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National Security Policy and the Strong Executive

The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001, presented a test of the transatlantic security regime and challenged the prevailing notions of national security on both sides of the Atlantic. In response, the allied nations provided a variety of direct and indirect support for the American-led military, economic, and legal campaign against terrorism. While British Prime Minister Tony Blair exerted significant influence over the military action in Afghanistan in 2001 and then stood as the most important ally of the United States during the Iraqi campaign of 2003, French President Jacques Chirac found himself marginalized and French influence degraded as Franco-American relations reached their lowest level since that country’s withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1966.

In order to analyze the limited role of France in the military campaign in Afghanistan and its strident opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq, this essay examines the policy choices and preferences of France and the United States in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Specifically, it presents a comparative analysis of the foreign policy and national security powers of the French and American presidencies against the framework of longstanding trends in each nation’s foreign affairs. Differences in policy over both Afghanistan and Iraq are utilized to demonstrate the manifestation of these trends. In each case, the essay examines the underlying causes of the rift between the George W. Bush administration and Chirac’s government over post-11 September policy toward the Greater Middle East broadly and those states suspected of developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and sponsoring terrorist organizations in that context in particular. It concludes with an evaluation of the extent to which such differences of opinion have the potential to undermine cohesion in the transatlantic relationship over both the short and long terms.

“Strong” Presidencies and Foreign Policy
France and the United States have presidential systems which give their nations’ highest elected official wide powers to conduct foreign and security policy. To different degrees, the division of responsibilities for both nations’ highest office reflects Wildavsky’s concept of “two-presidencies” in which one facet represents domestic policy and one represents foreign policy.1 In writing about the U.S. chief executive, Wildavsky summarized contemporary scholarship on the foreign policy powers of the presidency and identified five main reasons for the concentration of power: 1) since foreign policy and security issues often need “fast action”, the executive rather than the legislative branch of government is the more appropriate decision-making structure; 2) the Constitution grants the president broad formal powers; 3) because of the complexities involved voters tend to delegate to the president their “trust and confidence” to act; 4) the “interest group structure is weak, unstable and thin”; and 5) the legislature follows a “self-denying ordinance” since tradition and practicality reinforce the power of the chief executive.2 Wildavsky’s work is echoed by many scholars, including Logan, who contends that in Western democracies, “the mass public consciously or unconsciously cedes influence” to politicians and policy elites.3

The U.S. government is based on a presidential system and is generally regarded as the first presidential regime.4 In contrast, France has a semi-presidential regime in which the executive is split between an elected president and a prime minister contingent on a majority in the legislature.5 Hence, France’s semi-presidential system has a dual executive authority in which presidential power is directly correlated to political control of the parliament. This allows for different “balances” of the “autonomy potential” of the executive.6 For instance, if the president’s party controls the parliament, then the power potential of the prime minister tends to be diminished whereas if there is a period of “cohabitation” (the prime minister is of a different party) the power of the president is lessened.

Still the foreign and security powers of both presidents are remarkably similar.7 In both cases, the concentration of power in the office of the president came as a reaction to the security and diplomatic weaknesses of the previous governments. In the case of the United States, the extraordinary military and foreign policy powers given to the chief executive came as a result of both foreign and domestic dangers exposed by the failure of the Articles of Confederation. The nation’s first president, the Revolutionary War hero George Washington, provided the necessary reassurance against tyranny and abuse of authority to assuage the populace, while he enunciated the isolationist principles which continue to influence the country’s interaction with the world.8

In the case of France, the dramatic disintegration of the Fourth Republic against the traumas of decolonization in Indochina and Algeria provided the World War II general Charles de Gaulle the opportunity to serve in a Washingtonian role as the founder of the Fifth Republic. Unlike Washington, however, de Gaulle personally crafted the French presidential system to reflect his personal policy preferences and his belief in the continuing grandeur of France and the nation’s rank.9 For, while exceptionalism in American foreign policy is often manifested through isolationist pressures, in France, the same sense of exceptionalism forms the core of the country’s “civilizing mission” – the prevalent belief that it is the duty of France to disseminate culture and economic progress among the lesser states of the globe.10

The U.S. President and Constitution
In both instances, the weaknesses of the previous regimes paved the way for strong executives. Under the United States Constitution, adopted in 1789, the president is specifically granted the most significant powers in the realm of foreign and security policies.11 The bulk of the president’s power comes from Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, which stipulates that the President is “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States” and of the state militia’s when called into federal service.12 The Section also grants the president the sole power to negotiate treaties (subject to confirmation by a vote of two-thirds of the Senate) and appoint ambassadors (subject to confirmation by a simple majority of the Senate).

