other economic sanctions. But in 1973 Nixon could not persuade the Europeans to help him implement his policy of rearming Israel during the Yom Kippur War, and in 1981 Reagan was unable to persuade the Europeans to join in an economic boycott of Poland and Russia when the Soviet Union forced the Polish government to impose martial law in order to crush the Solidarity movement.
The military balance also shifted dramatically between 1941 and 1991. In 1941 the United States had a minuscule armed force, which was the major reason Roosevelt had so little influence on world events from the Munich crisis of 1938 through the German invasion of the Soviet Union in mid-1941. By 1945 the American armed forces were vastly superior to those of the rest of the world combined. After World War II the United States made possible the rearming of Western Europe, stopped communist aggression in Korea and had a virtual monopoly on nuclear weapons. In 1962 Kennedy used America’s overwhelming superiority to force Nikita Khrushchev to back down in the Cuban missile crisis.
But the Cuban experience, plus the continuing expansion of the American arsenal instituted by Kennedy, caused Khrushchev to start his own crash program of building nuclear weapons and missiles. Kennedy had aimed to stockpile enough weapons and missiles to give the United States clear-cut nuclear superiority, but in 1968 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara announced that the Soviets had caught up with United States in terms of nuclear weapons. McNamara argued, however, that this was not undesirable, since the behavior of both states was now constrained by mutual assured destruction (MAD).
In conventional forces, meanwhile, the United States cut back its number of ships, planes and tanks, while the Soviets expanded theirs. The number of men and women in the U.S. armed services also decreased after Nixon introduced the all-volunteer force. The U.S. military, which had boasted in 1960 it could fight two-and-a-half major wars at once, by 1980 had become a pitiful helpless giant, capable of destroying the world in a nuclear spasm but incapable of fighting even one-half a war with much hope of success.
The power to destroy is not the power to control. Power is the man on the spot with the gun in his hand, and increasingly the United States was incapable of putting him there. This too hampered American presidents in their attempts to exert world leadership and led to inconsistencies in their policies. Simultaneously two ideas came to dominate presidential thinking and behavior. First, the world was bipolar and contained two superpowers—the United States and the Soviet Union. Excluding the superpowers, no other nation mattered very much (the British attended the first two summit meetings, at Yalta and Potsdam, as equal partners; Eisenhower took care to involve the British and French at the Geneva and Paris summits; but since 1960 summits have been limited to the United States and the Soviet Union).
Second, American hubris and the astonishing growth of the White House staff combined to reinforce the so-called Imperial Presidency, so that just as the relative importance of the president was decreasing, the presidents’ views of themselves and what they could accomplish was increasing. The public agreed, which led to great expectations with each new president after Eisenhower, only to be followed by disillusion as the presidents failed to achieve their goals.
In 1960 Kennedy had set out to create a first-strike capability. By 1968 Soviet nuclear weapons deployment and advances in weaponry led to the concept of MAD. In 1970 Nixon said that he would be satisfied with strategic sufficiency, which apparently meant nuclear parity with the Soviets. In 1972 Nixon signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT), an agreement with the Soviets that conceded superiority in some categories of missiles.
These fundamental policy shifts after 1960 were matched by shifts in each president’s posture. Kennedy came into office full of bellicose rhetoric. He wanted to go on the offensive worldwide, ready to “pay any price, bear any burden,” to ensure the triumph of freedom everywhere. He sponsored an invasion of Cuba—and then backed down at the critical moment. He took a strong stance on Berlin—and then backed down when Khrushchev built the Wall. He escalated the war in Vietnam—and then allowed the CIA to participate in a plot to overthrow the South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem. He faced down Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis—and then entered into an agreement in which he promised that the United States would never invade Cuba, a promise he had no authority to make and that, had he presented it to the Senate in the form of a treaty, would never have been ratified.
