The president of the United States is granted wide leeway by the U.S. Constitution over foreign policy, more than any other policy realm.
In addition to being the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the president can make treaties, appoint diplomats (with the consent of the Senate), and, due to congressional legislation, impose sanctions on foreign entities.
Since World War II, the United States has issued no declarations of war; all military actions have been initiated by the president.
As per the War Powers Resolution of 1973, the president can deploy troops for up to 60 days without congressional approval. Thus, whatever the foreign policy of the United States—positive or negative—the president owns it: his vision and decisions can initiate a foreign conflict with very little to inhibit him. We call it the “Monroe Doctrine” and not the “18th Congress Doctrine” for a reason—and not all of them have been successful.
Who were the worst foreign policy presidents in our history? Here are the five who make the cut:
James Madison was a brilliant thinker who designed a constitution that has lasted for more than two centuries, but he was a middling president. He got the United States involved in a war that had no particular purpose and resulted in no particular gain: the War of 1812.
Like his mentor Thomas Jefferson, Madison was overly pro-French at a time when U.S. economic and geopolitical interests were much more closely aligned with those of Great Britain. The two European rivals had been at war almost non-stop for two decades starting in 1793. As a result of strange and convoluted attempts at neutrality, including a ban on trade with America’s two largest trading partners Britain and France, the economy of New England suffered greatly.
Eventually, according to University of Virginia historian J.C.A. Stagg, “Congress passed Macon’s Bill No. 2, a perplexing law that removed all restrictions on American trade, including those against France and Britain, empowering the President to reimpose the restrictions on France or Britain only after one of them had repealed its restrictions on American trade and the other had failed to follow suit within three months.” This ultimately led to an embargo against Britain, which, combined with British armament of natives in the Midwest and impressment of American sailors, caused the War of 1812.
It was a war that had few concrete goals other than standing up to the British and potentially seizing parts of Canada. It led to the burning of Washington, D.C., the alienation of the northeastern United States, which had close ties to Britain, from the South and West, and a peace that maintained the status quo antebellum.
Madison should have realized that the United States was not yet strong enough to challenge the British and seize Canada. By attempting to do so prematurely, he squandered future opportunities for American designs on Canadian land, as relations between the U.S. and Britain gradually improved as the 19th century wore on.
Additionally, he should have realized that America’s squabbles with Britain were relatively minor and that the economy of the U.S. depended on trade with Britain. Moreover, as his successor James Monroe realized, the British navy protected America’s position in the new world by preventing other European powers from establishing or reestablishing a foothold in the new world.
Woodrow Wilson should be best known for his mishandling of American involvement in World War I. He “kept us out of the war,” till he didn’t. Instead, he helped unleash a chain of events that led to the rise of fascism, communism, World War II, and even the present problems in the Middle East.
While there may have been a legitimate geopolitical reason for the United States to prevent the total defeat or subjugation of France and the United Kingdom in World War I (after all, the terms levied by Germany on Russia after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk were rather tough), it was not in U.S. interests to use the war to try to build a new world, and Wilson’s attempt to do so backfired spectacularly.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, no vital American interests were at stake to justify such action; no German attack on the U.S. was imminent. Instead, according to Wilson himself, the U.S. got involved to “make the world safe for democracy,” that is to push it into a corner and make anything other than unconditional surrender impossible, thus forcing a complete regime change upon the German Empire. Additionally, Wilson failed to support Russia before the Russian Revolution, due to his distaste of the Tsarist regime. The fall of Nicholas II led to unmitigated disasters for the rest of the century.
Had the U.S. not entered the war, it could have ended in some sort of negotiated peace. Instead, the total defeat of the Central Powers led to the complete break-ups of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, a disaster from which the Balkans and the Middle East have yet to recover. Numerous weak states were formed that were then plagued by permanent instability and aggression from larger, more powerful neighbors (thus justifying a permanent U.S. need to protect them). The power vacuum that ensued enabled both Nazi and Soviet aggression and expansionism.
Wilson’s neglect of tradition and established monarchical order instead led to greater tyranny, not liberty and freedom for the peoples of Europe and the Middle East. His poisonous legacy of interventionism in the name of democracy unfortunately lives on in American foreign policy thinking.
Harry S. Truman
In the aftermath of the Second World War, there were tensions, naturally, between the United States and the Soviet Union. But these strains would be institutionalized by the policies of Harry S. Truman, and ultimately lead to the Cold War and the polarization of the world on binary lines rather than the more typical great-power competition that had prevailed before the war.