While the power to declare war is vested in the hands of Congress through Article 1, Section 8, the president may deploy forces and engage in combat for up to 60 days without congressional approval under the terms of the 1973 War Powers Resolution. While the law theoretically limits the ability of the president to use U.S. troops in combat and increases the oversight ability of Congress, contemporary history has shown the measure does not significantly impede the chief executive’s capacity to use military force.13

In addition to the explicit constitutional and legal foundations of presidential security powers, a variety of factors, including tradition, necessity and interpretations of the Supreme Court have expanded the boundaries of executive authority. The traditional freedom given to U.S. presidents to use military force without a congressional declaration of war has come to be seen as a manifestation of executive privilege.14

Furthermore, American foreign policy is rooted in the notion of the “sole organ theory” which holds that the president is the “sole” source of foreign and security policy.15 This theory has served as the underpinning for the dramatic twentieth-century expansion of executive power. For instance, the Supreme Court decision United States v. Curtiss-Wright Corporation (1936) gave executive agreements the weight of law (and thereby bypassed the senatorial approval required of treaties), while Goldwater v. Carter (1979) confirmed the ability of the president to withdraw from international treaties without congressional consent.16

The result of this concentration of power has been the repeated presidential use of the U.S. military throughout the nation’s history without a formal congressional declaration of war and an increased preference by both the executive and the legislature for such actions.17 One feature of this trend was consistency in U.S. foreign policy, especially during the Cold War era. Even during periods when the United States experienced divided government, with the White House controlled by one political party and all or half of the Congress controlled by the party in opposition, the executive was able to develop and implement foreign and security policy with only limited constraints.18 Given the nature of the terrorist groups that attacked the United States on 11 September 2001, such policy habits proved useful since a formal declaration of war was seen as problematic in terms of the specific identification of the foe and the ability of the Bush administration to expand combat operations beyond Afghanistan to countries such as Iraq.

The French President and Constitution
Like the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of the Fifth Republic concentrates foreign and security policy powers in the hands of the President of the Republic. However, in case of France, such power is concentrated to an even greater degree. Former French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer asserted that there is no real decision-making process and no room for legislative input when it comes to foreign and security policy because “the President is the sole decision-maker.”19 Ideally, de Gaulle envisioned a presidency that would be “above political struggles” and a “national arbiter.”20 The reality was that the office provided the president with wide ranging powers and successive presidents have used their position to pursue both partisan policies and to reinforce long-standing traditions in the nation’s foreign policy.21

The result of such concentration of power has been a degree of stability in the nation’s politics that was absent during the Fourth Republic. While the American Constitution emphasizes limitations on executive power through a system of checks and balances, de Gaulle formulated the constitution of the Fifth Republic with an eye toward making the executive strong and effective. Rohr contends that the constitutions of the two nations then “pull in opposite directions.”22 The result gives the French president greater explicit power, although his American counterpart may have greater implicit power.

