Courtesy Reuters

The Bullied Pulpit: A Weak Chief Executive Makes Worse Foreign Policy

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

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