How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The Senate's failure to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) last October has been called a disaster for arms control, a triumph for American security, a humiliation for the Clinton administration, and an embarrassment for congressional Republicans. But these various and contradictory perspectives miss something important, as do most discussions of the failings of U.S. foreign policy: the structural crisis to which the nation has succumbed.
During the past decade of post-Cold War drift, American foreign policy has been assailed by two camps of critics. The first makes ad hominem attacks: America's diplomatic failings reflect a lack of leadership from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, or congressional Republicans. The second camp is cultural and holds that America is either too isolationist to pursue international goals in a sustained way or too riven by multiculturalism to manage a foreign policy consensus. Both camps miss the point. The central problem of American foreign policy is neither personal nor cultural; it is institutional. Executive power, checked and balanced since the early days of the republic, has been eroded dangerously, to the point where even a skilled president would be hard-pressed to push treaties through the Senate. Indeed, the decline of executive power has proceeded so far that the modern president is more nonexecutive chairperson than CEO -- even though the uncertainties of the post-Cold War world make an agenda-setting chief executive as necessary as ever.
DECLINE AND FALL
The erosion of presidential power started with changes in the nature of the bully pulpit. After Theodore Roosevelt popularized this phrase at the turn of the last century, technological advance steadily increased the president's power to win popular backing: radio allowed F.D.R. to deliver his fireside chats; network TV let J.F.K. charm the nation. And cheap air transport gave presidents a way to appear before hitherto inaccessible audiences. Between 1945 and 1975, the number of presidential speeches increased nearly fivefold. Moreover, the power of these speeches was enhanced by another technological advance: in 1952 Eisenhower's campaign managers broke new ground when they began using polls to determine which issues most concerned Americans.
Since the 1980s, however, this process has flipped into reverse: technological advances now undermine the bully pulpit rather than amplify it. The rise of cable TV has changed television from a presidential megaphone into a presidential scourge. The three big networks -- ABC, CBS, and NBC -- which once carried all presidential press conferences live, and which reported respectfully on initiatives emanating from the White House, have been displaced by new cable channels that compete for viewers by eschewing such deference. Rather than televise the president, these cable channels churn out irreverent talk shows. The bully pulpit has been drowned out by bullying pundits.
This shift emerged during Reagan's second term, when the "great communicator" himself became the first president to be refused a request to have a speech televised. But the trend has advanced by leaps and bounds since then, as cable has spread to around two out of three households (up from one in two in the late 1980s) and as the early cable programs have come under pressure from even more irreverent competitors on new channels and on the Internet. The bully pulpit's reach has been reduced to brief sound bites on the evening news, and even these are diminishing. A study of presidential campaigns found that the length of candidates' broadcast quotations declined from 43 seconds in 1968 to 7 seconds by early 1996.
Just as television first built up the bully pulpit and then tore it down, so have opinion polls. In the early postwar years, when Eisenhower's sophisticated advisers started poll-testing the president's speeches, this new science served as a boost to executive power. The president alone spoke on behalf of the whole nation, since no other politician could boast a national mandate and few others had access to such data. But the president's critics have long since begun to use polls themselves, and the media now delight in announcing opinion surveys that suggest the president is out of step with voters. Now anyone with poll data can claim democratic legitimacy for an idea. The president no longer speaks for the country because the country speaks continually to pollsters.
Bill Clinton has fought these trends with much determination. He has hired strategists to read the polls and teams of spin doctors to manufacture sound bites that appeal to TV producers. He has gained attention for his ideas by staging press conferences in telegenic locations, as when he signed a conservation order at a desk on the edge of the Grand Canyon in 1996. The president even appeared on the pop-music channel MTV in order to get his message out. But none of this ingenuity has quelled the growing volume of comment from pundits. Nor has it reversed the decline in the president's influence over the news agenda. Indeed, by appearing in informal settings and relying on slick sound bites, Clinton has arguably devalued the presidential coin and reduced the bully pulpit's usefulness in selling controversial policies.
During the Korean War, no journalist quoted Eisenhower without first gaining his express permission. During the recent Kosovo crisis, by contrast, television pundits trashed Clinton's policies at every opportunity. When Nixon performed a U-turn on China, the country was persuaded to follow his lead. Today Clinton can barely mention China without summoning the full wrath of the punditocracy. A host of vociferous interest groups, wielding polls and other data with a dexterity impossible before the advent of the Internet, has sprung up to fuel the media's second-guessing of the president's foreign policy.
