by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
This page last updated January 07, 2008
A "Constitutional Model" about US foreign policy making would look like a teeter-totter, wherein Congress and the Presidency each would have important roles and would struggle to "balance" control over foreign policy. But systematic observation of many foreign policy decisions presents a different pattern than this. Policy analysts study these historic patterns, then compose models as simplified ways for us to think about the complex political relationships they have observed.
The Concentric Circles Model developed by Hilsman (1971) and Spanier (1985) is such a model. It places the president at the center in the making of US foreign policy, surrounded by an inner circle of trusted advisors.
Usually these key advisors would include his White House Chief of Staff, his National Security Advisor and one or two trusted individuals who are close to him personally. Especially in crisis moments, these actors alone can define US foreign policies. One recent example of this decision process was the determination by Pres. George W. Bush that we were at war after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Another would be the decision by Pres. Nixon's decision to mobilize a worldwide alert of US conventional and nuclear military forces in anticipation of an impending Soviet invasion of the Middle East in October 1973. Yet another example would be the decision taken by President Bush (August 7, 1990) to deploy troops to defend Saudi Arabia, shortly after Iraq overran Kuwait. Presidential decisions to mobilize for war must be done swiftly. When the U.S. acts promptly, further aggression can be deterred: neither aggressor in 1973 or 1990 moved forward in the face of prompt U.S. mobilization. Presidents alone are able to act so decisively in times of crisis.
Outside this inner circle of decision makers, is a second circle of important actors. Usually they occupy the roles of Director of Central Intelligence, Secretaries of State and Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (of US Armed Forces) and other trusted White House counselors. In all but the most pressing crises, their advice about options will shape the range of responses given consideration by the inner circle prior to the President making a foreign policy decision. An example of these two "circles" alone helping to shape a foreign policy decision would be the process surrounding John F. Kennedy's decision to deploy a naval blockade around Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missiles Crisis.
Outside this ring of advisors there exists another circle of actors. It includes the leaders of Congress and of the President's party therein, the Chairs of key Congressional Committees, heads of second tier executive agencies (NSA, etc.), former officials trusted by the President, the appropriate NSC staffers and the appropriate Undersecretaries of State and/or Defense. To the extent that the decision-making process is drawn-out long enough to allow for alternative options to be explored, their perceptions and advice may be taken into consideration as the President weighs the ramifications of his choices. The decision in Winter 1986 to drop U.S. support of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos in favor of Mrs. Corazon Aquino appears to have been the result of a policymaking process that allowed this circle of actors to influence the shape of President Reagan's foreign policy.
Of less influence, outside this ring are actors with the potential to shape Presidential decision making to the degree that there are either serious repercussions of the decision on US domestic life, or the decision-making process itself is sufficiently protracted to allow them to mobilize their resources on behalf of a point of view. The circle contains the Congress acting as a whole. Sometimes this ring can act to thwart a President's policy, as was the case in Congress attaching numerous conditions to U.S. aid to anti-Communist governments of El Salvador in the early 1980s. On other occasions this ring importantly can mobilize broader support for a president's policy choice, as was the case when, on January 12, 1991, Congress consented to Pres. George H. W. Bush’s request that they legally authorize a war policy against Iraq.
Beyond these official actors is another circle which contains interest groups and the U.S. mass media. In routine decisions about foreign policy, as well as in protracted crises, these actors may marshal resources of influence which affect the attitudes of the players in the other circles, and thus have some limited potential to shape presidential foreign policy decision making. President Carter's decision to attempt to rescue the American diplomats held hostage in Iran (April 1980) appears to have resulted from his perceptions of political consequences of the hostages affair that, in large part, were shaped by this circle.
Of least influence of all, hence depicted as the outermost of the rings among the circles, is public opinion. Only in very drawn-out or recurring foreign policy decisions does it affect Presidential decisions about foreign policy. One example would be Lyndon B. Johnson's March 1968 decision to enter peace negotiations with North Vietnam and to not seek re-election as President.
The concentric circles model more accurately summarizes key relationships in U.S. foreign policy decision making than does the literal language of the U.S. Constitution. But, of course, it enjoys no formal status. Should a different pattern in U.S. foreign policy decision making emerge over time, different models would be needed that better describe the actual decision making process.
Roger Hilsman, The Politics of Policy Making in Defense and Foreign Affairs (NY: Harper and Row, 1971): 118-122.
John Spanier and Eric M. Uslaner, American Foreign Policy Making and the Democratic Dilemmas fourth edition (NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1985): 83-87.
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