Let’s try a little experiment. Ask fifty current or former U.S. diplomats or foreign policy academic types (especially realists) whether foreign policy should be influenced significantly by domestic politics. I’m betting the majority wouldn’t just say no, but hell no. They would argue that the formulation of the nation’s foreign policy is simply too important to be left in the hands of anyone who hasn’t devoted a lifetime of practice and study to the complexities of international relations, especially politicians—some of whom are hacks or ideologues and all of whom are hostage, especially these days, to a party’s base.

I get all that. But here’s a news flash for you: the expectation that U.S. foreign policy can somehow be made in an heremetically sealed lab with clinical precision founders on any number of often inconvenient realities, especially domestic politics, is false. Politics are democracy’s lifeblood. They are a necessary and inevitable, if at times hugely inconvenient, part of the deal. And here’s why. 

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, focusing on U.S. foreign policy.
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I believe that there exists in the universe something called the national interest. And determining it should be based primarly on what is good for American national security and foreign policy interests untainted, untethered, and unsullied by domestic matters and other non-foreign-policy priorities. It’s above politics. And like mixing matter and anti-matter in a Star Trek episode, when politics and foreign policy intermingle, disaster follows. They simply shouldn’t be allowed to occupy the same space in the universe. 

Say you feel strongly about an issue—Israeli-Palestinian peace, for example, or U.S. policy toward China. You think U.S. interests are being harmed because in the first there’s far too much coddling of Israel and on the second there’s a reflexive get-tough position toward Beijing that seems to crowd out other approaches that might just ameliorate conflict and serve U.S. interests. If it wasn’t for those damn politicians who love supporting Israel and bashing China, we’d be a whole lot better off, right?

Even more crucially, the national interest is simply too important to be left to the politicians, the lobbyists, or the public—none of whom really care enough or know enough to make the right decisions. 

Instead, it should be entrusted to the Department of State or ex-members of the national security community who are foreign policy experts and know what’s best for America, or to the president, who is supposed to make the tough and hopefully right calls. The expectation is that those decisions will be based on what’s best for the national interest, regardless of the pull of domestic politics, Congress, and public opinion. 

But it doesn’t always work that way. No leader in the world—democratic or authoritarian—makes foreign policy without taking domestic politics into account. Leaders are often driven by politics and constrained by competing priorities. And it just so happens these days that there’s a fair amount of consensus between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to key foreign policy challenges: we need to be tough on China, really tough on Iran, and very supportive of Ukraine against Russia. These aren’t headlines only but trend lines that are likely to hang around for a good long while.

What are presidents to do when they’re confronted with a highly polarized and partisan America with a rare amont of bipartisanship in foreign policy?

Then there’s the reality that foreign policy and domestic policy are now more inextricably linked than ever before. U.S. democratic backsliding has renewed focused  on the importance of tending to American institutions, and it’s dawned on the foreign policy elite that the resilience of our economy, industrial base, and capacity to innovate and compete are key to our strength abroad. It can’t be a coincidence that the national security adviser talks about making American foreign policy work for the middle class and lists first in identifying President Joe Biden’s key accomplishment in his first two years making the economy more resilient.

But good luck in trying to separate the so-called national interest from the president’s own personality, public persona, personal worldview, and the vagaries of events and Fortuna. What’s good for the United States is often mixed together with what’s good for a president, including his own priorities and inclinations, competing domestic policy choices, election realities, and international constraints that bear on the foreign policy matter at hand. 

The U.S. system is far from perfect. The founders feared special interests, and the marriage of media, money, and lobbies has had a corrupting influence on American politics. But as political scientist Edward Corwin observed, the U.S. system, for better or worse, is an open invitation to struggle—not just among the three branches of government but among lobbies, public interest groups, and the government. 

Organize, compete, and take your best shot—that’s the American way. But don’t whine and complain about it. And don’t think that you’re somehow entitled to have your way in the foreign policy arena just because. 

It annoyed me to no end to hear some of my State Department colleagues complain about the constraints imposed by the Hill. Exasperated, a very senior State Department official once exploded: Congress doesn’t know shit from Shinola about U.S. foreign policy. That might be true. But the notion that the State Department has all the answers is ludicrous too. I would no more want the department to have complete control of U.S. foreign policy any more than I’d want Congress in charge.

And nothing offends me more to listen to my foreign interlocutors, especially the ones from authoritarian countries, go on and on about our dysfunctional system. A very senior Saudi official once told me that in his view, Congress was the Little Knesset, and more European and Arab diplomats than I care to count just assume that the White House is Israeli-occupied territory. Saudi leaders only wish the pro-Arab community in America were as influential as the pro-Israeli one. 

The president’s voice is the most important one on foreign policy, both as a practical matter and as a consequence of the powers laid out in the U.S. Constitution. Moreover, unlike the Congress or the Supreme Court, the president is the 24/7 Energizer Bunny of government and doesn’t go in and out of session—but he doesn’t and shouldn’t have a free hand either. In America’s democratic polity, he presides over a cacophonous, competitive system in which various elements fight to make their case or constrain his. 

And politics—both those that pertain to the election of presidents and to their other domestic priorities—aren’t evil conspiracies hatched in dark rooms. They are the natural, inevitable currency in which business is done in both domestic and foreign policy. 

Smart presidents who are skillful, willful, and lucky—particularly when it comes to tough regions of the world (see the Middle East)—can find a way to get stuff done, overcome domestic lobbies, manage their domestic politics, and further the national interest in the process (see Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush). Others aren’t so lucky (see George W. Bush on Iraq).

But, like Newton’s law of universal gravitation, no president escapes the political rules that govern the American system. Domestic politics are as old, inevitable, and American as apple pie. What goes up must come down. And sometimes, the best an American president can do is to make sure the apple doesn’t hit him on the head.

This piece is part of the Renewing American Statecraft series.