Congress must not forget role in shaping American foreign policy

Congress must not forget role in shaping American foreign policy
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpAdvisor: Sanders could beat Trump in Texas Bloomberg rips Sanders over Castro comments What coronavirus teaches us for preventing the next big bio threat MORE’s visit to Europe was the ultimate manifestation of what might loosely be called a “Trump Doctrine.” After a tense NATO summit, an interview tearing down the prime minister of our closest ally, and a surreal press conference with Vladimir Putin, Trump’s vision for what was the global order is clear. The bedrock alliances and institutions built in the aftermath of World War II and ideological struggle of the Cold War are now on shaky ground. International trade, global security, and fundamental values are negotiable and transactional. Our allies are denigrated, while our adversaries are thrown softballs.

The president has the primary role in U.S. foreign policy, and there is no doubt that elections have consequences. Still, the American democratic system is designed to make sure that no one branch of the federal government has total control over any aspect of governance. Congress has key prerogatives in foreign policy and international commerce. This is based in the “letter of the law,” as laid out by the Constitution, but it is only assured by the actions of those who hold office. As James Madison said, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Even as Trump headed overseas, Congress tried to provide some reassurance that NATO was key to U.S. interests. However, nonbinding motions are hardly ambitious and are little solace to the nations that see their border and airspace threatened by Russia. The administration’s own intelligence and law enforcement experts have raised alarms about the threat posed by Russia to critical infrastructure and electoral systems. The president equivocates the analysis of his intelligence experts with the statements of Putin. Some in Congress continue to seek the truth of Russian interference in our electoral system. Others utilize their ambition to relitigate the FBI’s decisions in 2016 and sow doubts about the motives of American law enforcement and intelligence.

Some in Congress have tried to reassert their institutional prerogatives on trade and tariffs. They recognize the importance of trade to U.S. interests. They know that the realities of globalization and automation, and their effects on the American workforce, are far more complex and nuanced than what whips up crowds at campaign rallies. Still, meaningful action on trade was blocked by their leaders in the House and Senate.

American foreign policy, and the role of Congress in it, is at a crossroads. Farmers and manufacturers are about to find themselves at the front lines of a trade war. In the capitals of our allies there is confusion about the future of U.S. engagement. In Moscow and Pyongyang, there is satisfaction with both the optics and substance of Trump administration policies. In Beijing, they applaud the hastened demise of U.S. leadership.

Leaders in Congress are not silent witnesses of these new trends. They can choose to reaffirm their role in foreign policy or cave to politics and partisanship. History already tells us the legacy of those accomplished individuals who once chose “America First” instead of facing the threats on the global horizon. To vanquish fascism in World War II, the United States overcame the political currents of xenophobia, isolationism, and appeasement. To help prevent World War III, the United States and our allies built a global order reflecting our shared values through the relationships over which President Trump now runs roughshod.

Despite what is at stake, little suggests that leaders in Congress will change this course. For Republicans, retirements and primary losses demonstrate the political price of crossing Trump. Others toe the line publicly, thinking that with advice, the president may moderate his policies. One only needs to look at the headlines to gauge the efficacy of that course. While overshadowed by the tumultuous shift in Republican politics, the Democrats hold an equally fractured debate on issues such as trade and cybersecurity, as well as our broader role in the world. Until the partisan fever in the electorate breaks, members of Congress will have to show a willingness to swim against the current of political expediency and defend a global order that reflects our interests and values.

It is likely up to the next generation of lawmakers to reaffirm their institutional role in foreign policy. The formal and informal foreign policy tools available to Congress must be better understood and utilized. War powers, trade regulations, oversight measures, confirmation hearings, and the power of the purse are just some examples of the leverage that Congress holds. Before we head to the ballot box in November, we must ask our representatives not only about their vision for U.S. foreign policy, but also their willingness to exercise their foreign policy prerogatives.

Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.