The United States faces an increasingly urgent challenge: reevaluating how we choose and implement foreign policy. Currently, our government’s approach to foreign policy is paradoxically too democratic and not democratic enough. Presidents’ decisions to use force are strongly influenced by electoral incentives, but citizens have few opportunities to directly influence a specific decision about the use of force and are often underinformed about foreign policy questions. This has lead to cynical political maneuvering and popular discontent. Unfortunately, no potential alternatives to the present system have been identified yet. Until such alternatives are available, we must demand that politicians at every level play by the rules established in our Constitution, even if those rules are imperfect. Allowing politicians to simply disregard laws because they find them inconvenient undermines our democracy.
For a long time, the US didn’t really want a robust foreign policy apparatus. The Constitution did create a basic set of protocols for interactions with other states; it grants Congress the power to declare war and ratify treaties and entrusts the President with commanding the US’s armed forces and negotiating treaties.
But George Washington’s Farewell Address dwelled on the danger of interacting with other countries, even as allies: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence…the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government…The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is…to have with them as little political connection as possible.”
Isolationism continued with the Monroe Doctrine, in which President Monroe attempted to prevent European powers from intensifying their involvement in the Americas. Diverse groups, including organized labor, pacifists and feminists, opposed America’s entry into WWI. Following WWI, President Wilson proposed the League of Nations, an organization intended to forestall wars by peacefully adjudicating disputes between states. Wilson was able to convince almost every WWI participant to join— except the United States, where Republican politicians quoted Washington’s warnings about foreign entanglements and ultimately prevented the US from joining the League.
A century later, America is involved in multiple long-term armed conflicts outside the US’s borders. The American people, and America’s system for creating and enacting foreign policy, have not adequately responded to this new context.
The average American is, unfortunately, not very well-informed about foreign policy. Pew found in 2014 that roughly half of Americans can identify Syria on a map. Fewer than half of Americans knew that Rex Tillerson was Secretary of State in 2017, and only 37% knew that Emmanuel Macron was President of France. This ignorance is perhaps understandable. For many people, foreign policy is simply not that important.
When Americans vote, they often have the advantage of having experienced one or more of the policy options being debated. Most Americans will pay taxes, interact with the healthcare system and notice how social security payments impact them and their family members. This is not true for foreign policy; citizens must rely on the media, the government or online crowdsourcing for information about the situation the US is facing on the world stage. This leaves people vulnerable to manipulation; research has shown that people will react to the same information about foreign affairs differently if it is presented by a politician from their own political party or a politician from a different party. If a politician from your own party states that the United States should, for instance, intervene in Syria, you are more likely to approve of intervening in Syria. If you are presented with the same statement about intervening in Syria but told that it was made by a politician from a different political party, you will be less likely to approve of intervening in Syria.
Perhaps this lack of information and engagement isn’t too important, though. Let’s suppose that political leaders usually make the choices that their constituents would have preferred had the constituents had time to research and evaluate a given policy. If that’s true, perhaps it is alright that Americans have effectively opted out of learning about and voting on foreign policy. There is some evidence that this tends to happen. A study published in International Studies Quarterly found that personal values and ideologies strongly predict both foreign policy and domestic policy alignments. People who value conservatism are likely to be Republicans and like to support militant internationalism (meaning, the belief that using force against other states is likely to be effective). People who value universalism are likely to be Democrats and likely to support cooperative internationalism (the belief that using diplomacy and cooperation when interacting with other states is likely to be effective). So, for example, Democrat voters may not know what’s going on outside the US, but they will vote for Democrat politicians. These politicians will usually make the same foreign policy choices that the voters would have made because Democrats generally have similar values and therefore similar foreign policy preferences.
Unfortunately, this idea breaks down when you look further into the formulation of foreign policy in American today. First, both political parties are experiencing serious fragmentation. The Democratic Party includes Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom have supported military interventions (often in the name of humanitarian goals), and Bernie Sanders, who has vehemently criticized such interventions.
Second, constitutional checks and balances notwithstanding, elected representatives in Congress may not have very much control over America’s foreign policy. Increasingly, Presidents use executive agreements rather than treaties to codify arrangements with other countries. Executive agreements do not require any kind of congressional approval, so using an executive agreement in place of a treaty effectively removes Congress from the process.
Even if the President chooses to create a treaty and have it ratified, other Presidents may withdraw from that treaty without Congressional approval. President Carter withdrew from a Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan in 1978 without Congressional consent. President Bush withdrew from the US’s Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia in 2002 without Congressional consent.
The Constitution might attribute the power to declare war to Congress, but multiple administrations from both parties have argued that certain types of military force, such as the use of force to protect “vital” US interests or address “imminent” threats may be used without Congressional approval or a formal declaration of war. George H.W. Bush used this justification to send troops to Somalia. Clinton used it to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo. George W Bush used it to enter Iraq. Obama used it to intervene in Libya. Although Presidents usually do not initiate large wars if their party does not control Congress, and may change course if Congress is intensely critical of the decision to use force; in many ways Congress has abdicated its responsibility to decide when and how the US goes to war.
Unfortunately, the President is not a good substitute for Congressional oversight. Research has shown that domestic political concerns exert significant influence over presidential decisions to use force. Presidents are more likely to use force when they are facing a presidential election in the next year. They are more likely to use force when the economy is in a downturn or their approval ratings are fallings. In short, the decision to use force is influenced by the political interests of a politician and weakly influenced by the preferences of the general population.
It is easy to view all of this as convincing evidence that American should make its foreign policy process more democratic. Yet this would put complicated choices in the hands of citizens who consistently fail to identify strategically important countries on maps. Attempting to better inform Americans about international affairs so that they might become more involved in the process is unlikely to succeed. Citizens who are better informed about foreign affairs are often less likely to change their opinions in response to new information and are more skilled at interpreting information so that it suits their preexisting beliefs. Going from an under-informed electorate to one which rationalized new information to protect preexisting beliefs is unlikely to improve the overall situation. Furthermore, attempting to educate American adults en masse and then somehow force them to continue following the news about the rest of the world is technically challenging.
Making the process less democratic, however, goes against American ideals and intensifies the risk that politicians make decisions in response to their own interests. Since politicians, especially presidents, have finite political careers, this will likely result in more policies which satisfy the public in the short term but worsen America’s position in the long term.
Until we identify a feasible, sufficiently democratic and effective way of formulating foreign policy, we should at least strive to follow the established rules, imperfect as they are. Presidents must stop usurping the power to initiate armed conflicts. Congress must find the backbone necessary to stand up to presidents and curtail the unauthorized use of force. Presidents must stop using executive agreements as weak substitutes for treaties, and Congress must insist on being included in treaty formulation (and then act in the nation’s interests when it comes time to ratify treaties, rather than using them as political poker chips or bludgeons with which to influence or attack the president). Democracies rely on the rule of law. When politicians ignore or manipulate the Constitution to suit their own ends, they undermine our democracy.
Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.