I’m taking the opportunity to digress from my usual international relations pieces today for an opportunity to write an opinion piece. In completing a graduate program in the study of foreign policy, students are inevitably faced with the task of ranking the foreign policy successes, failures, and management styles of American presidents. Writers are also fond of such lists. In my own program, this project was confined to the presidencies that have occupied the White House since the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. The administration of President Harry S. Truman is widely regarded as the first in the modern foreign policy management age. While I have my personal list, it is probably a good idea to divulge that I define my world view as that of a Realist. While there are new structural philosophies and many associated schools of Realist philosophy, it would offer nothing to be more specific in this article. I admit that at times I’m drawn to both Offensive and Defensive Realist perspectives in general and, more specifically, break down my world view according to doctrine in ways that would make most of you stop reading right about … now. So, moving along.What follows is my personal abridged assessment of foreign policy presidents since 1945.
In the decades following 1945, historians have continued to revise their evaluations of preceding president’s foreign policy management. With the hindsight of history and the evolution of the geopolitical landscape, new realities and adjusted outcomes for previous administrations’ policies have commanded a re-conceptualization of what it means to be an effective manager of a foreign policy team and the national security apparatus. As the predominant threat to American interests abroad metastasized from a state (the Soviet Union) to non-state actors (international terrorist groups), disease and an increasingly interdependent and globalized economic structure, the United States foreign policy management team for each president has evolved.
Presidents have had varying levels of impact upon the structure of the national security team. Among the most widely accepted “successful” managers of their foreign policy teams are Presidents Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, and George H.W. Bush. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton are more hotly debated while Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter are more widely considered failures.
Truman is best known for the National Security Act of 1947. The act restructured the entire national security apparatus: it created an independent Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Council (NSC). In more recent years, Truman has begun to fall considerably on the list of successful foreign policy presidents as the national security structure, again re-conceptualized following the attacks on New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, has been more vigorously debated as more than a decade of war has led to harsher criticism of the national security apparatus and policy.
Eisenhower committed the American government to exploration of space, elevated the role of air assets in the collection of intelligence, and governed the U.S. foreign policy apparatus with a pragmatic and Realist-inspired world view. Eisenhower gains high marks for accomplishing an end to open combat in Korea and his management of the defense budget. The downing of a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers placed the Eisenhower administration in a difficult position, having previously denied that the United States was conducting flights over the Soviet Union. The administration had initially denied the incident occurred, assuming that the pilot had been killed. Overall, Eisenhower’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy and his careful application of American power elicits high ratings from political scientists and historians. His management of the U.S. war effort in World War Two served to burgeon his capacity as administrator of the U.S. defense bureaucracy as well, specifically on the issue of the Korean war. Eisenhower rode to office promising to “go to Korea” and end the conflict. More, he arrived in the Oval Office with unmatched credentials as a manager of a war machine and carefully applied American power around the world to further American strategic interests in places such as the Suez. While the continued hostilities on a divided peninsula (moreover, the ongoing presence of U.S. military personnel) mar an otherwise successful effort to end warfare in Korea, Eisenhower is almost universally acknowledged as among the more successful foreign policy managers in recent U.S. presidential history.
Kennedy carried the anti-communist torch handed to him by Eisenhower and continued the fight against the Soviet Union. After bungling the Bay of Pigs invasion, declaring his own culpability in the failure of the mission and stating “…victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan’. Following the ugly aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy famously declared that he would never again decide policy against his own best judgment. Later, Kennedy would affect national policy in a positive way; he would prevent large-scale American military investment in Laos and avoided war over Berlin. He famously spoke words of support for the people yearning for freedom in Berlin, laying the foundation for the the impactful voice of President Ronald Reagan more than two decades later. Kennedy’s management of his foreign policy and national security team is obviously best known for his guiding of the country and the military through the thirteen-day Cuban missile crisis in October of 1962. Historians have differed on the effectiveness of Kennedy’s leadership during the crisis and have begun re-assessing the impact of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who held off against pleas from Cuban leader Fidel Castro to attack the United States during the thirteen day crisis. Due to his abridged time in office, Kennedy slides a bit on the list from a small sample size. But his management of U.S. foreign policy demonstrated that he was a man who carefully adjusted his thinking to each threat and applied his own best instincts when crises approached their dangerous zeniths.
Nixon garners high praise for his effort to close out U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam as well as his efforts to open China to the Western world. Specifically with regard to the opening of China, Nixon’s effort simultaneously exacerbated and exploited a fissure between China and the Soviet Union while opening the emerging Chinese trade market to American business interests. Nixon also signed the first in a series of Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT I) in 1972, setting the stage for effective bi-lateral negotiations between the Soviet Union and the United States in lowering the chances for war. Gerald Ford’s presidency was short in duration and for that reason, it is difficult to assess his foreign policy team management based on the sample size in comparison to his predecessors and successors.
