Welcome to Congress. Here’s How to Run the World.

A crash course in international affairs for Washington’s newest arrivals.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks to fellow members of Congress during the first session of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 03, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez talks to fellow members of Congress during the first session of the 116th Congress at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 03, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The 116th session of the U.S. Congress began last week. Not surprisingly, it attracted a fair bit of media attention, focusing mostly on Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi resuming the speakership of the House of Representatives; the entry of a number of younger, female, nonwhite, and outspoken members; and the implications of Democratic control of the House for the Trump administration (and President Donald Trump himself).

As some of you may know, the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School has long hosted a two-day bipartisan orientation program for new members of Congress, intended to help get them up to speed before they take office. This year, I was privileged to participate on a panel on foreign policy, along with former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, former Senate staffer Christian Brose, and former Department of Defense official Kathleen Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The new members asked us some excellent questions; we had a lively but cordial discussion, and a bunch of the new members went away with copies of my book (whether they’ll read it or agree with it is another matter).

The sessions are off the record, so I won’t divulge what my fellow panelists said or what the new members had to say in response. But I’m free to reveal what I told them, in the five minutes each of us were allotted for opening remarks. What follows is an edited version of the notes I prepared beforehand.

“Ladies and Gentlemen:

It’s a pleasure to be here with you this afternoon. Congratulations on your electoral success, and I hope you will use your new positions for the greater good of the country. I want to give you my ideas for how you should approach the topic of foreign policy, and then offer five concrete suggestions for what you should do once you’re in office.

In terms of how to think about this subject: Remember that foreign policy is supposed to make the American people safer and more prosperous in an uncertain and competitive world, while preserving our core political values. If it’s not doing that, then it’s not working as well as it could. The United States is powerful, wealthy, and enjoys enormous “free security” given its geographic location, but the choices we make in foreign policy can make things better or worse for ourselves and for others.

And by that standard, U.S. foreign policy in recent decades has been mostly a failure. Not all of the time or in every way, of course, but it’s hard to look at the past quarter-century without a keen sense of disappointment.

Consider that 25 years ago, relations with Russia and China were pretty good. Not anymore. Twenty-five years ago, Oslo peace process raised hopes of a lasting Middle East peace; today, the “two-state solution” is “feeling like a cruel joke,” and the broader region is beset with violence and suffering. Twenty-five years ago, the American homeland hadn’t been attacked by foreign terrorists and we hadn’t started two unsuccessful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at a cost of many thousands of lives and trillions of dollars. Twenty-five years ago, democracy was spreading worldwide; today it is in retreat. In fact, according to Freedom House, 2018 marked the 12th consecutive year that global freedom declined. Twenty-five years ago, the European Union was expanding and creating the euro; today, Britain has voted to leave, and illiberal forces are taking root throughout Europe. Twenty-five years ago, North Korea had no nuclear bombs and Iran had no nuclear enrichment capacity; since then, North Korea, India, and Pakistan have all tested nuclear weapons, and Iran has the ability to get a bomb if it decides it wants to. And along the way, U.S. military intervention helped create failed states in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and a few other places, with no end in sight.

The United States is not solely responsible for all these unfortunate developments, but its fingerprints are on a lot of them, under both Democratic and Republican presidents. So when you are in your new jobs and it is time to deal with foreign policy, I urge you to bring a skeptical attitude about a lot of our recent actions, and to reflect on these repeated mistakes, along with the few things we’ve done right.

Let me now offer you some specific suggestions.

First, when I asked my students what they thought I should tell you, several emphasized the need to repair the institutions of American democracy, and to begin bridging the deep divide that now exists between our political parties. I agree; indeed, I’d argue that fixing our democracy here at home is more important than promoting it abroad. American politics cannot be healthy when our two main parties are more partisan than the public at large, a condition that makes it difficult to take effective action on any of the major issues that now confront us.

As a first step, therefore, I urge you to look for foreign-policy issues where bipartisan cooperation should be relative easy to achieve. For example, it should be easy for both Republicans and Democrats to agree that more secure control over the world’s nuclear weapons (and fissionable material) is desirable. Seriously, does anyone think it is a good thing when fissionable material is poorly guarded or unreliably secured? Congress has played a constructive role in this area in the past—most notably through the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Programs—and bipartisan agreement on this issue might become habit-forming.

