Trans-Pacific View

US Foreign Policy: The Hill Strikes Back

Congress, not the generals, is the best hedge against wayward U.S. foreign policy.

By Toshihiro Nakayama for
US Foreign Policy: The Hill Strikes Back
Credit: US Capitol

The “adults in the room” have all left the building with the exit from the Trump Administration of Generals James Mattis and John Kelly. But should the international community have relied on the generals in the first place? We may have been asking too much of them. Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense, was well known as the man trying to save the world from President Donald J. Trump and his policies. Kelly, likewise, was known to be the man trying to keep things in order in the White House. Kelly may have been the best known Chief of Staff in history.

In his open resignation letter to the president, Mattis cited his views on the importance of the “solidarity of our alliances.” He also stated that the president “has the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with [his own].” Clearly, Cabinet secretaries may advise and from time to time even present a dissenting view on a particular policy matter, but they are not employed to oppose the president’s policies at all times, rather to execute them.

So, the situation in which the world had to rely on the “adults in the room” was always a precarious one. Of course, that is not how the system was designed to be. We were extremely fortunate to have had the generals, but two individuals could never be enough.

Enter the 116th Congress. The congressional role in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy is limited, but not insignificant. In fact, Congress could play a vital role in foreign policy-making functions if it decides to do so. Congress is always the best hedge against potential abuse of executive power, even in foreign affairs.

In recent years, among the important institutions in American society, Congress has not enjoyed great public approval; in fact, the institution has consistently ranked the lowest of American institutions, lower than the presidency, sometimes even dipping into single digits. Can we expect such a distrusted institution to be a check against the presidency? The answer is, Congress is all we have, and we had better make the best use of it. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi repeatedly emphasizes, Congress is a “co-equal” branch of government and, according to the constitution, it is the co-determinant in formulating U.S. foreign policy.

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Yes, legislators have a strong tendency to focus on domestic policy matters that are of interest to their own constituents, even taking positions that may be at odds with the national interest. And yes, the “dead center” political environment has dismantled the foreign policy consensus, though this consensus was always more of a “mindset” than an actual consensus. Skepticism abounds about congressional activism in foreign policy.

However, there are signs that this Congress may be different. Congress has decided, for example, to block the president from spending any federal money to withdraw from NATO and set a formal policy that the United States will “remain a member in good standing.” The bill, the “North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Support Act,” passed easily in a 357-22 vote. Among the bill’s sponsors were Congressman Jimmy Panetta, son of former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and newly elected Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer and currently a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congress also passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, or ARIA. ARIA was introduced by Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, a Republican who also voted to prevent Trump’s withdrawal from NATO and spearheaded Senate Republicans’ drive to preserve the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Though ARIA’s introduction was not widely reported in the United States, U.S. allies in Asia took good note of the initiative.

There are other examples. A bipartisan group of eight House members introduced two bills to make it difficult for the president to withdraw troops from Syria and the Republic of Korea. Among them were Representatives Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Van Taylor (R-TX). Malinowski was an Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights in the Obama Administration and Taylor was a former Marine Corps Captain who served in Iraq.

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, not known for opposing the White House, took an initiative in presenting an amendment to the Middle East policy bill that would rebuke the president’s plan to withdraw forces from Syria and Afghanistan.

What is notable is that most of these initiatives have bipartisan backing. This might change when the 2020 presidential campaigns are in full swing. Democrats seeking office may begin to calculate the electoral implications of their votes. They may not wish to appear too robust in their support of  maintaining the U.S. military presence abroad. Indeed, most of the them did oppose the McConnell amendment. However, this would put them in the odd position of standing on the side of the president. So clearly, politics are in play. But the fact that there are no more “adults in the room” may have triggered the sense on the Hill that Congress does indeed have a role to play in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Right after the 2016 presidential election, a well-known constitutional scholar, a former colleague of mine, told me that the American constitutional system was designed for precisely the kind of situation we are now facing. Indeed, the Founding Fathers may have expected this situation to arrive much sooner. Instead it took almost 240 years for the system they designed to be tested in this way. Now is the time for Congress to do what the founders intended.

Toshihiro Nakayama is a professor at Keio University and Japan Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center.