The gap between Johnson’s rhetoric and promises on the one hand and his performance on the other was even greater. Johnson said he would not send American boys to Asia to do the fighting that Asian boys ought to be doing themselves, but he then ended up sending 550,000 American soldiers. Johnson said he sought no wider war, even as he widened the war. He said he would never play politics with peace and then called a bombing halt one week before the 1968 election. He said he would see to it that there was no reward for aggression and then offered to negotiate the removal of American troops while the communists held large portions of South Vietnamese territory.
Nixon extracted the United States from Vietnam, opened the door to China, promoted detente with the Soviet Union and negotiated the first Cold War arms control agreement. In each case what he did represented a retreat, for America and for Nixon, who had stridently advocated opposite policies for two decades. When he withdrew U.S. troops from Vietnam, Nixon claimed to have achieved peace with honor. From the perspective of the South Vietnamese, what he had achieved was surrender with humiliation. What he had accomplished was to get America out of Vietnam without setting off a right-wing revolt within the United States and to give the Saigon government a chance to stand on its own two feet—not much of a chance, to be sure, but still a chance. That was an accomplishment Nixon could have pointed to with pride but, Nixon being Nixon, he had to grossly exaggerate and claim peace with honor. Saigon fell because of the incompetence and corruption of its own government. It was not Nixon’s fault, but he must shoulder some of the blame for failing to make that government reform itself.
If Nixon was the man most responsible for opening the door to China in 1972, he was also one of the key men who had been most responsible for keeping it closed for the preceding 23 years. When he changed his mind, he sprang his new policy on the nation as a surprise. There had been no national debate on the subject, and thus no constituency had emerged behind it. The door, therefore, did not open very wide. Nixon was not able to solve the problem of Taiwan or establish diplomatic relations or trade agreements with China, much less enter into an alliance with that country.
Detente with the Soviets, for all its promise, was also substantially flawed by Nixon’s penchant for secrecy. He negotiated in secret, especially using back-channels to cut out the State Department. Rather than consult with the Senate, he tried to go over its head or around it. He thus left his policy vulnerable to ambitious senators, led by Henry Jackson ( Wash.), who used their power to scuttle such critical aspects of detente as most-favored-nation status for the Soviets. Detente had no staying power—recall that President Ford banned the use of the word detente in the White House—and at least part of the reason was Nixon’s love of surprise and secrecy.
Carter also was unable to set a course and hold to it. In sharp contrast to the realpolitik of the Nixon/Ford administrations, the chief characteristic of the Carter administration was its idealism. In his inaugural address in 1976 Carter said he wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons and to stop arms sales abroad. He made a firm commitment to human rights, calling them “the soul of our foreign policy.” But the nuclear arsenal grew during the Carter years at the same pace as in the Nixon/Ford years. Arms sales abroad actually increased. Carter’s emphasis on human rights badly damaged America’s relationship with many of its oldest allies. It caused resentment in the Soviet Union and contributed to Carter’s failure to reach arms control agreements and to the downfall of America’s most important ally in the Middle East, the shah of Iran.
Human rights had been good politics for Carter as a candidate. The issue pleased both right-wingers, who could and did use it to criticize the Soviet Union, and left-wingers, who could and did use it to criticize Chile, Brazil, South Africa and others for their human rights abuses. But the issue made for terrible policy. It was directed against America’s allies, who were vulnerable to Carter’s pressures, rather than its enemies, who were basically immune. It made little sense to weaken such allies as South Korea, Argentina, South Africa, Brazil, Taiwan, Nicaragua, Iran and others because of objections to their human rights record while continuing to advance credits, sell grain and ship advanced technology to the Soviet Union, which had one of the worst human rights records in the world and was clearly no friend of the United States.
The Carter human rights policy represented American hubris at its most extreme, willfully ignoring the reality of America’s power and ability to dictate developments abroad. It makes no sense to commit to a policy that one has no power to enforce. This applies to Roosevelt’s policy toward Poland as enunciated in the Yalta accords of 1945, to the Republican promise of liberation for Eastern Europe as enunciated by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1952, to the policy of paying any price to ensure the survival of freedom around the world as enunciated by Kennedy in 1961, and to Carter’s human rights policy.