Second, you should join hands across the aisle and with the Senate and repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force. It was originally passed to authorize military action against al Qaeda after Sept. 11, but it has been stretched beyond recognition in subsequent years and used to justify just about any military action that George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump decided to take. Congress also passed a separate AUMF in 2002 to cover the invasion of Iraq, and both resolutions are now woefully out of date. Subsequent presidents from both parties have used them to legitimize military operations that are at best loosely related to the original congressional mandates, mostly because previous Congresses were unwilling take responsibility for these actions by voting a new authorization.

Instead of letting the executive branch use force however and wherever it wants to, Congress should repeal these outdated authorizations and, if it deems it appropriate, vote for new ones. (Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon has a pretty good draft proposal that you ought to take a look at). And if John Bolton gets his wish and the Trump administration decides to go to war with Iran, make them come up to Capitol Hill and get your permission first, as the Constitution you swore an oath to uphold requires. That is your job.

Third, learn about China. Some of you may know a lot about China already, but most of you probably don’t. That’s not your fault; you’ve probably had lots of other things to do in recent years. But over the next few decades, relations with China and the evolution of political conditions in Asia are going to affect our security and prosperity a lot more than whatever happens in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, or most of the other places the United States has been obsessing about. That’s not an argument for ignoring the rest of the world, but it is an argument for setting clear priorities. You should make it a priority to learn as much as you can about our only serious geopolitical rival. But please understand that there is a wide range of opinion on this topic, with some experts believing China will continue its relentless rise and others maintaining that it faces growing headwinds, remains far weaker than we are, and may never fully catch up. If you want to vote responsibly, you need to learn about this debate and decide where you stand on it.

Fourth, get smart about sanctions. Resist the temptation to vote new economic sanctions every time you’re upset at what some other country has done, or whenever some domestic or foreign lobbyist comes to you with a draft resolution or a “Dear Colleague” letter to sign. Sanctions can be a valuable part of a well-crafted diplomatic strategy, but they are a bit like cursing: The shock value goes away if you use it too often. Using them for purely symbolic purposes is worse than pointless—it is often counterproductive.

And while you’re at it, remember that effective diplomacy involves compromise. If other states don’t get some of what they want when they bargain with us, they have no incentive to reach agreement or to keep the bargain over time. So please don’t accuse the president or his representatives of “appeasement” when they negotiate arrangements that are mutually beneficial but don’t give us absolutely everything we might have wanted. That’s not how diplomacy works, and pretending that the United States can simply dictate terms to others is a recipe for repeated failure.

Fifth, be wary of trying to remake the world in our image. America’s political ideals are wonderful, and you’ve sworn an oath to uphold them here. But not every society shares these commitments, and overzealous efforts to spread democracy, human rights, and other liberal values often backfire. We can best promote these values abroad by setting a good example at home, so that others see that our society is working well and are convinced to seek something similar for themselves. That’s another reason why you should all work to address the toxic attitudes that are crippling many of our political institutions, including Congress itself. How can we possibly tell other states to embrace democracy, the rule of law, and other liberal notions when our own system is so dysfunctional?

One last point: I encourage you to remain skeptical about what the foreign-policy elite tells you (and to be fair, that elite includes Harvard professors like me). So when someone comes up to Capitol Hill to testify, don’t just look at their glittering resume; find out what sorts of policies they’ve supported in the past and then consider how well that advice panned out. When the people telling you what to do have dismal track records, you might want to discount their advice. A lot.

Make sure you listen to your constituents, too. Not just the special interest groups that will be quick to find their way to your office and flood your switchboard with calls, but also those Americans who don’t engage with foreign affairs very often. The American people don’t know or care that much about foreign policy—in part because they understand that the country is already pretty secure—but I’ve come to believe that many of their instincts are pretty sound. And don’t forget: If you keep voting for foreign-policy initiatives that repeatedly fail, your own days in office may be shorter than you might like. Best of luck!”

That’s what I told them. I don’t know how it was received, or if it will have any impact on any of their behavior, although I did have some enjoyable conversations after the panel with new members from both parties. I’ll be interested to see if the new crowd is able to improve on their predecessors’ performance. They should; it’s not exactly a high bar to clear.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.