Best in Governance: Rules of Engagement

by Jeremy Loudenback

January 2015 Best in Governance

“Politics stops at the water’s edge” was the latter-day foreign-policy vision of Arthur Vandenberg, a one-time isolationist Republican senator from Michigan who fiercely opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies. However, in the wake of World War II, Vandenberg’s work with President Harry S. Truman personified a robust and unified foreign-policy bipartisanship that led to the Marshall Plan and the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), among other accomplishments.

Consensus on foreign policy has waxed and waned over the years, and the idealized idea of the government “speaking with one voice” hasn’t always matched reality. Disagreement over foreign policy issues can sometimes yield thoughtful debate on important issues and help craft better policies. However, when the legislative and executive branches become locked in an overly adversarial cycle of antagonism and recrimination, the process can become poisoned.

What can be done to improve the relationship between the president and members of Congress? Lee H. Hamilton, a 9/11 Commission co-chair and former U.S. Representative from Indiana, has a few ideas. In a speech he gave at George Washington University several years ago, Hamilton reflected on the need for increased consultation between Congress and the president on issues of foreign policy and national security. With both institutions sharing responsibility for foreign policy under the Constitution, a better working relationship based on mutual respect and cooperation can lead to more effective policies and increased consensus.

President Obama will grapple with several weighty foreign-policy quandaries in the year ahead: Iranian nuclear negotiations, renewed hostilities with Russia, ISIS, and the continuing war in Afghanistan, among others. Here are five of Hamilton’s recommendations that Barack Obama and the 114th Congress should consider ensuring that national foreign-policy interests are placed ahead of partisan politics:

  • Each branch must understand its proper role, powers, and limitations in foreign policy.
  • Consultation must take place, to the extent feasible, prior to decisions, not after they have already been made.
  • Consultation must be bipartisan.
  • The executive branch must consult in many different ways and have a flexible approach.
  • Congress must make consultation a higher priority.