The Constitution - The rise of presidential power

The rise of presidential hegemony over foreign affairs is perhaps the most outstanding, though lamentable, characteristic of a constitutional system that establishes congressional primacy. The emergence of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. aptly described in the title of his splendid book The Imperial Presidency —the exaltation of presidential power in foreign affairs—is deeply in conflict with the constitutional blueprint for the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. The Framers, who feared the exercise of unilateral presidential power in foreign affairs, rejected the conventional wisdom of their time—centralization of foreign affairs powers in the executive—and assigned to Congress senior status in a partnership with the president for the management of foreign relations.

That arrangement largely prevailed for most of the nation's first 150 years, but it succumbed to presidential domination in the post–World War II era. Thus constitutional governance of foreign affairs was a principal casualty of the Cold War, a chronic international crisis that afforded a pretext for the executive assumption of prerogative-like powers that the Framers had denied to the president.

In the context of the Cold War, Americans—members of Congress, judges, scholars, and reporters—exhibited fawning deference to the president in foreign affairs. Lacking confidence in its own information and judgment, the citizenry imbibed the rhetoric of presidential expertise, experience, and judgment; a literature of abnegation advised the nation of the virtues of unfettered executive control of foreign policy. The pervasive sentiment of the Cold War urged blind trust of the executive on the ground that he alone possessed the information, facts, and experience necessary to safeguard U.S. interests. And presidents acted the part. Executive usurpation of the war power became a commonplace; executive secrecy and control of information became the norm; and covert operations—military, political, and economic—avoided congressional radar and public perception. Congress was reduced to the role of spectator.

For many, presidential practice across two centuries confirms the wisdom of the original design, for the theory of executive unilateralism, as well as its traditional, underlying arguments, was exploded in the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Few doctrines have been so troubling, dangerous, and antidemocratic. It led not only to the Vietnam War and to the Iran-Contra affair but to the entrenchment of presidential supremacy in foreign relations, with its attendant military and policy failures from Cuba and Cambodia to Lebanon and Somalia.

Moreover, nothing in the broader historical record suggests that the conduct of foreign relations by executive elites has produced wholesome results. Indeed, the wreckage of empires on executive foreign policies provides ample evidence that, as the British jurist and diplomat Lord Bryce noted, the wisdom of "classes" is less than the "masses." The contention that the wisdom of one is superior to that of many is philosophically defective, historically untenable, and fundamentally undemocratic. Since Aristotle, we have known that information alone is not a guarantee of political success; what matters are the values of the system and ultimately those of its decision makers. There is "nothing more fallible," wrote James Iredell, a member of the first Supreme Court and a delegate to the North Carolina ratifying convention, than "human judgment," a fundamental philosophical insight reflected in the Framers' embrace of the doctrines of separation of powers and checks and balances, and their rejection of presidential unilateralism in foreign affairs.

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