President Obama’s nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense and Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state completes his foreign policy team for his second term. Opinion-makers have had a field day with Chuck Hagel’s views on foreign policy (and on gay rights issues), and less on John Kerry’s world view, probably because so much had been written about the views, judgment, and style of president’s reported first choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice. Washington’s chattering class usually gives a pass to a runner up in a nomination fight after throwing the president’s first nominee under the bus. But what seems to have been missed in the public discussion of the individual nominees is what the unified team will look like. The one common characteristic all four men share (Obama, Biden, Kerry, and Hagel) who will make, manage, and lead American foreign policy for the next four years: They are all former U.S. senators (three of whom ran for president).
In fact this will be the first time in history the fate of the American Republic abroad will be in the hands of four former senators, regardless of what their individual views might be. Views may change, but the life experience, habits of mind, and rhythm of work one becomes used to as a senator will shortly be transferred to the inner circles of foreign policymaking. President Obama spent four years in the U.S. Senate and six years in the Illinois State Senate. Senator Hagel served 14 years in the U.S. Senate, and another 10 as a congressional staffer and lobbyist on the Hill. Vice President Biden spent 36 years and John Kerry 28 years in the U.S. Senate. Combined America’s foreign policy team has spent 82 years in the U.S. Senate, with two of the senators having spent much of their adult lives on the Hill. A cynic or a humorist could have a field day speculating on what 82 years of service in the U.S. Senate could do to American foreign policy.
In the first Obama term two former U.S. senators (Biden and Hillary Clinton) managed U.S. foreign policy with the president. (Hillary Clinton served for eight years in the Senate). On more than one occasion former senators Obama, Biden, and Clinton all publicly said different things on critical issues, the most disturbing of which was during the Arab uprisings and on Middle East policy. One reason President Obama tried unsuccessfully to centralize control of foreign policy in his office more than any previous president since Richard Nixon may be that two of his chief foreign policy advisers (Biden and Clinton) were former U.S. senators who were still acting as senators do: independent actors who report to the public, not the president.
Do we have any evidence from American history of the U.S. Senate producing historically remarkable—or of disastrously incompetent—foreign policy leaders? With the exception of Harry Truman who served 10 years in the U.S. Senate before being elected vice president in 1944, products of the Senate have not been our greatest foreign policy leaders. Three months later he became president where he distinguished himself as one of America’s greatest foreign policy presidents in the 20th century, fashioning the post-World War II international order which ultimately defeated the Soviet empire. But then Truman had General George C. Marshall, one of the greatest staff officers in American history, and Dean Acheson, a gifted diplomat, to advise him and carry out his decisions. Elihu Root—secretary of war and then of state under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, and widely regarded as one of America’s great diplomats—did serve in the Senate one term, but it was after he retired from the executive branch not before. The Watergate scandal, which brought Richard Nixon down, has long overshadowed his remarkable accomplishments in foreign policy, but he served longer as vice president than as a congressman and U.S. senator and thus cannot be seen a product of the Senate. George H.W. Bush will be regarded by future historians of one of the greatest foreign policy presidents in the post-Cold War period, but he had only four years of service in the House. For the most part, the greatest foreign policy figures of the 20th century have been former generals, vice presidents, international lawyers, and academics, not former legislators.
All public officials are prisoners to some degree of their biographies. Service as a legislator does train, if accidentally and unconsciously, its members to think and act in certain common ways. I served for 12 years in the Massachusetts House of Representatives having been first elected when I was 25 years old, and then went on to a career in executive positions in government and the nonprofit sector. What I learned as a legislator in my formative years in some ways helped prepare me for my future jobs, but in other ways taught me the wrong lessons which took me years to unlearn, among which were that:
- Legislators focus on making, not carrying out, policy: They don’t manage programs, implement policies, or run large complex bureaucracies. Achieving a diplomatic deal on some critical matter is only half the challenge, often the greater challenge is carrying it out. It is not a senator’s job to carry out the laws they pass, but to get 50 percent plus one votes to get them approved. They do not tend to see the world in terms of decades-long grand strategies which is what foreign policy should be about.
- Legislators are independent actors who report only to their constituents. Taking or giving orders is not part of their daily routine with other colleagues, and yet bureaucracies and other members of the foreign policy team need to be given orders or they will speak their mind and act independently of the president.
- Legislators learn to be sensitive to voters, news reporters, interest groups, and public opinion—or they don’t remain in office long. In foreign policy, where the power of the American presidency is greatest and leadership most critical, presidents must lead, not follow, public opinion—or the nation’s interests can be fatally compromised.
- Legislators have fixed terms in office. Congressmen have two-year terms, senators have six. History and foreign policy do not move in two- or six-year increments. While all presidents suffer from the four year term limits on their time horizon, they have advisers to push the longer term perspective. With four U.S. senators running U.S. foreign policy, who at the table will do that?
While service in the U.S. Senate (or House) neither necessarily qualifies nor disqualifies one for leading American foreign policy, having four men making and carrying out policy, all trained through their legislative careers in the same kinds of skills, the same habits of mind, the same life experience in the same institution will inevitably lead to gaps in policy and its implementation, to a limited set of perspectives, and to errors of omission rather than commission. Some of the skills learned in the U.S. Senate can be useful in foreign policy, but many are not and will inevitably focus attention on some things to the exclusion of others. If one were to review the weaknesses and failures of President Obama’s foreign policy in his first term, certainly some of it came from a lack of executive experience in managing or leading anything before he was elected president, of taking the safe way out of a crisis by not acting or by avoiding bold action.
Obama will now have three men assisting him with the same weaknesses, the same limitations, and the same history as he does. Only time will tell what the consequence will be for America and the world of having four senators protecting and managing the Republic’s international interests, but we can get a few hints from observation of past performance. A second Obama foreign policy term may accentuate the weaknesses of the first: flawed implementation of policy, the absence of a coherent grand strategy, confused signals to allies and foes alike, leading from behind (translation: a leadership void), and polls driving foreign policy. This is not a recipe for success and runs the risk of strategic failure, all wrapped in deceptively appealing senatorial sound bites.