Under Article 15 of the Fifth Republic’s Constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces and presides over the meetings of France’s highest military councils and committees. While the Council of Ministers appoints ambassadors, officials for the overseas territories and senior military officers, the president does make appointments for both the foreign service and most military officers (Article 13 of the Constitution distinguishes between which posts are appointed by the Council of Ministers and those appointed by the president). Under Article 52, the president also negotiates and ensures the ratification of treaties, although like his U.S. counterpart, there are constraints on this power in that treaties must be countersigned by the prime minister.23

There are two major powers granted by the constitution to the president that are unmatched in American politics. First, under Article 11, the French president has the power to call referenda on issues and thereby bypass the Assembly. For instance, during the first period of cohabitation, then Prime Minister Chirac sought to participate in the American Strategic Defense Initiative or Star Wars program. However, he was forced to back down after President François Mitterrand threatened to call for a referendum on the issue (Mitterrand stated “France will never participate [in Star Wars] as long as I am here. If you insist, I will make a referendum on this issue and I will win”).24

The second major constitutional option enjoyed by the French president, but not his American counterpart, is contained in Article 16 of the constitution. The Article gives the president the power to assume exceptional emergency powers in the case of a national crisis. The Article has only been used once, during the 1961 military rebellion in Algeria, and was designed to deal with emergencies such as a nuclear war.25 There are strict criteria which must be met, including consultations with the Prime Minster, Constitutional Council and presidents of the Assemblies. Nonetheless, the measure gives the president extraordinary powers to deal with significant threats to national security or the functioning of the government. And while it requires the president to consult with various officials, it does not require their assent for the invocation of Article 16.26 It reaffirms that, during times of national crisis, the executive, in the office of the president, is superior to the rest of the government.27

The president’s authority in foreign and security matters is directly tied to control of parliament. When the president’s party is in power, there has been little opposition or interference in these policy areas as the president’s and prime minister’s “preferences are likely to be close.28 Writing in 1964, Mitterrand even commented that: “There are Ministers in France. It is even rumored that there is still a Prime Minister. But there is no longer a government. Only the President of the Republic orders and decides.29 Vallee asserts that this “predominance is based first on law, second on the legitimacy conferred by the election mode, and third on the majority factor.”30 In other words, the double electoral victory, first for the office of the presidency and then his party’s victory substantially enhances the legitimacy of presidential primacy in foreign and security policy.

On the other hand, during periods of cohabitation, the prime minister will use his parliamentary majority to increase his influence in the nation’s security policies and diplomacy. As a result, irreconcilable policy priorities may occur. Colombani and Lhomeau contend that cohabitation “implies that the President keeps the prerogatives of which the constitution gives him, but also that the Prime Minister governs according to his own views.”31

To a large degree, the degree of struggle and strife is dependent on the personalities in office. During the first period of three periods of cohabitation (1986-1988), Socialist Mitterrand faced a National Assembly of the Right, led by Prime Minister Chirac. However, Chirac preferred to concentrate his priorities on domestic issues and usually gave Mitterrand wide latitude in foreign and security policy, including naming non-partisan politicians, Jean-Bernard Raimond and Andre Giraud, as Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, respectively. During the second period (1993-1995), Mitterrand insisted that Conservative Prime Minister Edouard Balladur consult with him over appointments related to defense and foreign policy. Still, friction arose. In 1986, Chirac tried to gain equal status as Mitterrand at the Tokyo Summit of the G-7 and Jospin endeavored to compete with Chirac for recognition at the 1997 Franco-German Summit.32

The cohabitation era between Chirac and Jospin was the longest of the three periods and lasted from 1997 to 2002. In terms of foreign and security policy, it was also the most contentious. Jospin signaled his intention to challenge Chirac in the 2002 presidential election, and endeavored to use office to undermine the president’s traditional command of security and diplomatic policy. Chirac’s authority was undermined in the public eye by his decision to call for early elections (a factor in the electoral loss of the Right). During the five-year cohabitation period, Jospin enhanced the powers and prestige of the office of prime minister while the stature of the presidency declined. For instance, Lawday claimed that the presidency became an almost ceremonial position as head of state without the normal executive powers.33 Nonetheless, the core elements of French foreign and security policy remained in place throughout the period thanks to the general acceptance of the Gaullist consensus on France’s place in the world.

Continued: American Foreign Policy
Page 1  2  3  Endnotes


Tom Lansford received his Ph.D. from Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Va. Currently he is an assistant professor of political science, University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Coast Campus.
Robert J. Pauly, Jr., holds a Ph.D. from Old Dominion University, He is adjunct professor of history and political Science at Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont, and Midlands Technical College.


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