DIVIDE AND MISRULE
On top of the decline of the bully pulpit, the presidency has been weakened by the entrenchment of divided government. In the first half of this century, the president's party controlled both chambers of Congress 85 percent of the time. Since 1955, however, this pattern has held only one-third of the time. As divided government has become the norm, Congress has grown increasingly adept at obstructing executive-branch initiatives. This tendency was much remarked on in the 1970s, when Congress passed the War Powers Act. But like cable TV, congressional obstructionism reached new extremes during the 1990s.
The defeat of the CTBT is only the latest example. Congress' appetite for thwarting the executive branch has been painfully evident for some time in the confirmation battles over presidential appointees. Well-qualified nominees have been rejected for reasons ranging from personal resentment to sexual orientation. In 1997, the nomination of former Massachusetts Governor William Weld as ambassador to Mexico was blocked by Jesse Helms, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, despite the fact that a majority on the committee supported confirmation. James Hormel, nominated as ambassador to Luxembourg, was denied confirmation by senators who disliked his homosexuality. Richard Holbrooke, who had on three previous occasions been unanimously confirmed by the Senate, recently spent more than a year waiting to take up his post as U.N. representative. Thanks to the Senate's obstructionism, as many as one in four appointed positions in the Clinton administration has stood vacant at the same time, filled temporarily by an "acting ambassador," "acting secretary," or "acting deputy secretary." This has led G. Calvin Mackenzie (a historian at Colby College) to remark that "there sometimes seem to be more acting positions in Washington than in Hollywood."
Congress now obstructs administration policy in other ways it once disdained. The CTBT was the first far-reaching international agreement to be voted down since before World War II, although the Senate's diminished deference to the president's treaty-making authority had become evident earlier, in the struggle to get the North American Free Trade Agreement passed and in Congress' refusal to renew the president's "fast-track" trade-negotiating power. Meanwhile Congress has grown increasingly inclined to tie the executive's hands by passing sanctions that fix the outlines of U.S. foreign policy, thus eroding the presidential prerogative. It has inserted itself into issues such as the drug war by requiring that the administration certify progress toward goals Congress has laid down in law. Under Helms, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has demanded a say not only on matters such as Balkans policy and arms control, but also on the structure of executive-branch agencies. At one point in 1996, Helms held up 15 ambassadorial nominations until he got his way in restructuring the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). For a while, too, the Senate refused to pay the country's U.N. dues until the administration promised to remake that institution in Helms' image.
The struggle over U.N. dues points to a further problem: not only is Congress today controlled by a party hostile to the president, but the parties themselves are increasingly losing their cohesion. In the 1980s, if the president negotiated an agreement with congressional leaders, he expected it to stick. This can no longer be taken for granted. The Clinton administration made a deal with Helms on U.N. payments in 1997, but the agreement was delayed by anti-abortion activists in the House who have no respect for the handiwork of their fellow Republicans in the Senate. Other presidential systems, notably that of France, reduce the problem of cohabitation with the device of a strong prime minister, which gives the president a single legislative counterpart to deal with. As party cohesion weakens in Congress, the American system travels steadily away from the French model.
Finally, faced with a hostile media and a hostile Congress, the American president also has to contend with a newly hostile legal system. Legal attacks on the president and other executive officials used to be rare; in 1970, fewer than 100 public officials were objects of federal indictments. During the Clinton presidency, according to Department of Justice figures, more than 1,000 have been charged each year. Not all these indictments have been of presidential aides; they have also included members of Congress, federal judges, and state officials. The recent expiration of the independent-counsel statute may afford the president's circle some relief from prosecutorial attack. On the other hand, the Supreme Court's 1997 ruling in the Paula Jones case has cleared the way for private suits against sitting presidents.
NONEXECUTIVE CHIEF EXECUTIVE
A cutthroat legal culture, an obstructionist Congress, relentless media criticism, and endless polls -- all have combined to weaken the executive's ability to lead, on domestic as well as on foreign issues. A president distracted by lawsuits will not focus on policymaking. A staff filled with temporary appointees will coast along rather than take strong initiatives. An administration that lives in fear of negative polls and "gotcha" television shows is bound to be cautious. Time and again, foreign policy analysts call on the president to show more leadership: to make the case for freer trade or U.N. dues, to explain that air power alone cannot be counted on to win the next war, or to enunciate a doctrine of intervention and then stick to it. And yet, hemmed in from all sides, the modern presidency is more equipped to follow than to lead. If it senses stiff opposition on any issue, it capitulates preemptively. America has arrived in the era of the nonexecutive presidency.