Truman enunciated a line of thinking in 1947, later known as the Truman Doctrine, when he pledged to assist in the fight against “totalitarianism” all over the globe. This usually led to American support of perceived anti-communists in conflicts regardless of their actual complexity. Of course, such unilateral black-and-white thinking also pressed the Soviet Union to expand its influence and treat domestic conflicts in other countries as a zero-sum game.
Truman, in particular, pursued policies that are still haunting the United States today. First, the creation of NATO, intending reasonably to protect Western interests against Soviet communism, instead led to the U.S. permanently maintaining a garrison in European countries, which then neglected their own strategic interests.
In Asia, despite his doctrine, Truman failed to realize the efficiency of Mao Tse-tung’s forces, and acted too late to prevent that country from going communist. The result is that China went from being a U.S. ally to a competitor that today is rapidly gaining the ability to evict the U.S. from East Asia.
In a similar vein, Truman mishandled the Korean War. Chinese intervention would have been impossible in 1950 had it still been under the control of the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-Shek. Barring this, the United States could have pursued different policies to ensure the creation of a larger South Korea and a smaller, rump-North Korean state clinging to the Yalu River.
Lyndon B. Johnson
The United States need not have gotten involved in Vietnam. Instead, as with many other anti-communist initiatives supported by the U.S. government, American aid could have been limited to military supplies and political support. And while presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent some military advisors to the South Vietnamese government, it was LBJ who really ramped up direct military intervention.
Ultimately, Johnson’s war failed to prevent the reunification of Vietnam under a communist regime, and 58,000 American soldiers died. Today, communist Vietnam is informally supporting the U.S. position against China, ironically.
Because of the American obsession with fighting communism, other shades of the deeply complex conflict in Vietnam, including its historic rivalry of over a thousand years with China, were neglected by U.S. policymakers. Instead, LBJ escalated the conflict by self-servingly painting the struggle against the Viet Cong as part of a global fight against communism that could offer domestic dividends.
Indeed, following the Gulf of Tonkin incident on August 2, 1964, a “zeal for aggressive action, motivated by President Johnson’s election worries, created an atmosphere of recklessness and overenthusiasm in which it became easy to draw conclusions based on scanty evidence and to overlook normally prudent precautionary measures,” according to Lieutenant Commander Pat Paterson.
This recklessness endured over the next four years of the Johnson administration, until, after thousands of American deaths, it became evident that the United States had really made no headway against the Viet Cong, despite LBJ claiming the war’s end was in sight.
The Tet Offensive of 1968 put an end to this illusion, as well as Johnson’s presidential campaign. Instead, the United States spent another seven years slowly disengaging, while ramping up involvement every now and then to save face. Ultimately, U.S. involvement in Vietnam did more to destabilize the region than the spread of communism: the conflict spread, leading to Laos also becoming communist and the genocidal Khmer Rouge taking power in Cambodia.
George W. Bush
George W. Bush’s foreign policy is still so recent that the nature of his mistakes seem self-evident. However, some points are worth encapsulating. For better or for worse, the unipolar moment that the United States enjoyed for a decade after the Cold War ended due to the American overreaction in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
As the United States spent trillions upon trillions of dollars trying to reconstruct the Middle East in its own image, its geopolitical position in Europe and East Asia weakened and its status as a model for other nations was eclipsed. Since 2001, the U.S. has been in a permanent state of war, something that was never the case before.
Granted, it was necessary to take some sort of action to punish Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history. But ever since the United States has leaked blood and treasure endlessly into the sands of the greater Middle East to no particular avail, while much of the region remains mired in instability, chaos, and dictatorship. Meanwhile, China continues to grow stronger, as the U.S. neglected policies to counter its rise.
Not only has U.S. policy to reshape the Middle East hurt the people of that region, it’s hurt the United States as well. As a result of the constant need to counter terrorism, the United States has become a permanent surveillance state.
The Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against terrorism, passed in 2001, has not been repealed by either the Obama or Trump administrations, and has been used to justify all sorts of internal and external measures ad infinitum. As James Madison once said, “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Finally, the Bush foreign policy strengthened the resolve of countries that were opposed to the United States. North Korea’s leadership concluded that the acquisition of a nuclear weapon was the only way to avoid the fate of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. And countries like Russia, China, and Iran grew closer to thwart American policies.
Akhilesh (Akhi) Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and is a contributing editor at The Diplomat.