Further, Carter’s preaching to 1961, and to Carter’s the Soviet Union on its human rights obligations contradicted U.S. attempts to improve relations with the Kremlin. The president tried to assure the Soviet leaders that a new day had dawned in Washington, but as he pulled back from America’s advanced positions around the world, for example by ordering the removal of nuclear weapons from Korea without demanding some balancing arms reduction by the Soviets, the Soviets responded by moving forward. They continued their arms buildup and became involved both in the Horn of Africa and Angola.
The climax came in December 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Carter’s reaction was extreme, as was the triggering Soviet action. He placed an embargo on grain sales to the Soviets and on high technology goods. He withdrew SALT II, drawn up by Nixon and endorsed by Ford, from the Senate ratification process. He sharply increased defense spending and announced that restrictions on CIA activities would be lifted. These were serious steps that reversed longstanding policies, not to mention his own stated goals. When Carter left office, relations with the Soviet Union were much worse than they had been when he was inaugurated. Each side had more bombs and missiles, less trade and trust. Carter in 1980 was the antithesis of Carter in 1977. By 1980 the word most often used to describe his foreign policy was “waffle.” It was a stinging indictment.
Nonetheless Carter did manage some solid foreign policy successes. Most notably, the president was instrumental in negotiating the Camp David accords in 1979, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, Egypt. Another notable success was the Panama Canal treaty in 1978, returning full sovereignty over the canal zone to Panama. The treaty had been denounced by presidential candidate Reagan, endorsed by Ford and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Carter put the full weight of the presidency into the debate; the treaty narrowly passed. He also established full diplomatic relations with China. But he failed completely to achieve his stated goals of ending the Cold War, improving human rights, stopping the arms race or eliminating nuclear weapons.
With regard to the event that led to Carter’s defeat in the 1980 election, the Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages by the revolutionaries, he moved from blunder to blunder. He praised the shah far beyond any justified level (on the eve of the revolution he called Iran an island of stability in a turbulent sea). He failed to support the shah when the revolution began. He failed to open lines of communication with the revolutionaries. He recognized a government in Iran that could not govern. He decided to allow the shah into the United States despite clear warnings about the repercussions. He had a highly emotional and grossly exaggerated response to the taking of the hostages, insisting absurdly that he was spending every waking moment on the hostage problem. He delayed and then botched the use of a military rescue option.
Reagan was also inconsistent. He came into office as the most belligerent president since Kennedy, denouncing the “evil empire,” and ended up as Mikhail Gorbachev’s friend and virtual ally. He entered office aiming for a first-strike capability and ended up signing the first arms reduction agreement of the Cold War. He promised never to pay ransom for hostages, then secretly sold weapons to the Iranian government in return for the release of hostages (a policy that never resulted in the release of hostages and completely undermined the U.S. boycott of arms sales to Tehran). Reagan did preside over a major increase in America’s armed forces, but more often than not he was frustrated in his attempt to use the military option, as in Nicaragua. In Lebanon he was hamstrung by contradictions in his policies. He sent the marines to Beirut with no clear mission, putting them in a provocative position with orders not to shoot. In Richard Neustadt’s telling judgement, he succeeded in “combining ignorance with insistence.”
Still, Reagan had some impressive firsts. His administration coincided with a number of arms reduction agreements, and it managed eight years without a major war (but with a popular invasion of Grenada and an even more popular military strike against Libya). According to his admirers, Reagan’s arms buildup was responsible for the retreat of communism from central and eastern Europe. They argue that the Soviet effort to keep up with the Americans bankrupted the communists. This may be true, although critics argue that communism collapsed because it is a rotten system and that it lasted as long as it did only because of the perceived threat against the Warsaw Pact nations by the Reagan buildup. Back in 1953 Eisenhower had said that the proper policy for the West was to keep up its defenses, not to threaten and to wait for communism to self-destruct. That was a restatement of the Truman Doctrine, and it worked, thanks to its support by all of Truman’s successors.
