The recent upsurge in Democratic criticism of foreign policy, coming in conjunction with the incapacitation of the Secretary of State, has renewed the question of who can and does direct the foreign policy of the United States.
Whatever little guidance and direction there is in American policy has undeniably come from Secretary Dulles. Little has emerged from the planning board of the department nor has there been any but post facto consultation with the Senate through the Committee on Foreign Relations, long moribund under Senator Green.
There is a little doubt that the criticism of the young Democratic senators, now secure in positions of authority in that house, represents an effort to exert a greater influence over the conduct of foreign affairs. The trip to Russia of Senator Humphrey, the remarks of Senator Fulbright both before and since his ascension to the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee, and the speech last week of Senator Mansfield on Berlin are recent examples of their endeavors to shape and influence policy.
They are likely to be much more successful in the future than they have been so far. It is fair to expect new efforts at bipartisanship and more consultation with the Senate Committee, no matter whether a weakened Dulles remains or a new and less experienced man replaces him. Many observers feel conditions now are ripe for a return to the type of collaboration between Congress and the executive branch that flourished when Senator Vandenberg was involved in the planning and presentation of Democratic policies on Europe. The retirement of Secretary Dulles may well aid this process, since much of the disagreement between Dulles and his critics has been one of attitude and method rather than of fundamentals. That Senator Fulbright could fulfill the role of Vandenberg may seem inconceivable in the light of his past attacks on the administration, but stranger things have happened in Washington.
It should, however, be just as clear that the accomplishments of the Democratic senators will be of a limited nature. The Department of State cannot shift to the Capitol and it would be foolish to expect any major changes in American policy, if only because on most issues there is only a limited amount of basic disagreement.
As Professor V.O. Key has pointed out, "The Senate is a talking mill, not an acting mill." The most able Senate Relations Committee is no substitute for a Secretary of State or for a vigorous administration. Senators can urge, they can criticize, but they cannot implement. There is no way that the Senate can exercise the President's power, no matter how great the need for action or how impotent the President.
In fact, in the field of foreign affairs a Senator faces a serious dilemma. The only avenue open for him to influence policy is through speeches and criticism, both of the negative and constructive varieties. Often, however, and increasingly often of late, a display of unity has been regarded as one of the essential elements in our foreign relations. Debate with its consequent risk of dissension may only make it harder to achieve a solution by weakening our bargaining power. This dilemma, one which Senator Mansfield had to face last week, is a major deterrent for any senator concerned with trying to alter policy.
Particularly in a situation such as the present one, the Senate is unsatisfactory as a replacement for the State Department. Accepting Dr. Henry Kissinger's comment that, "We don't lack ideas. What we do lack is a determined sustained policy," the inability of the individual senators, or the whole Senate, to do anything beyond making a proposal is fatal.
If the Senate cannot provide the leadership, it is perfectly clear where it must come from, although much less clear whether it will. The President has already stated that he cannot devote any more of his limited time and energy to problems of foreign policy. Until he or one of his subordinates does devote the energy necessary to develop and implement a workable strategy for foreign relations it remains dubious whether anyone else can provide the West with firm leadership.
The activity and criticism of the Senate Democrats can be useful nevertheless if it provides a spur and goad to the executive branch. Their interest in foreign policy may provide the basis for a collaboration similar to the powerful combination of executive and legislature which developed American policy towards Europe under the previous administration. If the young Democrats can pressure the administration into a new, dynamic outlook, the benefits will be vast.