The United States will likely remain the world’s predominant power for many decades to come, my Harvard colleague Joe Nye concludes in his insightful new book, “Is the American Century Over?’’ This welcome prediction is tempered by Nye’s warning about key challenges that could yet lead to American decline, most notably, political dysfunction at home.
Could we be witnessing exactly what Nye writes about in our current caustic debate on President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran? Consider three striking examples of recent congressional actions that contradict how presidents and legislative leaders have normally shared power in our constitutional system.
First, the Republican leadership broke precedence by effectively going behind the president’s back in inviting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. This maneuver paved the way for Netanyahu’s subsequent, highly unusual, and ill-advised attempt by a United States ally to thwart the president on a critical foreign policy challenge in the heart of our capital.
Second, 47 Republican senators sent a letter to Tehran warning it against an agreement with Obama as they planned to repudiate any deal in Congress. Some called this letter treasonous. While that goes too far, it was surely reckless in its assault on the president’s lead role in the conduct of foreign policy. Congress has the right to exercise oversight and control the purse strings. But we won’t have a successful foreign policy if 535 members of Congress insist on interfering directly with the president’s negotiations with foreign governments on difficult issues like nuclear weapons.
Third, Senate Republicans are considering a new bill that would have Congress vote to approve or disapprove the Iran talks before Obama even has a chance to conclude them. This cart before the horse strategy produced an unusual public appeal last weekend by Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough. In a letter to the respected Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, McDonough asked Congress to give Obama and his negotiating partners the time and space to conclude talks with Iran. McDonough acknowledged the central role of Congress in deciding, if an agreement is reached, whether to then end statutory sanctions on Iran.
But he warned Congress against seeking to approve or disapprove the “non-binding” agreement being negotiated with Iran. Unlike treaties that require Senate ratification, past presidents have routinely negotiated these kinds of non-binding agreements on critical international issues. Imagine if isolationists in Congress had voted down FDR and Winston Churchill’s historic Atlantic Charter in 1941, or Democrats had rejected Nixon’s Shanghai Communique that opened relations with China in 1972? Both were non-binding agreements negotiated by American presidents and cited by McDonough in his letter as precedents for Obama’s Iran agreement.
By all accounts, Obama is close to concluding negotiations with Iran to limit its nuclear future. Congress will have every right to ask tough questions of the administration when a final deal is reached, since it will involve a set of complex, messy compromises with the noxious Iranian government. But if Obama succeeds in achieving a deal that leaves Iran well short of a nuclear weapon, with a restricted enrichment program, 24/7 verifications oversight, and the threat of continued sanctions in place, it will be worthy of public and congressional support.
Isn’t it reasonable and good common sense to ask congressional leaders to let Obama conclude the Iran talks before they dream up any more schemes to block him? Otherwise, as Nye warns, it may be America’s political paralysis that becomes our own worst enemy as we seek to maintain the lead global position of power that has served us, and the world, so well for so long.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter @rnicholasburns.