How to Conduct Foreign Policy
Jude Wanniski
November 22, 1996


Memo To: President Clinton, Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Walter Lippmann and Foreign Policy

Last weekend, I happened to pick up a battered copy of The Essential Lippmann, a collection of essays by Walter Lippmann, one of the most important American political thinkers of the century. In reading here and there at random, I came across this gem, "The Conduct of American Foreign Policy," written May 6, 1939, although it could have been written today, with the three of you in mind:

"The Conduct of American Foreign Policy,"
Today and Tomorrow, May 6, 1939. New York Herald Tribune

Many things are being done these days in Washington to reorganize the machinery of government, but there is one part of the machinery about which nothing is being done. Yet it is now the most dangerously defective part of the whole government mechanism, the part that most urgently needs to be reorganized. This is the mechanism for conducting foreign relations.

The center of the trouble lies in the relation between the President and the two houses of Congress. Under the Constitution they have separate and co-ordinate powers in foreign relations. But obviously they have a joint responsibility. Thus the President appoints ambassadors. The Congress must confirm them. The President negotiates treaties. The Senate must ratify them. The President is commander in chief of the armed forces. The Congress alone has the power to raise and support armies. The President can break off diplomatic relations. The Congress alone has power formally to declare war. But the President has the power, which Lincoln exercised in April, 1861, to recognize the existence of a state of war even though war has not been formally declared. The President can bring a war to its conclusion. But the Congress must ratify the treaty of peace.

It is evident that in conducting foreign relations the two branches of government are not only co-ordinate but interlocking. It is clear that the mechanism will not work unless the two branches of the government have access to the same information, are able to consult continuously, and are able to know before either commits itself irrevocably that it has the support of the other. Without a machinery of unbroken consultation, and a confirmed habit of using it, the President and Congress tend to pull apart, to work at cross-purposes, each to suspect the other of usurping rights, and to divide the country in those very times of crisis when it is most necessary that the United States should deal with the outer world consistently, firmly, and with dignity.

But no effective machinery of consultation now exists. It is the root of our present difficulties. It is most dangerous. It may have profoundly tragic consequences. The fact is that the two branches of government, on whose joint action depends the safety of the American people, are so far apart that it might almost be said that they are not on speaking terms. Certainly they are not able to speak to each other with the candor and confidence that should exist among men who have a joint responsibility for the lives, the fortunes, and the honor of the nation.

Congress and the President are very active about American foreign affairs. They ought to be. The situation throughout the world is more critical than it has been within the memory of any living man. But the fact is that in the face of this situation the Congress and the President are not consulting one another, are not examining the issues together, are not trying with all their power to learn from one another, and to judge together what the United States should do. This is the trouble at the bottom of all the trouble.

It can be corrected if the people want it corrected.

What is the issue, for example, in regard to the Neutrality Act. In the first instance, it is whether Congress shall fix the rules of neutrality by mandatory legislation or whether the President shall fix them by executive discretion. But why should this issue have arisen at all. Why should the country have to choose between making rigid Congressional rules that may not fit the practical situation and giving to one man unlimited personal discretion?

If it were the established practice of the President to keep the leaders of both parties fully and currently informed, and to act only after consultation with them, there would be no need to choose between cast-iron laws and unfettered personal discretion. The two organs of the government would be coordinated as they were meant to be coordinated. Congress would exercise continuous supervision over foreign policy, and the President would be required and would be able to provide Congress continuously with the information that is necessary if Congress is to know what it is doing.

But as things go now, Congress gets its information from the newspapers and from the rumors that circulate in the lobbies. It has no means of knowing from day to day what information is coming to the State Department. It never really understands in advance what the President is doing or why he is really doing it. And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue the President deals with Congress at arm's length, passing out scraps of information, hints of his intentions to this visitor or that, knowledge which gets distorted by gossip, sensationalized, misunderstood, at times misrepresented. That is why Congress wants to legislate wholesale, once-and-for-all, rigidly, and in generalities, and that is why this President, like almost every other President since Washington, wants to get rid of Congress and take charge personally.

Behind the issue of mandatory legislation versus presidential discretion there has arisen, of course, the much more momentous issue of an active policy versus a passive policy. This is a real issue. There is a real difference of opinion as to whether the best interests of the United States will be served by positive intervention to prevent war, and if war breaks out, by favoring the Anglo-French side, or whether American interests will be served better by a policy of indifference to the fate of Europe, and of non-intercourse with all the nations that may go to war.

But these differences of opinion are being sharpened beyond all reason by the conflict between Congress and the President. It is being made to appear as if the country had to choose between joining the grand alliance and conscripting another army to fight in France and, on the other hand, sealing itself up hermetically and renouncing all its rights, all its interests, all provision for its larger security. Surely, the very essence of a good foreign policy would be to steer this country through the crisis and between the extremes, without running it on to the monster Scylla or into the whirlpool of Charybdis.

That can be achieved only by men of very cool judgment and with very firm purpose, who know what they are doing and know that they have the means to do it. The Congress alone obviously cannot do that. The President alone cannot do it. In an atmosphere of conflict, rivalry, oratory, broadcasts, press interviews, declarations, resolutions, endless debates, hearings, nobody can do it. The wisest men and the greatest statesmen of all time, if they were gathered together, could not do it.

Yet this is what is now in prospect for ourselves and for the world. We are not promised a thorough, loyal, candid, painstaking attempt by Congress and the President to shape American policy in the greatest crisis of modern history. We are promised an interminable debate and agitation, with charges and countercharges, propaganda and counterpropaganda, all mixed up with domestic policies, and personal grudges, and ambitions for 1940, and heaven only knows what manner of masked intrigue fomenting the confusion from abroad.

The American people deserve something better than that from their government. They are entitled to be protected against the consequences of so reckless and so irresponsible a method of dealing with issues of life and death. They ought to insist now that before anything else is done the President call in the leaders of both parties and of all factions and come at once to an understanding with them that they will arrange to inform one another and to consult, to receive confidences and to keep them, and thus discharge together their joint responsibility.

It can be done. It requires no legislation. It is done in England, it is done in France, it is done in every working democracy. It can be done here. All it requires is the will to do it, and the capacity of the men in Washington to rise to the occasion, putting aside all little things in order that they may be equal to their immense responsibilities.