“In the areas of defense and foreign affairs, the nation must speak with one voice, and only the president is capable of providing that voice.” (President Ronald Reagan, 1984) “… the American system of government disintegrates the leadership of Congress, and then largely stakes the fate of itself and the world of nations with which it is merged by physical oneness, upon the character and ability of one solitary man in the White House: that is, upon an accident… ruin as well as bliss is risked upon a single throw.” (Professor Herman Finer, 1951)

The American Constitution has placed immense power, prestige and influence in the hands of a single individual. Yet, the President, as seen by the men of 1787 who drafted the Articles that created the presidency, was to be official Head of State, mostly an honourable position, and an officer above the level of parties or factions who would carry out the will of Congress. His chief powers were to be confined to conducting foreign relations and administering federal laws. Both these fields were expected to be small with America so remote from the rest of the world and with the then prevailing view that all government should, in any case, be kept to a minimum.

This view of the President as a dignified statesman and servant of the Union was also coloured in part by the fact that George Washington was bound to be the first man chosen to fill the office. The Founding Fathers, however, were cognisant of the dangers of power being left in the hands of one man only and hence tried to constrain that endowment by placing some limitations on the presidency.

It was thus stipulated that the method of electing the President should be indirect and that the term of office should be fixed at four years. Since 1951 the very longest that one man can serve is ten years (half a term as a succeeding Vice-President and two full terms on his own account). What any President can achieve, is therefore limited by the time available to him. A further restriction on presidential powers, and probably the greatest, is Congress. According to Constitution, in international affairs Congress is entitled to more powers than those attributed to the President. It authorises Congress to deal with international commerce, the punishment of piracies and felonies committed on the high seas and offences against the law of nations. It gives Congress control over declarations of war and the power to appropriate funds from the treasury and to tax and spend from the common defence and the general welfare. The “powers of the purse”3 continually imprint the conduct of foreign affairs.

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The President, on the other hand, “shall be commander in chief of the army and the navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states”. And shall have the power to make treaties, appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the supreme court, and other officers of the United States, “by and with the advice and consent of the senate.” The Constitution was so framed that no President could ever be a dictator without first destroying the Constitution, which he had sworn to defend. If then, “the specific grants of authority to the executive in foreign policy were trivial compared with the authority specifically granted to Congress”5, why is the President the pre-eminent figure in foreign policy making?

As Commander in Chief of the nation’s Armed Forces, the American President commands the ability to unleash hell and unprecedented destruction, a capacity unequalled by any other politician in the US government. Besides the powers conferred upon him by constitutional provisions, authority also derives from the historical relationship between the two separate powers. Since the Great Depression in the early 1930s, Congress has passed about 500 statutes that give the President extraordinary powers, such as the capability of declaring a state of emergency for example.6

During the critical atmosphere of the post World War II period and the Cold War with the Soviet Union, America’s emergence as the sole protector of the international community and the presidential ability to act assertively and decisively, contributed to the rise of a widely shared consensus that a strong presidential leadership was necessary. The period following 1945 then witnessed a series of resolutions that fostered presidential supremacy. The Vandenberg Resolution (1949), in which Congress supported a permanent American alliance with European nations (currently NATO), and the Formosa Straits (1955), Middle East (1957), Cuban (1962), Berlin (1962), and Gulf of Tonkin (1964) resolutions, in which Congress gave the President broad powers to deal with external conflictive situations.

The Constitution’s provisions combined with practise, ensured over time, a presidential prevalence over Congress in the formulation as well as the execution of American foreign policy. Congress itself as an institution, on the other hand, is also poorly equipped to compete effectively against the President over control of foreign affairs. Three interrelated factors explain this: parochialism, organisational weaknesses and lack of expertise.

Members of Congress are up for re-election every two years (all 435 members of the House and a third of the Senate) and hence constant preoccupation with re-election creates pressure to concentrate more on domestic issues than on international concerns. The President faces re-election only every four years, giving him more time to focus on foreign policy matters. The President is also elected on a national basis, whereas members of Congress are limited to smaller constituencies and thus are more likely to fall prey to pressures from certain interest groups, which might influence and direct their policies.

Decision making process within Congress is also undermined by the fact that there are 535 members and each has to cast a vote on particular strategies. This can attribute to the frequent stalemate in passing bills and new legislation. At a time of crisis, however, decisions have to be made swiftly. As G. T. Allison argued in his book “Essence of Decision”, it was President Kennedy’s ability and that of his advisers to move rationally and promptly during the Cuban Missile Crisis that prevented the world from entering a Third World War.


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