President George H.W. Bush is widely regarded as a superb manager of the American foreign policy apparatus. In recent decades, Bush stands out as among the finest foreign policy presidents. Bush gets high marks for his management of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Operation Just Cause, his navigation of the attempted coup in Russia that preceded the permanent fracturing of the former Soviet Union, signing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the former Soviet Union in 1991 (and its successor START II with Russia in 1993), and especially his nearly flawless prosecution the military operations to confront the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait in 1991. In both Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Bush’s consultation of allies and other foreign leaders (directly attributable to decades of experience in positions including Director of the CIA, special envoy to China, and two-term vice president) culminated in an extraordinary coalition that provided the international legitimacy of action that would successfully expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. While Tiananmen Square remains a topic of some debate among political scientists and historians, those taking the longer view praise Bush for his Realist-inspired position to refrain from involving the U.S. directly in what amounted to an internal crisis in China while advocates of democratic projection criticize him for failing to take advantage of a moment to spur democracy movements in China. Further, Bush’s statesmanlike style and his lifelong personal relationships with an incredibly long list of world leaders earn him high marks from most political scientists and historians. Bush remains at or near the top of many lists of presidential foreign policy managers.
Presidents Reagan and Clinton occupy the middle of my list. President Reagan gained the release of the hostages in Iran, supported the efforts of Congressman Charlie Wilson and others in supplying the Mujahideen of Afghanistan in their defeat of the Soviet occupation, and signed essential treaties with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev that limited Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles, and presided over the waning years of the Cold War. While the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983, Iran Contra Affair and the CIA’s efforts in Central America cast a cloud over Reagan’s management of his foreign policy team, Reagan’s successes generally outweigh his failures in the judgement of many political scientists and historians. President Clinton established the National Economic Council, ostensibly codifying the placement of economic policy in the center of American national security strategy, signing both the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and START III. Among Clinton’s other accomplishments were the Dayton Agreement that ended fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the NATO mission to expel Serbian forces from Kosovo, and The Good Friday Agreement. However, Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia following the famous Black Hawk Down incident, the withdrawal of U.S. military forces following the Battle of Mogadishu, and the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 are incidents that significantly reduce the assessed success rate of Clinton as an effective foreign policy manager and would establish a precedent that Osama Bin Laden would cite years afterward in his guidance to subordinate Al Qaeda elements that the U.S. would retreat from the battlefield when suffering large numbers of casualties. . Additionally, his failure to accomplish a signed agreement at the Camp David Summit in 2000 is also widely considered a failure. Clinton’s failure to kill Bin Laden, while not entirely without caveat in the context of the political climate in the U.S. at the time of his efforts, also reduces his success rate.
The presidents in whom historians and political scientists invest the most criticism are Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Johnson is still widely considered a failure largely for his disastrous escalation and mismanagement of the Vietnam War.There is little to say beyond that statement. Carter did have a few notable accomplishments, to include a much-heralded success in the Camp David Accords of 1978, establishing diplomatic relations between previously warring neighbors Egypt and Israel. He also signed SALT II in 1979, further inducing the Soviet Union to limit its weapons stockpile. However, he is also remembered for the fall of the Shah in Iran, the resulting rise of fundamentalism throughout the Middle East, and the failure of the mission to rescue American hostages in Tehran. Carter is also widely criticized for mismanaging the personalities of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, leading to in-fighting on his staff. Brzezinski and Vance harbored very different worldviews and the juxtaposition of those two competing views of the role that the U.S. should play in the international system did not elicit effective policy.
While it’s still likely a bit too early to accurately assess the foreign policy management success rate of President George W. Bush, many place him below most of his predecessors based on the still-evolving conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. I omit Bush and current President Barack Obama for lack of adequate sample size. Kennedy’s limited time in office reduces his sample size and, consequently, produces somewhat of an inadequate assessment in comparison to other presidents. I find that he was a very good manager of his team.
In a future article, perhaps I will analyze the individual styles of these presidents. Each subscribes to a team management model and some of the more interesting study of recent foreign policy management by presidents revolves around the structure and approach of each president to their decision-making process. It would make for an interesting read.
This article is intended to spur on debate. It’s probably only right that I provide my personal list… if only to spur debate in the comment section below. Fire away:
1. Dwight D. Eisenhower
2. George H.W. Bush
3. John F. Kennedy
4. Harry S. Truman
4. Richard M. Nixon
6. Ronald Reagan
7. Bill Clinton
8. Jimmy Carter
9. Lyndon B. Johnson