Sunday, May 01, 2011

More on U.S. Foreign Policy

I recently posted some thoughts that might help people in other nations to better understand U.S. foreign policy. I hope the following will provide further help.

It is a mistake to think that the United States foreign policy is the result of rational decisions by the President. Rather it is better to think of it as the result of a process which involves many players.

The U.S. Constitution states that the President "shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors". The Constitution also makes the President "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States". On the basis of this language, the primary responsibility for U.S. foreign policy rests in the Executive Branch of the U.S. Government, but the Legislative Branch must be consulted, and of course has the authority over the budget for foreign affairs and the military.

The President in theory defines the direction of foreign policy in his administration, has final word on the key members of his foreign policy team, and makes key decisions related to the implementation of foreign policy, but he does so based on the information provided to him by a huge bureaucracy and based on the options identified and the advice of that bureaucracy. Indeed it is that bureaucracy that must carry out the implementation of the policy. The political appointees and career diplomats in reality have great power over the content of U.S. foreign policy.

The 545 voting members of the House of Representatives and Senate not only influence foreign policy themselves, but do so also through the work of their much larger number of staff members and of Congressional support services. Both the Congress and the Executive Branch also are influenced in the definition of foreign policy by outside forces such as the business community and civil society and their lobbyists.

Most Americans don't think about U.S. foreign policy very often and don't have very much information about foreign policy and the problems with which it deals. Indeed, they don't have much interest in foreign policy until they feel the impact in their own lives. They may worry about energy policy when gas prices spike as they are doing now, or about international economic policy when they or their friends lose jobs to outsourcing, or about military policy when their friends or family are serving, but most of the time they worry about things closer to home. Indeed, the American media with few exceptions don't seem to do a good job educating the public about foreign policy, and those exceptions don't enjoy mass audiences.

Washington Post TimeSpace World October 19-20, 2010
Map of news stories in key U.S. media for the day

On the other hand, even a small percentage of the 310 million Americans who are interested in foreign affairs leads to a very large number of people, and often these people are influential in part because of their leadership in the business community and civil society organizations. They influence politicians in both Congress and the administration. Moreover, in this democracy there is a tendency for elected and appointed officials as well as bureaucrats to balance the public interest and response to the opinions of the public with response to pressure groups.

Foreign policy is also buffeted by the winds of apparently random events and by limited rationality. While the Obama administration may have been seeking to rebalance U.S. foreign policy by focusing more on China and India, by resetting the relationship with Russia, and by dealing more with emerging economies, Arab Spring and the reaction of our key European allies has forced attention again to be focused on the Islamic world. A huge bureaucracy dealing with rapidly unfolding events and afflicted with limited rationality may produce a collection of actions from which it is impossible to correctly infer a guiding global strategy.

Americans, as I suggested in my previous posting, both want to do well and to do good, as they understand doing good. These objectives are not always achieved by the same actions. We tend to be more pragmatic problem solvers than implementors of grand strategies. It may be hard to ascertain the grand strategy explaining all our foreign policy actions because those actions come out of a complex administrative and political process focused on problem solving rather than a grand strategy. This is especially true in the periods of transitions from one president to the next, or from one party's domination of the elections to domination by the other party.

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