Calhoun’s Heir, or the Balkanization of American Foreign Policy

Published July 1, 1987

Of the possible arguments that the bicentennial of the Constitution might have engendered, perhaps one of the least likely is the question of who, in our federal system, is responsible for U.S. foreign policy. That, at least, seemed settled two hundred years ago. Having had some experience, on tariff issues, with the chaos that came from state and local governments dealing with foreign countries, the Framers of the Constitution of 1787 gave the national government sole powers over the design and conduct of foreign relations. If there were to be constitutional debates over foreign policy during this bicentennial biennium, one would have anticipated brisk arguments over the War Powers Act, or the congressional role in the foreign policy process, or the doings, covert and otherwise, of the intelligence agencies. But governors and foreign policy? Mayors and foreign policy? City councils and county commissioners and foreign policy? That was settled long ago.

Or so it seemed.

It now appears that we have been misinformed on all this. The issue has by no means been settled. Thus argues Michael Shuman, president of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy in San Francisco, in an important and disturbing article in the winter 1986-87 issue of Foreign Policy. “More than 1,000 U.S. state and local governments of all political stripes are participating in foreign affairs,” writes Mr. Shuman, “and their numbers are expanding daily.” These local authorities are passing nuclear freeze resolutions, declaring themselves nuclear free zones, divesting billions of dollars in firms working in South Africa, refusing to cooperate with civil defense planning, establishing sister city relationships with Managua, adopting Jobs for Peace memorials against the defense budget, defying the Immigration and Naturalization Service, promoting foreign trade through state-based export financing, designing global education and nuclear awareness curricula for the public schools, refusing landing rights and port facilities to aircraft and ships of unfavored nations, dispatching tons of supplies to Nicaragua, and refusing permission for their National Guards to participate in training exercises in Honduras. It is often observed, with reference to the Congress, that the United States is the only country with 535 secretaries of state. Mr. Shuman’s list of municipal foreign policy activities suggests that 535 is orders of magnitude too low.

Mr. Shuman is an enthusiastic supporter of these and other developments. “Americans seeking more foreign policy clout are increasingly finding the tools in their own back yards-the half-million local officials who are rarely more than a telephone call or a public meeting away.” Moreover, the local officials in question have been “surprisingly receptive” to citizen requests for municipal foreign policies and have even formed two organizations to forward their aims: Local Elected Officials of America (LEO-USA) and (but of course) Local Elected Officials for Social Responsibility. Mr. Shuman would draw the line at cities, counties, or states exporting weapons, ammunition, and “military” support equipment.” But he finds the main thrust of the municipal foreign policy movement sound and, in any event, irreversible: “Unless America becomes a police state, municipal foreign policies are here to stay.”

About all of which, a few observations are in order. As the Atlantic Council of the United States warned in its recent study, U.S. International Leadership for the 21st Century: Building a National Foreign Affairs Constituency, we Americans are, on the whole, woefully ignorant of the rest of the world. Initiatives by state and local governments to enhance public understanding of the cultural, economic, political, and security ties of the United States to the world-if they are truly educational, which is to say, not propagandistic-ought to be welcomed. So, too, as we have often argued in these pages, are exchange programs that both strengthen mutual understanding and, in the case of totalitarian states, support those independent people who are struggling for a measure of intellectual, cultural, religious, and/or political freedom. We shall defer to the experts on whether or not state-financed export programs could short-circuit the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In general, though, one has to applaud those localities that are aggressively seeking to compete in the world marketplace.

But are these the primary objectives of the municipal foreign policy movement?

Not according to Larry Agran, mayor of Irvine, California, and president of LEO-USA. The objective, says Mayor Agran, is quite straightforward and simple: “We want to take foreign policy back from the federal government.”

To what ends seems clear from a survey of the municipal initiatives noted by Mr. Shuman’s article. The initiatives fall, in the main, into a predictable ideological pattern. When one factors out the trade issues, exchange programs (many of them highly politicized, but let’s be generous here), and the rare occasions of protest against the USSR (e.g. New Jersey and New York denying landing rights to Soviet planes after the KAL 077 shootdown), virtually every other item on the municipal foreign policy agenda is an effort to challenge, impede, or block one or another policy of the present administration. The anti-civil defense efforts of the early 1980s and the majority of nuclear awareness education programs today are components of the broader anti-U.S.-weapons-modernization movement once simply known as “the freeze.” Local government “sanctuaries,” sister city arrangements with Managua and with guerrilla-occupied San Antonio Los Ranches in El Salvador, and the resistance to National Guard training in Central America, are of a piece with a certain view of the politics of that tortured region.

Now one can argue, in a free society, for the superior wisdom of the nuclear freeze as a means to peace, just as one can argue that the Sandinista regime should be left alone, in power and unobstructed, in Nicaragua. Those arguments ought to be engaged, briskly, within the bonds of civil and democratic debate. But what is so eminently democratic about bending local government agencies created for entirely different purposes to the foreign policy agenda of one-usually small but vocal-segment of the community? Do state governments really have any business re-opening the nullification controversy of the 1820s and 1830s, with latter-day John C. Calhouns announcing that they will enforce no federal law or regulation which they deem geopolitically inappropriate, morally unworthy, or otherwise distasteful? Consultation with state and local government officials on matters of direct concern to their responsibilities is surely warranted and might make for a more coherent foreign policy. But consultation is one thing and balkanization is another.

Mr. Shuman’s vision, in which “Americans continue to embrace participatory over representative democracy,” may be attractive to those whose policy preferences were rejected by the American people in 1980 and 1984 and who now seek to advance their agendas by other, municipal means (If we can’t elect a president, why not a mayor?). But to others this vision appears depressingly similar to the anarchic arrangements that paralyzed the Holy Roman Empire and eventually led to its dismemberment and collapse. Surely it in no way resembles what the Framers envisioned in 1787. And wouldn’t the hamstringing of President Reagan set the pattern for the hamstringing of President Nunn, President Bradley, President Biden, President Gephardt, President Dole, President Kemp, or anyone else?

The argument being made here is not for elitism as against populism. More than ten years after Vietnam, the United States remains a deeply divided political community when facing questions of its right role in world affairs. Rebuilding agreement on an American foreign policy able to address, simultaneously, the goals of peace, security, and freedom will not be imposed from the top down by a president or a council of the wise. It will happen, if it happens at all, through a long process of civic debate involving both governmental officials and the “attentive public” as it gathers in the country’s thousands of nongovernmental organizations. The proliferation of municipal “foreign policies,” many of which represent nothing more or less than a certain familiar kind of “peace” politics now translated to city hall, will more likely exacerbate, rather than bridge, our current divisions. Thus the central issue is not ideological but constitutional and procedural. A United States of squabbling local fiefdoms, each primarily concerned about its own foreign policy agenda, is a United States singularly unlikely to take effective leadership for peace and freedom in the world. If the true agenda of the municipal foreign policy movement is simply a variant on post-Vietnam neo-isolationism, the movement should say so. Then there can be a substantive argument. If the intent is something else, then the movement’s enthusiasm for the constitutional theories of John C. Calhoun and the decision-making practices of the Holy Roman Empire is singularly misplaced.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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