Start the North Korea Hearings. And the Saudi Arabia Hearings. And the China Hearings…
How can Congress avoid getting sidelined on foreign policy? There’s only one right answer.
President Donald Trump is scheduled to participate in his second summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un next week. The first summit produced fine photographs but resulted in no progress on North Korean denuclearization, and it raised urgent concerns about U.S. disengagement from security commitments to South Korea and Japan—which is why most regional experts and many members of Congress oppose next week’s ill-prepared meeting.
Their objections, however, have had little effect on the administration’s planning. And this dynamic is true beyond North Korea. Despite strong opposition from Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Congress, Trump has increased American support for Saudi Arabia, drawn down U.S. commitments in Syria and Afghanistan, encouraged Russia, initiated a trade war with China, and questioned the American commitment to NATO. These attacks on the U.S.-led international order have motivated the House and Senate to pass legislation that increases sanctions on Russia and limits support for Saudi Arabia. Members of both the Democratic and Republican parties have spoken out strongly in favor of maintaining America’s commitments to NATO and allies in Afghanistan and Syria. Congressional efforts, however, have had very limited effect. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo use the diplomatic, tariff, and military capabilities at their disposal to pursue a unilateral agenda, largely ignoring Capitol Hill.
History shows that Congress needn’t accept getting sidelined in this way—but the first step is to understand what they’ve been doing wrong. Although the Constitution affirms a powerful role for Congress in foreign policy, especially through the approval of treaties, confirmation of ambassadors, declaration of war, and appropriation of money, these prerogatives have never been enough to counteract the president’s agenda-setting advantage and day-to-day control of policymaking.
There are two historical cases, however, when members of Congress, facing similar presidential excesses, turned the public against White House policies. Those are the best potential models for congressional resistance today.
The first case involves the decades after World War I. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson had militarized American foreign policy and pushed the United States into an increasing number of conflicts in the Caribbean, East Asia, and, especially, Europe. Roosevelt deployed U.S. naval forces around the world, and he used them to foment revolutions, especially in the Panamanian province of Colombia, without congressional authorization—frequently despite strong congressional opposition. Wilson went to Congress for a declaration of war in April 1917, but he managed U.S. military activities and the negotiation of a settlement at Versailles with little input from Capitol Hill. Wilson stubbornly demanded that the Senate approve a treaty that failed to address popular concerns about American postwar sovereignty and independence.
Despite the rise of foreign-policy experts around the newly formed Council on Foreign Relations and other organizations committed to the continuation of Roosevelt and Wilson’s expansionist programs, members of Congress made a strong public appeal to reverse course. Their arguments were not purely isolationist, as some textbooks claim, but attached to a vision of internationalism that was based on trade and law, not militarism and intervention. Republican Sen. Robert La Follette famously opposed Wilson’s actions, demanding that the United States avoid belligerence and stick to “our absolute right as a neutral.”
For La Follette and others, neutrality meant cooperation and transparency, rather than the elite-driven militarism pushed by figures in Washington and New York. To make this point and appeal to a broader voting public, congressional leaders undertook a series of high-profile investigations into the management of U.S. policy and the beneficiaries of foreign interventions. The most famous of these investigations was conducted by the Senate Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry, chaired by Republican Sen. Gerald Nye from North Dakota. Between 1934 and 1936 its hearings elucidated the various economic and political interests that promoted American interventions abroad, and the limits of democratic accountability. Nye’s committee was followed by the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, chaired by future president and then-Democratic Sen. Harry S. Truman from Missouri.
Congressional investigations challenged White House control of foreign policy by exposing its shortcomings and its catering to special interests. The hearings and documents produced by the committees were not merely negative but committed to a vision of U.S. internationalism that was more open and transparent, less militaristic and unaccountable. The coverage of these committees in the American press was widespread and largely positive. They shifted American views in ways that constrained President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the late 1930s and created a foundation for a more internationally engaged United States during World War II and after, with deeper support at home.
A similar dynamic took shape a generation later, when leading congressmen began to question U.S. intervention in Vietnam and the larger logic of global anti-communist containment. The most prominent congressional figure in this period was J. William Fulbright, a former Rhodes Scholar and Democratic senator from Arkansas who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a famous internationalist. Fulbright initially supported U.S. efforts to contain communism in Indochina, but by 1966 he had many misgivings. The hearings he chaired in the Senate beginning that year were widely televised and legitimized an emerging anti-war opposition. More than that, Fulbright’s hearings raised serious questions about presidential power and American militarism.
By 1970, when evidence of a secret U.S. war in Cambodia came to public attention, the testimony before Fulbright’s committee and the opposition from him and other prominent members of Congress contributed to a major shift in public opinion. Voters never rejected communist containment, but they supported figures who embraced alternatives to U.S. unilateralism, counterinsurgency, and brute force. The bipartisan consensus for an opening to China and arms control with the Soviet Union was the result of congressional pressure that pushed presidents, especially Richard Nixon, to shift direction.
The history of the decades after World War I and the Vietnam War era is cautionary and instructive. Presidents have many advantages over Congress in directing foreign policy. The legislative branch is often in a reactive position. La Follette, Nye, and Fulbright were successful because they used the institutions of Congress not simply to resist the White House but to offer a powerful public alternative. The Nye Committee and Fulbright Committee hearings were designed not to influence the president but the citizens across the country who read about them (and in Fulbright’s time, watched them on television). Leaders of Congress in both periods sketched a practical and persuasive alternative to American internationalism for a public that was dissatisfied with the current course of White House policy. Nye, Fulbright, and others succeeded in influencing presidents by shifting their voters.
The goal for Democratic and Republican congressional figures in 2019 should be the same. The leaders of both parties support firmer policies toward Russia, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan. They overwhelmingly affirm America’s long-standing commitment to NATO. Even if they continue to disagree on other issues, the leaders of both parties must work together to elucidate the real facts of foreign policy and persuade voters—especially traditional Republicans and moderate Democrats—to focus on these crucial matters of national security. Congress can educate the public if it finds the bipartisan foreign policy will it has displayed in the past.