Anyone specializing in any field of policy will tell you that theirs is the most important. In the case of foreign policy, that argument might hold some weight. Since the end of the Second World War, an activist foreign policy on the part of the United States has coincided with the elimination of great-power conflict, the reduction of global poverty by half, and the recognition of human rights on a scale unmatched in human history. What countries do matters. What the United States does matters. That’s why its foreign policy must not be in the hands of an official chosen by an electorate that thinks foreign policy should be dictated through avoiding “entangling alliances,” whatever that’s supposed to mean.
Now, this proposal seems radical. After all, it’s enshrined in our Constitution that the President, as the head diplomat, dictate foreign policy. Yet this has landed us in trouble in the very recent past: consider President Trump’s near-torpedoing of the “One-China” policy in December, his immediate acquiescence to Saudi Arabia in the recent row against Qatar (which endangers our Al-Udeid airbase in the latter state, used to stage operations in the Persian Gulf), and his failure to come up with a strategy to guide American forces in eastern Syria, who are now caught in a dangerously escalatory proxy war with Iranian militias while also trying to train the Syrian Democratic Forces to battle the Islamic State.
If these were just mistakes in domestic policy, they would be more easily fixed because the actors with whom the President dealt would be local, nonlethal, and nonthreatening. Each of these attributes contrasts with the stakes that are constantly on the line in foreign policy; the most basic of problems is a potential hegemon looking to dominate a region. If the U.S. doesn’t stop that challenger from becoming a regional power, that state can threaten American interests and, by extension, the interests of its allies. And in the 20th century, this rise would take decades. Now, it can take years—less time than the Obama administration was in office. When the US disengages, other actors fill the void.
There is a reason why Iraqi casualties steadily decreased following the surge of troops introduced by President Bush in 2007. There is a reason why Panama could hold elections subsequently following the U.S.-led overthrow of dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. There is a reason why the Malian government might now stand a chance of defeating Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. When the United States is serious about defending its interests, all opponents take note.
As such, Congress should pass legislation that allows the State Department to regulate what the President does, to avoid slip-ups. According to Foreign Policy, this is already happening in two ways. One is the legislation passed by the Senate to keep the President from unilaterally lifting sanctions on Russia, and the other is the House amendment to legislation to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force. The latter piece refers to the power Congress gave the President to act unilaterally against threats to national security in the wake of the September 11th attacks.
Beyond that, the Department of State should be brought under the purview of the legislative branch, with the Secretary of State nominated and confirmed by the Senate. Should military action become necessary for an issue regarding foreign policy, that Secretary should submit a report to the President arguing why that military use is needed. If the President disagrees, the issue is referred to Congress, where the issue will be voted on. If authorization is granted, the President will be required to, within sixty days, take some type of military action regarding the original issue.
Regarding crises, the issue should immediately be thrown back to the President. Events that require a swift and strong response should have one head at the helm instead of two. With these reforms, not only will American foreign policy be fast, but also effective.
The United States can and should be serious about the power it wields, and it can achieve this seriousness with a foreign policy led by seasoned diplomats who know more about US-China relations than the opinion that “China is ripping us off in trade.”
Nicholas Kinberg ’20 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at email@example.com.