Editor's Introduction

Congress and Foreign Policy After the Cold War

Ronald M. Peters, Jr.

This issue of Extensions focuses on the role of the Congress in shaping American foreign policy in the brave new world that the Cold War's end has brought about. Five scholars address aspects of this question. Randall Ripley offers an analytic framework within which to consider it. He suggests that congressional involvement in foreign policymaking lies along a continuum from abdication to initiative, specifies criteria for anticipating where along that continuum Congress will sit, and applies those criteria to an assessment of Congress's role in foreign policy during the Bush 43 administration. He suggests that Congress is likely to follow the path of selective attention, rather than disengagement or activism.

In contrast to Ripley's analytical framework, Marie Henehan draws on her recently published study of congressional activism in foreign policy in which she develops a "critical issue" theory to explain variation in congressional involvement over time. At the core of her analysis lies the claim that congressional involvement is not idiosyncratic nor the result of a combination of ephemeral factors. Instead, she argues that the major contours of the international political system define for the United States critical issues that shape its foreign policy. Congress's role in foreign policy tends to be greater during the early phases of a historical transformation from one critical issue era to the next. Henehan buttresses her argument with evidence from Senate roll call voting. She then draws implications for the Congress's role in foreign policy in the decades immediately ahead.

In two related articles, David Forsythe and Allen Hertzke address Congress's role in human rights related issues. Forsythe examines congressional involvement in the use of military power for humanitarian intervention, on the one hand, and the Congress's attitude toward international treaties furthering human rights objectives, on the other hand. Both arenas were focal points for President Clinton's foreign policy, but Congress's response varied. In the case of military interventions for human rights, Congress played no substantial role. In the case of human rights oriented treaties, such as those embracing international war crimes, the Congress played a decisive role. Thus, congressional influence followed the path set forth in the Constitution.

Allen Hertzke argues that in the case of congressional consideration of international religious persecution, Congress played a novel role. Normally, human rights activists lobby the Congress on behalf of causes to which they are attached. Congress then responds to the pressure. The political movement comes from the grass roots, and the Congress is reactive. In the case of religious persecution, members of Congress and their staffs played an important role in pressing the issue in the arena of public opinion. Persecuted groups did not have clout with the Congress, and often diplomatic considerations stood in the path of an assertive American policy. So it was unusual when the Congress took the initiative and rallied sufficient public support to sustain its involvement. This case is usefully contrasted with those discussed by Forsythe.

Finally, Loch Johnson offers an overview of Congress's role in overseeing the activities of the intelligence community. Against the backdrop of an evolving relationship between Congress and the intelligence agencies in the years since the upheaval of the mid-1970s, Johnson assesses the Congress's current capabilities and role. Perhaps surprisingly, the end of the Cold War has not fundamentally altered the pattern of congressional oversight, nor has it led to a greatly diminished role for the intelligence community itself in the conduct of American foreign policy. Instead, both the Congress and the intelligence agencies have had to adapt to new missions in the light of new challenges to American security.

Taken together, these five articles offer interesting insights into the role of the Congress in the shaping of American foreign policy in an era in which the guideposts of the Cold War are no longer available to orient policy. The authors suggest alternative ways of thinking about the role of congress as it is affected by our constitutional structure, the influence of external pressures, and the impact of global events.

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