VP & Foreign Policy: A Brief Literature Review

Believe it or not there are already two scholarly books about the vice presidency and foreign affairs! Naturally I have read them both with great interest. First there is Paul Kengor’s Wreath Layer or Policy Player? The Vice President’s Role in Foreign Policy which was published in 2000 and was originally Kengor’s PhD dissertation. The second, and more recent book, is Jack Lechelt’s The Vice Presidency in Foreign Policy: From Mondale to Cheney, which was published in 2009. My initial reaction, since I am studying the same topic, was that neither was the definitive work on the topic – that is the book I will be writing. On a second read, I came away with a great deal more respect for what the authors accomplished and that the books provided some guidance about how to approach my own dissertation. Both of them are also chock full of key details and useful footnotes that make my own research much easier.

Wreath Layer or Policy Player?
In his dissertation Kengor explores two critical questions:

1. How the vice president fits into the president’s foreign-policy framework
2. Recommendations on how or whether the vice president can be used to enhance White House foreign policy

Overshadowing these specific questions is that of presidential training. Kengor notes that one important factor in the increased foreign policy role of the vice president was the rocky succession by Truman after FDR died. Not only did Truman not know about the atom bomb project, he was also unfamiliar with FDR’s negotiations with Stalin about post-war Europe and had not even met the Secretary of State. Because of that instance, there have been many recommendations for expanding the vice president’s role in foreign policy. Kengor notes that while there is merit to these recommendations, they should be carefully considered. One of the big selling points for an expanded vice presidential role is that the VP does not have an institutional affiliation – but Kengor notes that they do have political ambitions and that their actions can be shaped with an eye to their own future candidacies.

To examine his questions Kengor does a series of case studies on vice presidents who played an active foreign policy role. One of the real virtues of Kengor’s work (that I did not appreciate on my first read but became clearer as I face the challenge of identifying a question that can actually be answered) is that it is grounded in observable phenomena with reasonably clear metrics. Kengor has a simple schema with six levels of vice presidential activity:

1. Access to paperwork relating to foreign affairs and sitting on the NSC
2. Serving as a foreign policy spokesman
3. Traveling abroad as an emissary to meet foreign officials, make policy announcements, and/or serving as a liaison with congress
4. A vice presidential national security staff
5. Negotiating with foreign leaders on behalf of the administration
6. Chairing or participating in a key foreign policy committee

Kengor only does case studies on VPs who are at level five or more (Nixon, Mondale, Bush, Quayle and Gore – Cheney hadn’t been vice president yet.) In the case studies, Kengor examines the VP’s place in the administration’s foreign policy process and then discusses various vice presidential actions in the national security realm. Kengor notes that he made it a point to emphasize negative results from vice presidential engagement. Identifying positive or negative outcomes from a political event is a dicey business. But it appears that the metric is whether the administration got what it wanted out of the event. For example in 1983 VP Bush traveled to Europe to push for the deployment of Pershing missiles, which was running into domestic opposition in the potential host countries. By all accounts – both in the general press and from administration figures – Bush did a fine job, bolstering deployment supporters and responding to critics. On the other hand in 1986, Bush went to Saudi Arabia to encourage the Saudis to keep oil prices low, which was devastating the Soviet economy. Instead Bush told them the US needed price stability, the opposite message the Saudis had been getting from Reagan and his senior cabinet officers. Kengor hypothesizes that low oil prices were hurting the oil industry and the states where it is based and that Bush wanted their support for his own upcoming Presidential run. There are similar examples in other vice presidencies (a Mondale statement in South Africa derailed the administration’s Africa policy – but may have helped Mondale with civil rights groups in the US.) This is an important observation, that while a VP may be free of institutional interests, he is not free of political ones that may run counter to the President’s wishes. It is worth noting that in the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, Gore may have acquired a loyalty to Russia policy, which was somewhat institutionalized under the GCC.

Kengor states that VPs at the end of their career may be better able to serve the President objectively and not seek to protect their future political careers. Since the publication of Kengor’s book the United States has seen two VPs who saw that position as the apex of their career – Cheney and Biden. In some respects Kengor’s observation seems correct – Cheney and Biden’s service (for better or worse) appears to be entirely focused on serving their President. However, under Cheney the recognition that this would be the VPs only opportunity to make policy at this level may have led to a highly public activist role that created rifts and tensions in its own right. Although it was not a foreign policy issue, there may have been a hint of this in Nelson Rockefeller’s difficult tenure in the vice presidency under Ford. Rockefeller hoped to “run” domestic policy. He was sidelined by Ford’s chiefs of staff – Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney.

In his conclusions, Kengor addresses 20 policy recommendations on the vice president’s national security role. Nine of the recommendations (including serving as a member of the NSC, receiving all presidential papers, having a West Wing office and a regular private meeting with the President) are seen as musts for a vice president to be in the loop on foreign policy. Another six recommendations (including serving as a general advisor or congressional liaison, chairing a short-term task force, or serving as emissary or foreign policy spokesman) are viewed as potentially feasible depending on the President’s preferences. Finally, five proposals including having the VP head an executive-level department or chair a major interagency committee are rejected because they could place the VP in the midst of turf battles and because if the VP is unsuccessful the president could be placed in the very awkward position of removing him (or her – although presumably future female vice presidents will be models of competence.) These are excellent points about the vice presidential role.

