James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Who Were the Most and Least Successful Foreign Policy Presidents?

by James M. Lindsay
September 21, 2012

A video tribute at the Republican National Convention in Tampa honors former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (Mike Segar/ courtesy Reuters) A video tribute at the Republican National Convention in Tampa honors former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. (Mike Segar/ courtesy Reuters)

As a teaser for next month’s presidential debates, CNN.com’s Global Public Square asked a group of “historians and commentators” to offer their judgments on which presidents enjoyed the most success on foreign policy and which enjoyed the least.  I was lucky enough to be invited to weigh in. GPS posted the picks for most successful foreign policy president yesterday, and it posted the picks for least successful foreign policy presidents today.

I opted for a bipartisan theme with my picks in both categories, selecting Franklin Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush as the most successful foreign policy presidents and Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush as the least successful.  The other picks for most and least successful foreign policy president also leaned heavily toward presidents from World War II on. (Bruce Jentleson of Duke swam against the tide, applauding Thomas Jefferson for engineering the Louisiana Purchase and booing James Polk for initiating the Mexican-American War.) The tilt toward more recent presidents no doubt reflects the natural tendency to emphasize what we are most familiar with. But it also reflects the fact that foreign policy constitutes a much more significant part of the president’s job after Pearl Harbor than it did before it. Things change when you become a global superpower.

Of course, all such lists and picks are subjective. A lot of presidents have scored significant foreign policy successes, and regrettably a fair number of presidents have botched things. Many have done both. I could easily make the case against all my picks and argue that some other president did better or worse. Indeed, the more I look at the list that GPS compiled, the more I think that one president got slighted and another got off easy.

The president who got slighted? George Washington. His decision in 1793 to declare the United States neutral in the war between Britain and France might have been the most consequential foreign policy decision in U.S. history. Had Washington followed the advice of his secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and sided with the French he might well have plunged the country into a war that ruined the fledgling republic. Washington followed that decision up with a Farewell Address that set the bar high for future foreign adventures, something that benefited a young and weak country.

The president who got off easy? James Madison. When you ask Congress to declare war and the result is that your national capital is sacked and you have to flee the White House with the china and silverware, you should at least be mentioned in the conversation about least successful foreign policy presidents. So consider it done.

Anyway, feel free to offer up your picks for America’s most and least successful foreign policy presidents in the comments box below.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Rodney W. Nichols

    Jim:

    As usual, great, balanced, insightful blog. How about Ike? Calm and clear re Korea, wisely cautious re “military-industriel complex,” slow to escalate in VN, sound understanding of the price of war.

    Keep it up

    Rod

  • Posted by MikeG

    As much as he was not my cup of tea the omission of Nixon is a glaring error. His opening to China was sheer brilliance. Let us not forget that he kept the peace with the Soviets at a very critical time. Ike and Truman also did good jobs. I am not from the school of “who lost China,” a chronic criticism of Truman. Also, TR made the US a world power. Despite a malinged presidency, Adams kept the peace at a time of maximum tension between us, Britan and France. The real culprit is Wilson. The end result of his short sigtedness is WWII.

  • Posted by James M. Lindsay

    Richard Nixon gets nearly universal acclaim for his opening to China, Mike. The same can’t be said for his handling of Vietnam (among other issues), which is likely why he didn’t get any votes in the GPS survey.

    Ike undoubtedly deserves high marks, Rod. He’s on my personal list of the top three post-World War II foreign policy presidents, after George H. W. Bush and Harry Truman. Ike’s presidency highlights the difficulty of ranking presidents; sometimes what matters is what you don’t do. His decision not to intervene to save the French Army at Dien Bien Phu was significant.

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