The powers of the U.S. Presidency were greatly diminished for the first time in nearly a century on August 3, 2017, and few people seemed to notice. President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) effectively turned control of America’s foreign policy over to the U.S. Senate without putting up a fight.
Trump signed a bill levying extensive sanctions against Russia; and restricting his ability to ease sanctions, CNN reported. By signing the legislation, Trump effectively abandoned a key aspect of his foreign policy; closer relations with Russia.
The sanctions bill marks a paradigm shift in American governance because it marks the first time since 1919 that the U.S. Congress seized control of foreign policy from the President. Back in 1919, the Republican-controlled Senate effectively scuttled President Woodrow Wilson’s (D-New Jersey) ambitious scheme for an American World Order by refusing to ratify the Treaty of Versailles.
Trump Surrenders on Foreign Policy
By imposing sanctions and curtailing Trump’s powers, the U.S. Senate effectively killed his isolationist “America First” foreign policy. What’s truly interesting has been Trump’s response to this development.
Unlike Wilson; who fought tooth and nail for his vision, Trump has turned into a super-interventionist. He has taken an aggressive line on North Korea, embraced NATO and is going along with the Russia sanctions. Many critics now charge rightly that the Generals are running the White House.
Instead of fighting Congress on foreign policy, Trump has launched a few attacks on individual Senators. He also reached out to his base by doubling down on the White Nationalist message and concentrating on domestic issues such as law enforcement and immigration.
This might be because Trump is a better political tactician than Wilson; Donald knows he cannot win a fight with Congress. It might also be because; unlike the squeaky clean Wilson, Trump has several closets full of dirty laundry that can easily be made public. Another possibility is that Trump thinks that by making a tactical surrender now he can win down the road.
Trump the Figurehead
Trump’s surrender points to a drastic change in the Presidency that few Americans saw coming: the office might soon be transformed from a chief executive to a figurehead.
Historically most policy decisions in the United States have been made by Congress. During the 19th century, the President served as more of a national crisis manager than a national leader. That status quo remained in place until World War II.
A very different arrangement was worked out in the early days of the Cold War. The President and Congress entered into a power-sharing arrangement; in which the legislative branch made domestic decisions, and the White House handled foreign policy.
Under this arrangement, Congress often went along with foreign policies its’ members opposed; such as entry into NATO and the Marshall Plan, in exchange for a blank check on domestic affairs. It was this arrangement that was publicly but quietly put to rest on 3 August 2017.
To be fair to Trump, it should be noted that this status quo has been developing for some time. An early sign of it was the U.S. Senate’s strong opposition to President Barrack Obama’s (D-Illinois) Iran Nuclear Deal back in 2015.
The New American Foreign Policy
Some parameters of the new arrangement are already clear. Instead of setting foreign policy, the President simply executes the Senate’s orders. Trump is doing this by adopting the hawkish neoconservative policies Senate Republicans favor; opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal, the tough language on North Korea and Venezuela and Russia sanctions. A likely outcome of this is if Democrats get control of the Senate; Trump will simply adopt and execute their agenda.
Another aspect of this arrangement is that influential Senators, not the President are setting aspects of foreign policy. U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is in charge of Russia policy, while U.S. Senator Marco (the Robot) Rubio (R-Florida) is determining policy towards Cuba and Venezuela.
Here’s a rough sketch of how the new foreign policy functions:
- Individual Senators or Senate committees, not the president will set the policy with input from the State Department, constituents, the intelligence community and the Pentagon.
- The State Department, the military, and intelligence agencies will simply ignore the White House and report directly to Congress. This will reduce the President, Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense to figurehead positions.
- Foreign governments will deal directly with Congress via ambassadors, lobbyists, direct contacts and proxies such as immigrant groups. Russian Ambassador Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak; who operates more like a lobbyist than a traditional diplomat, is a pioneer of these new relations.
- Non-state actors including corporations, multinational organizations, NGOs, charities and political pressure groups will play a major; if not decisive, role in setting foreign policy. The Israel lobby in the United States is a pioneer of this new foreign policy.
- A few powerful Senators will be the major decision makers in U.S. foreign policy. History buffs will note that this sounds like a return to the 1920s when a few prominent Senators; like Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Massachusetts), were in charge of foreign policy.
- In the future, Senators might hold direct negotiations with foreign governments and ignore the President.
- Some foreign governments will make efforts to directly connect with or influence U.S. voters. The Russian government’s hacking and media campaign; and the Israeli government’s successful lobbying of the Jewish and Evangelical communities are harbingers of this.
- The role of the President will be increasingly lobbyist in chief – pressing Congress on behalf of the American people or his constituents. Interestingly enough, Trump seems to have realized this and relishes the role.
The Origins of the New Foreign Policy
We should not blame Trump for the new foreign policy because its’ true roots are in the world’s new economic order.
The vast growth in global trade makes it a logical business practice for corporations, banks, hedge funds, and other multinational enterprises to maintain direct relationships with foreign governments. Since the true center of government power in Washington D.C., is on Capitol Hill these entities will direct most of their efforts there or on K Street (the heart of the lobbying universe).
Non-commercial entities including governments, charities, religions and multinational bodies like the United Nations will increasingly operate in a similar manner. A likely outcome is that American branches of such organizations will become Washington lobbyists for the main group in the near future.
Elements of the American public including some immigrant, religious and ethnic communities, human rights activists and environmentalists are more interested in foreign policy. In the near future labor unions, American employees of foreign-based corporations, trade associations and local or state governments that benefit from international trade are likely to start lobbying Congress on foreign policy issues.
Trump’s talk of protectionism and his attacks on specific nations such as China will increase the effectiveness and importance of such efforts. His actions are simply, too little too late to reverse the inevitable, indeed they are likely to hasten it.
Has the President become a Figurehead?
If the Presidency loses all influence over foreign policy, the office might become a figurehead similar to a constitutional monarch. Such a development might lead to a situation in which the Speaker of the House; or the Senate Majority Leader, takes on the role of head of government.
This might explain why many influential politicians bowed out of last year’s presidential race. Popular recognition of this situation might explain why so many Americans were willing to vote for such a questionable figure as Trump. Average people have realized the President has no real power, so they felt free to elect a clown.
It might also point to a future of weak but popular or well-known celebrity presidents. No serious politician will touch the worthless job, so the parties end up running hacks, second-tier celebrities, and washed-up nobodies. In other words taking the Presidency right back to the late 19th Century, when none of America’s serious statesmen were willing to go near the Oval Office.
The rules of American government are being rewritten before our eyes and few people seem to be noticing or admitting the truth. For better or worse the President of the United States has become an emperor with no clothes. All we need now is a child to tell us he is naked.