Congress, Trump, and Internationalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

23 October 2018, 0935 EDT

This post comes from Bridging the Gap co-director Jordan Tama, Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University. 

American presidents have typically been more internationalist than the average member of Congress. For instance, many presidents have struggled to persuade Congress to approve important international agreements or increase spending on diplomacy and foreign assistance. Scholars of U.S. foreign policy have provided a compelling explanation for this pattern: since voters hold presidents more accountable than members of Congress for the country’s overall welfare and security, presidents have a stronger incentive than lawmakers to advance broad national interests through overseas engagement.

Under Donald Trump, however, this pattern has been stood on its head. As Trump has sought to advance his “America first” agenda by pulling back from international commitments, Congress has at times become the country’s strongest voice for maintaining and deepening overseas ties. This has been evident in the rejection by Congress of Trump’s proposals to cut the State Department’s budget by one-third, the reaffirmation by Congress of the U.S. commitment to NATO, and the restriction by Congress of the president’s ability to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea.

Yet simply labeling elected officials as internationalist or the term’s opposite (nationalist or isolationist) fails to capture a lot of the nuance in their foreign policy positions. In a terrific new Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, Beyond the Water’s Edge: Measuring the Internationalism of Congress, a team led by Kathleen Hicks, Louis Lauter, and Colin McElhinny looks under the surface of recent foreign policy debates to explore congressional internationalism in depth. The report is based on an impressive set of original research, including case studies of recent congressional activity in several foreign policy issue areas and detailed profiles of a representative sample of 50 members of Congress.

Importantly, the study finds that internationalism is more widespread in Congress than one might think. But the authors go beyond binary categorizations of the worldviews of elected officials in developing a new typology of three foreign policy orientations present among members of Congress today: order-driven members, who prioritize leading and defending the existing international order; values-driven members, who prioritize the promotion of human rights, democracy, or religious values overseas; and limits-driven members, who prioritize limiting foreign entanglements and minimizing foreign policy costs. This typology represents a valuable supplement to other scholarly typologies of foreign policy worldviews, such as those developed by Eugene Wittkopf and Walter Russell Mead.

The report also contributes to ongoing debates about partisan polarization and the ability of Congress to constrain the president in foreign policy. Although it is well-established that American politics have grown more polarized over the past four decades – the nearly party-line congressional votes during Trump’s presidency on tax cuts, the repeal or replacement of Obamacare, and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh strongly suggest that this trend is continuing – the trend line in foreign policy is not as clear-cut. While many scholars have found strong evidence that polarization has increased on both domestic and international issues, other studies have shown that foreign policy bipartisanship persists to a considerable degree.

At the same time, scholars have debated the extent to which today’s Congress provides a meaningful check on presidential power. Whereas some studies suggest that today’s presidency is largely unconstrained by Congress on international matters, others identify areas of foreign policy where Congress retains substantial influence or highlight how the threat of potential congressional action shapes presidential foreign policy decisions in invisible ways.

The CSIS report adds to these debates by showing that none of the three worldviews it highlights is associated solely with one political party and by demonstrating that Congress has influenced some important foreign policy decisions in recent years. There exist in today’s Congress order-driven Democrats and Republicans, values-driven Democrats and Republicans, and limits-driven Democrats and Republicans. The study’s authors argue that this makes a number of foreign policy issues ripe for bipartisanship, and they point to recent instances of bipartisan action in areas such as sanctions and foreign aid to illustrate the potential for lawmakers to shape foreign policy by working across the aisle.

Indeed, just last week, senators and representatives in both parties renewed a push to cut off military aid to Saudi Arabia and called for an investigation that could lead to the imposition of sanctions on Saudi officials following reports that the Saudi government killed independent journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. Given the Trump administration’s very close ties to Saudi leaders, the outcome of this debate will provide a good new test of the ability of Congress to shape foreign policy in a bipartisan manner.

The CSIS report also includes some other important and somewhat surprising findings. While prior work has found that foreign policy elites generally perceive the public to be less internationalist than it really is, the CSIS study finds that many members of Congress think their constituents support international engagement and that this contributes to their own internationalism.

In addition, the report observes that relatively junior members of Congress are driving or shaping many activist foreign policy initiatives today. This pattern is evident in the ongoing debate over military aid to Saudi Arabia, which has been led in part by first-term Republican Senator Todd Young and second-term Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Similarly, two first-term senators – Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Jeff Flake – have spearheaded efforts to pass legislation that would replace the 2001 law authorizing the use of military force against the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks with legislation better-suited to current U.S. counterterrorism operations. Other relatively junior senators who have become leading voices on foreign policy include first-term Democrat Chris Murphy and second-term Republican Marco Rubio.

Such activism among members of Congress who do not currently chair foreign policy committees should mitigate concerns that Congress will be left rudderless on international issues as the institution loses more senior foreign policy leaders. This year alone, such losses include the late John McCain and the chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, Bob Corker and Ed Royce, who will retire from Congress in December. But, in addition to junior members who are becoming active on international issues, Congress retains a considerable number of experienced lawmakers with a strong track record in foreign policy. Such members include Representatives Eliot Engel, Kay Granger, Steny Hoyer, Jim McGovern, Chris Smith, and Mac Thornberry, and Senators Ben Cardin, Lindsay Graham, Pat Leahy, Bob Menendez, and Jack Reed.

Moreover, this November’s election may bring to Capitol Hill a new batch of lawmakers with extensive foreign policy backgrounds. Competitive candidates for Congress with high-level foreign policy experience in the executive branch include Lauren Baer, Dan Feehan, Andy Kim, Tom Malinowski, and Elissa Slotkin. If these candidates are elected next month, their foreign policy experience should position them well to lead new congressional challenges to key aspects of Trump’s “America first” agenda, from both order-driven and values-driven internationalist perspectives.