Kengor does not discuss in much depth the drivers for the increased vice presidential role. He mentions the National Security Act of 1947 and the increasing responsibilities placed on presidents since WWII. But those explanations seem inadequate. Although Nixon was given a greater role than any previous VP, the position then entered 15 years of marginalization. Nelson Rockefeller, who was appointed by Ford to shore up the legitimacy of his own unelected presidency, resurrected the vice presidency (although he focused on domestic policy). This expanded role was further increased under the Carter-Mondale administration. If Carter had not been willing to break the mold of vice presidencies by making Mondale a full partner it is not inevitable that the vice presidency would have fundamentally changed. Carter’s own election was the product of Watergate and the resignations of Nixon and Agnew. That being said, this issue may have been beyond the scope of questions Kengor sought to address.

Another area Kengor does not discuss in much detail is the vice president as an advisor. He describes some vice presidents as offering advice, both privately and in NSC meetings, but there is no discussion of the impact of VP advice. Under what circumstances were the VP’s preferred options accepted or rejected? This is not a shortcoming, rather an observation that will be discussed in greater detail below.

The Vice President in Foreign Policy
Lechelt’s book was not, apparently, his PhD thesis. It covers similar ground, although it does not include Nixon and does include Cheney. His major finding is the “semi-institutionalization” of the VP’s policy role. Paul Light in Vice-Presidential Power: Advice and Influence in the White House describes the institutional expansion of the VP’s office including its own budget and dedicated personnel. Without these changes the VP simply does not have the resources to play an effective role. (Ford, as a condition for accepting the vice presidency, demanded his own typing pool – because he knew that otherwise his work would be at the bottom of the White House job queue.) However, Lechelt discuses the expanded prestige of the position – regular private meetings with the President were instituted under Carter but have became SOP. This has fostered a defacto expectation that the VP act as a policy player. Lechelt cites Joel Goldstein’s The Modern American Vice Presidency which notes that once one President gives his VP this access, it is hard for the next President to revoke it. I would expand on that observation – in picking a vice president the president is effectively telling the American people that they would pick this individual above all others to be president in their place. This is an important statement and to follow that up by not including the VP in policy deliberations would effectively send the message that president did not take their VP selection seriously and call the President’s judgment into question.

Lechelt finds that it is likely that VPs will continue to be substantial policy players. In this, Lechelt’s case study of the Quayle vice presidency is crucial. Lechelt takes note of the insider-outsider paradigm and explains that Quayle was serving an insider President who was well-versed in foreign affairs and had strong relationships with his top advisors (particularly Jim Baker the Secretary of State but also NSA Brent Scowcroft.) Nonetheless, while Quayle did not play the role played by Mondale, Gore, or Cheney he was in the mix. Bush’s key advisors were known as the “Big Eight” and Quayle may have been last on the list – but he was on the list. He was not in the innermost circle of advisors, but he did play a role and even persuaded Bush 41 to adopt his position on missile defense. A reduced role compared to his immediate predecessors and successors – but a vast role in comparison to 90% of the vice presidents who had gone before him.

It is beyond the timeframe of Lechelt’s work, but Biden’s active role in the Obama administration highlights this argument in the other direction. For Obama’s supporters the Cheney vice presidency was an awful situation that had led to bad policy and skirted the edges of constitutionality. Biden effectively promised he would not be another Cheney. Yet – he was quickly given prominent roles and has been the administration’s fireman on a range of issues including disputes in the intel community, coalition building in Iraq, and pushing START through the Senate. He has also played a leading role as an advisor – particularly on the issue of the Afghan surge. Biden’s role may be less then Cheney’s but it is obviously substantial (apparently more than Quayle’s and probably comparable to Gore and Mondale.) This indicates that, as Lechelt argues, the VP remains well positioned to play a leading policy role.

Both Kengor and Lechelt spend a fair amount of time analyzing that which can be observed clearly – vice presidential travel (for example.) This brings up an interesting point about future vice presidential roles. In an essay included in At the President’s Side: The Vice Presidency in the Twentieth Century the great Richard Neustadt observes the president effectively controls the vice president’s schedule. Even if the two officials get along, the President might find the most effective use of his VP on the road – fundraising, speaking, and meeting officials. Reducing the VP’s role would have to be done with subtlety – but it could be done.

This leaves open my question of what does the VP bring to the table that makes having him (or her) worth keeping around the White House? Perhaps the question I am interested in is the VP as senior advisor. Unfortunately this is difficult to test. Paul Light tracked cases where the VP advocated a policy and it was adopted. This approach has a number of disadvantages – one of which is Light only had two VPs in office for about 5 years (Mondale and Rockefeller.) I would have to gather data on 30 more years of vice presidents! I don’t have that kind of time if I want to finish my thesis before I retire. Also, advice isn’t always up or down on policy. VPs can have other kinds of impact – such as how an issue is portrayed or on key appointments. One metaphor that comes to mind is the VP as back-up QB. Besides being ready to take the field at any moment, can the back-up QB serve as a peer advisor to the QB and offer unique counsel. The VP is usually the only other senior politician in the White House – the only other figure who has had to actually run the political races and make the big policy calls. Can someone who shares that perspective be inimitably useful to the President?

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