In any case, with regard to Reagan’s policies, it was the contradictions that stood out. He launched the most expensive weapons development program in history, the Strategic Defense Initiative, even as he sought arms reduction. In 1986 at the conclusion of the Reykjavik Summit with Gorbachev, Secretary of State George Shultz reported that the two leaders had agreed on the elimination of all nuclear weapons and the missile systems to deliver them, and that this process of disarmament was to be completed in ten years. It seemed too good to be true, and it was. Shultz went on to say that these agreements in principle had been abandoned because Reagan refused to accept Gorbachev’s demand that the United States stop its SDI program. In the Iran-contra affair, the administration violated the law and tried to cover it up, to the point that Reagan might have been impeached had the Democrats not felt that one threatened impeachment a century is enough. His administration survived, but revelations in the Iran-contra hearings seriously crippled his ability to conduct foreign policy. When he left office, Reagan was popular with the public as a person, but his policies were in danger of becoming an object of ridicule.
To date President Bush’s policies have been, except toward China, popular and successful. America’s relative power position in the world has continued to decline, and congressional attempts to cut back on the powers of the Imperial Presidency through investigations and revelations from Watergate through Iran-contra have proved embarrassing for the White House. Yet in his first major crisis Bush was able to mobilize public opinion within his country and around the world, leading a serious debate, fully involving Congress and consulting constantly with other leaders. In the process he demonstrated beyond all doubt that the American president is still the most important person in the world. No other world leader could have put together the coalition that fought the Gulf War. Bush also demonstrated that no other nation could project so much power so far from home as the United States. A year later, in August 1991, Bush’s condemnation of the coup leaders in the Soviet Union as criminals, his support for Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, brought him praise and thanks from Soviet leaders, who said that his policy was of fundamental importance to the democratic elements in Moscow.
This brief survey of a half-century of presidential foreign policy demonstrates some basic truths: realism is more effective than idealism; a strong military is essential to implementing an activist foreign policy; Congress is less likely to sustain an activist policy than the president; the struggle between Congress and the president over foreign policy will continue so long as the Constitution lasts; and consistency in foreign policy is difficult to achieve but immensely powerful when it happens.
But the great lesson is that secrecy and surprise are the enemies of democracy; open and prolonged debate are the great power of democracy. The policies that have failed have tended to be those adopted by presidents without meaningful debate—Roosevelt’s Yalta policy toward Poland, Kennedy’s intervention in the Bay of Pigs, Johnson’s intervention in Vietnam, Nixon’s detente and China policies, Carter’s human rights policy, Reagan’s Iran-contra policy, among others. The polices that have succeeded have been adopted by Congress and the people after meaningful debate—Roosevelt’s commitment to total victory, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan and NATO, Carter’s Panama treaty, and the Camp David accords, arms control (where the debate has been too long and too strident, but where a consensus is building), Bush’s policy of using all-out force to turn back naked, unprovoked aggression. Of course there are exceptions (unconditional surrender in World War II, Nixon’s China opening and others), but when the president involves Congress and the people in the creation of new policy it is most likely to work and have staying power.
For the historian looking back over a half century what stands out is the strengthening of the president’s power to conduct foreign policy. When one contrasts how hampered Roosevelt was before World War II by a Congress determined to impose its policy—neutrality and disarmament with the adoption by all presidents since Roosevelt of his policy of collective security and military preparedness, the adjective that comes to mind to characterize that strengthening is “enormous.” Obviously, in such a diverse country with such volatile politics over such a long period of time, it has not been a straight line of growth. In this connection it is ironic that the most innovative of the Cold War presidents, Nixon, was the one most frustrated by congressional interference. Nevertheless in general over the past half century, the Oval Office is where foreign policy for better or worse has been made. Except for the administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, that had not been the case in the first four decades of the twentieth century and seldom in the nineteenth century. Since Pearl Harbor the best way to describe the situation is that as America’s role as world leader increased, so has the power of the president.