There are, to be sure, respectable objections to this conclusion. All modern democracies must contend with implacable media fueled by Internet-savvy pressure groups. Why should it be especially difficult for Washington? The answer is that, although other governments may face aggressive media, few at the same time face the checks and balances the U.S. Constitution places on the executive branch. Only in modern America must a head of state contend with both problems simultaneously.
Another objection involves a comparison with the country's past. In the nineteenth century, the president also faced an assertive Congress and a hostile press. In the 1860s Charles Sumner, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, anticipated Jesse Helms by routinely blocking administration policies. In 1891, the British observer James Bryce wrote that "the expression of the president's wishes conveyed in a message has not necessarily any more effect on Congress than an article in a prominent party newspaper." The historical comparison is fair, but only up to a point. Today's presidency is not unprecedented in its weakness, and indeed is stronger than it was before depression and world war prompted a vast expansion in the federal budget and bureaucracy. But the current period is the first in which a nonexecutive presidency has coincided with superpower status. In the nineteenth century, the weakness of the executive hobbled American diplomacy. But in those days no one expected the United States to hold the international system together.
MORE KOSOVO CONUNDRUMS?
Finally, some will object that the weakness of the presidency as an institution is not the main explanation for the inadequacies of American diplomacy, even if it is a secondary one. The ad hominem school of thought argues instead that Bill Clinton and his advisers have simply been incompetent. Others make various sociological claims that isolationism or multiculturalism lies at the root of America's diplomatic troubles.
All of these arguments may have merit. But the evidence cited by both camps can be better explained by the structural weakness of the presidency. Take, for example, one celebrated error: President Clinton's declaration at the start of the Kosovo war that the Serbs need not fear NATO ground troops. This announcement almost certainly cost lives by encouraging the Serbs to believe that America was not serious about stopping ethnic cleansing. The ad hominem school sees in this example proof of Clinton's incompetence; the sociological school sees in it proof of isolationist pressure, which made the option of ground troops untenable.
But a third explanation, offered privately by a top architect of the Kosovo policy, is more plausible. According to this official, the president knew that pundits and Congress would criticize whichever policy he chose. Clinton therefore preemptively took ground troops off the table, aware that his critics would then urge him on to a ground war -- and also aware that these urgings would convince Belgrade that Washington's resolve would stiffen with time, rather than weaken. The president's stand against ground troops was therefore the logical, tactical move of a leader feeling vulnerable to his critics.
Other failings of American diplomacy can likewise be accounted for by the advent of the nonexecutive presidency. Several commentators, notably Samuel Huntington and Garry Wills in these pages, have attacked the arrogance of America's presumption to offer moral leadership to the world. But American leaders resort to moral rhetoric largely out of weakness. They fear that their policy will be blocked unless they generate moral momentum powerful enough to overcome domestic opponents. Likewise, critics point to the hypocrisy of the United States on the world stage. America seeks U.N. endorsement when convenient but is slow to pay its U.N. dues; America practices legal abortion at home but denies funds to organizations that do the same abroad. Again, this hypocrisy has everything to do with the weak executive. The president has a favored policy but is powerless to make Congress follow it. Still other critics decry American diplomacy as a rag-bag of narrow agendas: Boeing lobbies for China trade while Cuban-Americans demand sanctions on Cuba. Here, too, presidential power is the issue. A strong presidency might see to it that America pursues its broader national interest, but a weak one cannot. This is why Clinton signed the Helms-Burton sanctions on Cuba even though he knew that these would do disproportionate harm to U.S. relations with Canada and Europe.
What if America's nonexecutive presidency is indeed at the root of its diplomatic inadequacy? First, it follows that it is too optimistic to blame America's foreign policy drift on the weak character of the current president. The institution of the presidency itself is weak, and we would be unwise to assume that a President Gore or Bradley or Bush will perform much better. But it also follows that it is too pessimistic to blame America's foreign policy drift on cultural forces that nobody can change, such as isolationism or multiculturalism.
We are dealing with an institutional problem, so it will take institutional reform to improve matters. America must explore ways of arresting the erosion of executive power, by streamlining the confirmation process, by reversing the Supreme Court's Clinton v. Jones decision in order to limit the executive's vulnerability to legal assault, and by avoiding legislated mandates in foreign policy. Since the republic's founding, Americans have been suspicious of concentrated power. This suspicion has now gone too far. There are worse things to fear than a powerful president -- such as a country or a world adrift. This big nation and the small world it inhabits desperately need a strong chief executive to guide them.