- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

The president's State of the Union address next week will undoubtedly focus on domestic issues. But President Clinton would do well to spend equal time on foreign policy. The nation has opened this century disunited in its view of the world, with some influential legislative leaders warning against the dark side of globalization and others wary of what they see as growing constraints on U.S. unilateral action.

Without a vital center identified and supported by the president, centrifugal forces can lead to policy gridlock or worse. For example, the U.S. relationship with China, a key to future prosperity and security, has fragmented congressional opinion. An upcoming congressional vote on trade with China will influence for good or ill the U.S.-China relationship for years to come. Speeches, testimony and a presidential trip to China have not been enough to center the debate among contentious and conflicting views on the Hill.

A report released this week by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, "The Foreign Policy Struggle: Congress and the President in the l990s and Beyond," cites presidential leadership at home as the most decisive factor in the successful pursuit of U.S. interests abroad. In its detailed look at 10 cases of executive-legislative interaction on foreign-policy issues, the report found that the president played a strong and successful leadership role in only three cases: NATO enlargement, International Monetary Fund funding, and sanctions policy toward India and Pakistan. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, an issue the study did not cover, is obviously another presidential success. But fast-track legislation, U.S. relations with China, funding for the foreign-affairs agencies, and until recently the payment of U.N. back dues suffered from inadequate executive branch leadership.

For its part, over the past decade, the Congress has allowed its ability to be an effective partner in foreign policy to erode. For example, it has avoided serious consideration of when, where and how American forces should be used overseas, a key question that will continue to confront the United States this century. In Haiti, Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo, members of Congress have strongly criticized presidential decisions, but have avoided the responsibility of either supporting the president's actions or cutting off funds to force an end to the operations.

Having a more pervasive effect, Congress has complacently allowed the stature and influence of the foreign affairs authorizing committees to continue to deteriorate. Power, in an era of deficit reduction, has shifted decisively to the appropriations committees. The House International Relations Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee never had a monopoly on foreign policy, but their chairmen and members were seen as resident experts and their voices were listened to and often heeded. If effective, the committees can air divisive issues and contribute to an earlier consensus on policy, a role the appropriations committees cannot fill with their narrower budget focus. In the Institute study, the foreign affairs authorizing committees played a key role in only three of the 10 cases examined: State Department reorganization, U.N. funding, and NATO enlargement.

A sense of reduced danger since the end of the Cold War and the pace and complexity of world events have combined with the view that time and effort spent on foreign affairs is politically unrewarding. The last decade has also seen a dramatic generational shift in America's political leadership. Fifty members of the U.S. Senate and 353 member of the House of Representatives were newly elected in the 1990s, with some seats turning over more than once. And increasingly strenuous campaign-funding needs have crowded individual members' calendars and negatively affected the attractiveness of serving on the foreign affairs authorizing committees.

But one finding of the study was surprising, given the level of bickering between Republicans and Democrats over the past decade. In foreign policy disputes, partisanship was a factor, but it was not necessarily decisive in many outcomes. In fact, divisions within parties on foreign affairs issues are now as prominent as divisions between parties. An ability to work across party lines and build fluid coalitions around specific issues is the key to success.

As consensus becomes more difficult, the need for effective presidential as well as congressional leadership increases. A fully engaged president and a better informed, more internationally attuned Congress can help ensure that American interests abroad are effectively pursued in the 21st century.

Casimir Yost, Stanley Sloan and Mary Locke authored the study “The Foreign Policy Struggle: Congress and the President in the l990s and Beyond.”

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