The making of US foreign policy: Problems and challenges

USAWritten By: Wajahat QaziUpdated: May 15, 2020, 10:59 AM IST
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File photo: US President Donald Trump. Photograph:(Reuters)

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For United States, a country that has a rather inexhaustible supply of power, wielding and crafting it in the sinews of foreign policy is a challenge.

Foreign policy and its making is sheer and pure craftsmanship. It is either more because, essentially it revolves around power, its exercise and how it relates to interstate relations. There are other dimensions of foreign policy like diplomacy, spycraft, foreign economic relations, military relations and so on but embedded or implicated even in these is power. For a small state or even a middle power, power and foreign policy, do not pose an insuperable problem but for major powers, say like the United States, a country that has a rather inexhaustible supply of power, wielding and crafting it in the sinews of foreign policy is a challenge.

One minor error, say of judgement, in the making of US foreign policy can cost dear in lives, men and material and have far-reaching consequences spanning decades. So, how does the US foreign policymaking establishment make foreign policy? The answer calls for delineating the component and constituent institutions of the US foreign policy establishment. There are the state department, the Pentagon, the CIA, the office of National security and the Congress. 

A supplementary role appears to be provided by think tanks.

Foreign policy is made by the synergies and linkages between these institutions of the government. Of course, there are turf wars and at times, their institutions work at cross purposes but in the main, it is the coordination between these and the policy and conceptual inputs garnered and produced by these that go into the making of US foreign policy. The process then is necessarily a top-down affair percolated and mediated through these institutions. Yes, there is the tedium of bureaucracy and the natural inertia of government but sometimes things can be speeded up.

Among these institutions who or what institution is the most powerful or potent one? While there are no definitive answers to these but I would hazard an educated guess and posit that it is the Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) and the National Security adviser plus the secretary of the state that are most important and critical. While a powerful, strong and highly intelligent secretary of the state like Henry Kissinger can roll these institutions into one, so to speak, to make these more coherent, oftentimes, it appears that it is the CIA and the National Security office and adviser that constitute the centre of gravity of the making of US foreign policy. This is not to demean other institutions but provide an account of the institutional pecking order.

What about think tanks? Do they have an influence on the making of US foreign policy? Yes, they do. But their role is that of an outsider. By providing area expertise and policy ideas, think tanks have played a role in US foreign policy. But, over the years, the research and policy output produced by the US think tanks have degenerated to an atrocious level.

Till now, a glaring omission in this essay has been the United States’ president. Does he have a role? Indeed, a pivotal one, given that it is the president who signs off a given policy. But, the president is occasionally a generalist and hardly a specialist. He depends upon advice on issues on experts, especially the national security adviser. The quality of advice and how issues are framed and interpreted then become cardinally critical. Real power then rests with those who dispense this advice and who have the president’s ear. However, a president might have strong instincts, preferences and even biases. He may want to leave an imprint of these on foreign policy. Donald Trump springs to mind here. If and when this happens, it can lead to policy disasters. But, yet again, there are checks and balances in the US foreign policy institutional firmament that can act as a check on the president’s worst impulses.

All in all, it would appear that the centre of gravity of US foreign policymaking is institutions like the CIA and the National Security advisor with the president the one who signs policy. There have, in US history been some exceptional presidents like Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson who have left a mark on the country’s foreign policy. 

But, in the final analysis, it is the duo of institutions and experts like the NSA that inform the US foreign policy. Since the CIA operates in secret, naturally given its nature, the onus lies on area experts and policy advisers like the NSA to determine the thrust of foreign policy. (At times, NSAs bring their pet projects and theories to the office which can be dangerous.) 

Examples include John Bolton and Brent Snowcroft, to name a couple). Does the current dispensation in the US inspire confidence that sober and prudent foreign policies will be devised, formulated and implemented? The answer is bleak no. This is because the United States is and remains an enormously powerful actor in international relations. If the county sneezes the proverbial sneeze, ripples are felt across the globe. It is then not only the president of the country that must be wise, prudent and far-sighted but also the critical institutions and advisors that must be men of both practical and technical expertise but also be visionaries.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)