Do Presidents Really Steer Foreign Policy?

They can—but mainly by doing things other than what we want and expect from them.


The 21st century began with an extraordinary imbalance in world power. The United States was the only country able to project military force globally; it represented more than a quarter of the world economy, and had the world’s leading soft-power resources in its universities and entertainment industry. America’s primacy appeared well established.

Americans seemed to like this situation. In the 2012 presidential campaign, both major-party candidates insisted that American power was not in decline, and vowed that they would maintain American primacy. But how much are such promises within the ability of presidents to keep? Was presidential leadership ever essential to the establishment of American primacy, or was that primacy an accident of history that would have occurred regardless of who occupied the Oval Office?

Leadership experts and the public alike extol the virtues of transformational leaders—those who set out bold objectives and take risks to change the world. We tend to downplay “transactional” leaders, whose goals are more modest, as mere managers. But in looking closely at the leaders who presided over key periods of expanding American primacy in the past century, I found that while transformational presidents such as Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan changed how Americans viewed their nation’s role in the world, some transactional presidents, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, were more effective in executing their policies.

Transformation involves large gambles, the outcomes of which are not always immediately evident. One of history’s great strategists, Otto von Bismarck, successfully bet in 1870 that a manufactured war with France would lead to Prussian unification of Germany. But he also bet that he could annex Alsace-Lorraine, a move with enormous costs that became clear only in 1914.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman made transformational bets on, respectively, the nation’s entry into World War II and the subsequent containment of the Soviet Union, but each did so only after cautious initial approaches (and in Roosevelt’s case, only after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor). John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson mistakenly bet that Vietnam would prove to be a game of dominoes, whereas Eisenhower—who, ironically, had coined the domino metaphor—wisely avoided combat intervention. And Richard Nixon, who successfully bet on an opening to China in 1971, lost a nearly simultaneous bet in severing the dollar’s tie to gold, thus contributing to rampant inflation over the subsequent decade.

George W. Bush most resembled not Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman, but Woodrow Wilson.

Compare Woodrow Wilson, a failed transformational president, with the first George Bush, a successful transactional one. Wilson made a costly and mistaken bet on the Treaty of Versailles at the conclusion of the First World War. His noble vision of an American-led League of Nations was partially vindicated in the long term. But he lacked the leadership skills to implement this vision in his own time, and this shortcoming contributed to America’s retreat into isolationism in the 1930s. In the case of Bush 41, the president’s lack of what he called “the vision thing” limited his ability to sway Americans’ perceptions of the nation and its role in the world. But his execution and management of policy was first-rate.

Consider, too, the contrast between the elder Bush’s presidency and that of his son, George W. Bush, who has been described as having been obsessed with being a transformational president. Members of the younger Bush’s administration often compared him to Ronald Reagan or Harry Truman, but the 20th-century president he most resembled was Wilson. Both were highly religious and moralistic men who initially focused on domestic issues without an eye toward foreign policy. Both projected self-confidence, and both responded to a crisis boldly and resolutely. As Secretary of State Robert Lansing described Wilson’s mind-set in 1917: “Even established facts were ignored if they did not fit in with his intuitive sense, this semi-divine power to select the right.” Similarly, Tony Blair observed in 2010 that Bush “had great intuition. But his intuition was less … about politics and more about what he thought was right and wrong.” Like Wilson, Bush placed a large, transformative bet on foreign policy—the invasion of Iraq—and, like Wilson, he lacked the skill to implement his plan successfully.

This is not an argument against transformational leaders in general. In turbulent situations, leaders such as Gandhi, Mandela, and King can play crucial roles in redefining a people’s identity and aspirations. Nor is it an argument against transformational leaders in American foreign policy in particular. FDR and Truman made indelible contributions to the creation of the American era; others, such as Nixon, with his opening to China, or Carter, with his emphasis on human rights and nuclear nonproliferation, reoriented important aspects of foreign policy. But in judging leaders, we need to pay attention both to acts of commission and to acts of omission—dogs that barked and those that did not. For example, Ike refused to follow numerous recommendations by the military to use nuclear weapons during the Korean, Dien Bien Phu, and Quemoy-Matsu crises, at one point telling an adviser, “You boys must be crazy. We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than 10 years.” In 1954, he explained his broader thinking to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Suppose it would be possible to destroy Russia, he said. “Here would be a great area from the Elbe to Vladivostok … torn up and destroyed, without government, without its communications, just an area of starvation and disaster. I ask you, what would the civilized world do about it?” George H. W. Bush likewise largely eschewed transformational objectives, with one important exception: the reunification of Germany. But even here, he acted with caution. When the Berlin Wall was opened in November 1989, partly because of a mistake by East Germany, Bush was criticized for his low-key response. But his deliberate choice not to gloat or to humiliate the Soviets helped set the stage for the successful Malta summit with Mikhail Gorbachev a month later.

Transformational leaders are important because they make choices that most other leaders would not. But a key question is how much risk a democratic public wants its leaders to take in foreign policy. The answer very much depends on the context, and that context is enormously complex, involving not only potential international effects, but the intricacies of domestic politics in multiple societies. This complexity gives special relevance to the Aristotelian virtue of prudence. We live in a world of diverse cultures, and we know very little about social engineering and how to “build nations.” And when we cannot be sure how to improve the world, hubristic visions pose a grave danger. For these reasons, the virtues of transactional leaders with good contextual intelligence are also very important. Good leadership in this century may or may not be transformational, but it will almost certainly require a careful understanding of the context of change.

Decline, for example, is a misleading description of the current state of American power—one that President Obama has thankfully rejected. American influence is not in absolute decline, and in relative terms, there is a reasonable probability that the country will remain more powerful than any other single state in the coming decades. We do not live in a “post-American world,” but neither do we live any longer in the American era of the late 20th century. No one has a crystal ball, but the National Intelligence Council may be correct in its 2012 projection that although the unipolar moment is over, the U.S. most likely will remain primus inter pares at least until 2030 because of the multifaceted nature of its power and the legacies of its leadership.

The U.S. will certainly face a rise in the power of many others—both states and nonstate actors. Presidents will increasingly need to exert power with others as much as over others; our leaders’ capacity to maintain alliances and create networks will be an important dimension of our hard and soft power. The problem of America’s role in the 21st century is not the country’s supposed decline, but its need to develop the contextual intelligence to understand that even the most powerful nation cannot achieve the outcomes it wants without the help of others. Educating the public to both understand the global information age and operate successfully in it will be the real task for presidential leadership.

All of which suggests that President Obama and his successors should beware of thinking that transformational proclamations are the key to successful adaptation amid these rapidly changing times. American power and leadership will remain crucial to stability and prosperity at home and abroad. But presidents will be better served by remembering their transactional predecessors’ observance of the credo “Above all, do no harm” than by issuing stirring calls for transformational change.

In foreign policy, careful, transactional leadership is often more effective than a grand, transformational vision. Joseph S. Nye Jr. grades eight presidents. (Illustrations by Mikey Burton)