Where is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when we need it?
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE is cavalierly shifting American foreign policy away from bedrock principles, positions, and relationships that have enjoyed decades of bipartisan support. With each uninformed tweet, intemperate statement at political rallies, and barely civil meeting with leaders of countries allied with the U.S., Trump is taking American foreign policy into uncharted waters with no apparent game plan.  Now that he is heading to Europe for a second under-prepared summit meeting with the leader of a country (Russia) long hostile to the U.S. in as many months, the question arises:  what is Congress doing to help shape policy or inform the public as Trump dismantles the post-WWII order America built?

Article I of the Constitution makes clear the Congress has a role in America’s engagement with the world. In the 20th Century, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) established a track record of leading congressional engagement in matters related to foreign policy.  This stemmed often from its role as the committee that held hearings to review proposed treaties, as well as proposed appointments to senior positions in the State Department or U.S. embassies.  But the SFRC also held hearings on policy issues, which with the help of a range of outside experts examined global developments, assessed U.S. interests, and recommended policy courses to the administration of the day. When Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.) was chairman, the SFRC held a large number of hearings and issued independent reports related to Vietnam that served as an important counterweight to Johnson administration policies and claims about the conduct of the war.  

The SFRC was similarly active before and after Fulbright’s tenure, under Republican and Democratic chairs, including in this century. The committee’s work rarely resulted in a dramatic change in an administration’s position, but the committee helped make the Congress a factor in the policy process in Washington. Equally importantly, the SFRC’s hearings and reports helped inform not just Washington policy makers, but also the broader public, encouraging and contributing to public engagement in the country’s foreign policy. The SFRC’s public hearings were particularly useful, in this regard, in drawing on the testimony of a range of expertise from around the country, not just from within the Beltway.

The current chair of the SFRC, Sen. Robert Corker (R-Tenn.), like Fulbright, has expressed unease about some aspects of the foreign policy of a president from his own party, but he has done little or nothing to use the bully pulpit of the SFRC to examine the direction of key aspects of Trump’s emerging foreign policy. On Russia, for example, Trump has coyly been suggesting for some time that past transgressions (the annexation of Crimea, interfering in U.S. elections) should be ignored so that bilateral relations can should be improved, without providing any cogent rationale doing so or outlining what he expects Putin to do to earn a better relationship. Now he is about to have a hastily convened summit meeting with Putin without any clear goals or presentation to the American people about what he hopes to accomplish. 

The future of the U.S. – Russia relationship would have been an excellent topic for a series of SFRC hearings before the Trump-Putin meeting; such hearings may be even more important after they meet. Comprehensive hearings on U.S.-Russia relations would provide a forum for U.S. officials to present the administration’s position, views, and goals and also allow the SFRC to draw on the expertise and experience that exists within American universities, the business community, and think tanks.  Comprehensive hearings would provide a broader understanding of the current context of U.S.-Russia relations, as well as outlining what an improved bilateral relationship might entail and what each side would need to do to build it. Similar hearings on the role of NATO in the 21st century, U.S. policy goals in Asia, and sustaining a strong national security alliance with our North American neighbors would also be timely and useful. Indeed, America’s relations with almost any region or country would benefit from being examined through SFRC hearings that draw on the range of expertise that exists in a variety of American institutions.

The SFRC website reports Sen. Corker has visited some 70 countries, but he has chaired no committee meetings relevant to Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign policy. A recent committee hearing on Europe featured one speaker, the assistant secretary of State for European Affairs. Other hearings have focused on technical issues like development finance. This is the foreign policy equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. 

Corker leaves office at the end of the year. With the majority leader saying he will keep the Senate in session this summer, Corker has plenty of time before he leaves the Senate to organize and hold thoughtful SFRC hearings on America’s interests and priorities in the world and how it should go about pursuing them. That may seem ambitious, but Trump demonstrates almost daily why such hearings are badly needed and overdue. Sen. Corker needs to step up and show the kind of leadership of the SFRC that Sen. Fulbright did.

Brill spent 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. He served as an ambassador in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.