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Reviewed by:
  • Foreign Policy and Congress: An International Relations Perspective
  • Robert David Johnson
Marie T. Henehan , Foreign Policy and Congress: An International Relations Perspective. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Marie Henehan opens her book by correctly observing that "Congress and foreign policy remains something of a no-man's-land." Historians and political scientists share responsibility for this oversight—historians because they have failed to devote sufficient attention to the topic, political scientists because they too often have presented analyses that fail to speak to anyone beyond the narrowest of specialists. Although Henehan occasionally lapses into excessive jargon in providing an "international relations perspective" to the study of foreign policy and Congress, for the most part she presents a compelling thesis and provides a solid overview of the existing literature on the issue.

Henehan argues that most works on Congress focus on excessively short time periods characterized by a small number of extraordinary events. As a corrective, she provides what she terms an international relations perspective—a term used with some fuzziness throughout the work. Henehan sees four major viewpoints in previous studies of how Congress has affected U.S. foreign policy: one arguing for presidential dominance; a second that sees Congress as a major foreign policy actor; a third contending that the Constitution bequeathed an "invitation to struggle" between the executive and legislative branches; and a fourth that offers more flexibility, focusing on the variables affecting congressional activism.

Henehan defines three of these four approaches too starkly. Nothing in any of the first three models precludes a flexible approach. Nonetheless, this setup allows her to offer the book's major argument: that "critical issues" were the key explanatory variable in determining how Congress responded to foreign policy questions. According to Henehan, a "critical issue" is determined by four major characteristics: it comes from the global system; it poses a high threat to U.S. security; it is viewed as extremely important by policymakers; and it overwhelms other international issues being considered at the time.

In Henehan's model, the emergence of a critical issue from the global system is illustrated by the U.S. decision to annex the Philippines and the fear of Soviet expansionism [End Page 162] after World War II. Both issues divided the polity and set the groundwork for a congressional debate. The recognition of an important threat prompted a broad-based policy response from the executive, as with Woodrow Wilson's efforts to bring the United States into World War I and then to create the League of Nations or Lyndon Johnson's decision to Americanize the conflict in Vietnam. The "critical issue" then overrode all others, triggering a brief period of contention between Congress and the executive. Eventually, the two branches reached a consensus, after which Congress settled into a more passive role until the next critical issue appeared.

The critical-issue model works particularly well in explaining foreign policy during the Cold War when, as the framework suggests, a sharp congressional debate culminated in the "Great Debate" of 1951. That debate was resolved in favor of a bipartisan congressional alliance that embraced the containment strategy. Because Congress accepted the basic tenets of containment, successive U.S. presidents—Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson—received considerable freedom to maneuver until Johnson overreached in the Vietnam War, setting the stage for the development of the next critical issue.

Henehan's approach sheds somewhat less light for her three other examples. It is true that until shortly before World War I Congress did not display the foreign policy activity exhibited in the 1899 debate over imperialism. But the executive also long before had abandoned the "consensus" policy in favor of formal imperialism, prompted in part by negative publicity associated with guerrilla conflict in the Philippines. Foreign policy remained a subject of vigorous debate between Congress and the executive throughout the decade following the Versailles Treaty, as Congress essentially seized control of Latin American policy from 1926 to 1929. Moreover, one would be hard pressed to see any firm consensus policy that would link the administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.

Henehan might have been better served...