Who was the best foreign policy president?
September 20th, 2012
09:10 AM ET

Who was the best foreign policy president?

In less than two weeks, President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will square off in the first of a series of presidential debates that will include foreign policy. But who should they be drawing their inspiration from? And whose examples should they be avoiding?

Global Public Square asked a group of historians and commentators for their take on the most successful and least successful U.S. presidents, from a foreign policy point of view. Here, we feature their picks of the best, and on Friday, we'll highlight those considered the least successful. (All views expressed here are, of course, the writers' own.) Agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT

Bruce Jentleson is professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Duke University and the author, among other works, of "American Foreign Policy: The Dynamics of Choice in the 21st Century."

His take: Both for his leadership turning one of our country’s moments of  greatest vulnerability into the triumph of World War II, and for the vision to begin building the postwar peace, Franklin D. Roosevelt deserves the highest ranking. Congressional isolationists had blocked most of FDR’s efforts to start mobilizing the American industrial base and preparing the American people for the war. We would have had our work cut out for us even if the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hadn’t crippled the Navy. FDR’s fireside chats provided a mix of reassurance and call to action. From only 175,000 troops, enlistments and the draft brought the military to 8.5 million. Government and industry worked together. American families did their share buying war bonds and growing “victory gardens” – including my then-14 year-old Mom who still had her official thank you letter for her Scranton, Pennsylvania plot of lettuce and tomatoes when she died more than 60 years later. And even before the war was over, he began laying the groundwork for a postwar order: the Bretton Woods open international economic system, the United Nations, diplomacy with the Soviet Union to at least try and avoid what later became the Cold War.

More: The current candidates' global challenges

James Lee Ray is director of undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt University.

His take: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is hard choice to avoid as most successful foreign policy president. He faced the greatest, most serious challenges, and he dealt with them successfully.

He managed to make important contributions to the anti-fascist effort even when faced with overwhelming isolationist opposition before 1941. (Lend-Lease, for example.)  Japan attacked in 1941, and then Hitler declared war almost immediately. That declaration made it possible for him to focus on Europe first.  His planning for the attack across the English Channel took a very long time. Meanwhile, the Nazis and Communists were killing each other by the millions. The difficulties faced by the Allies even in 1944 when the cross-channel attack was launched suggest that an earlier attack might have been premature and unsuccessful.

Holding together the Allied coalition was difficult.  Adopting the policy of “unconditional surrender” was probably a key to doing so.  He did put too much faith, at Yalta, in his ability to deal with Stalin after the war. He didn’t count on being dead when the time came. But it is unlikely that any policies would have prevented the Soviet Union from taking over in Eastern Europe, or the Cold War.

Andrew Bacevich is a professor of international relations at Boston University and a retired career officer in the U.S. Army.

His take: The measure of merit: A successful statesman enhances the wealth, power, and influence of the state; the unsuccessful statesmen depletes those assets.

Based on those criteria, Franklin D. Roosevelt ranks as our most successful foreign policy president. Thanks to FDR’s skillful management of World War II, the United States by 1945 had become the richest and strongest country in the world. Americans were the sole beneficiaries of the cataclysm touched off by Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. By the time the smoke cleared, the ranks of Great Powers had been reduced to two and in every way that counted, the United States enjoyed vast advantages over its only conceivable rival, the Soviet Union.

James M. Lindsay is the senior vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

His take: In the spirit of the bipartisanship that Americans long for in their foreign policy but typically don’t see, two presidents rate as most successful in foreign policy: Franklin D. Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush. With the destroyer-for-bases-deal, the Lend Lease Act, and other actions, FDR secured critical support for Britain during its darkest hours and against intense isolationist head winds at home. He then led the country to victory in World War II and oversaw the creation of the bedrock international institutions of the modern world: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

More: Next president faces a dangerous world

GEORGE H.W. BUSH

Thomas Schwartz is professor of history at Vanderbilt University.

His take: Two very different presidents who come to mind almost immediately are Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.  Truman’s presidency laid the basis for the successful policy of containing the Soviet Union and built such important foreign policy institutions as NATO, through which American policy was exercised throughout the Cold War. He presided over the reintegration of Germany and Japan into the American led system of alliances. Truman did fight an unpopular war in Korea and fire a popular general, but his decisions have largely been vindicated by history even though they made him extremely unpopular as he left office. The other president is Richard Nixon, who with the help of Henry Kissinger reversed America’s decades-long estrangement from China and dramatically improved relations with the Soviet Union, playing the two communist giants off against each other. Although Nixon’s policy of ending the war in Vietnam was controversial, it was ultimately approved by the American people, who gave him one of the largest landslides in American history. But the collapse of his presidency over Watergate keeps his presidency from being seen as a success.

But the president I would select as the most successful post-1945 president in foreign policy is George Herbert Walker Bush.  Bush came into the presidency during the tumultuous year of 1989, which saw the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and most importantly, the reunification of Germany. Not only did he manage these changes with an intelligence and modesty that facilitated America’s goals, he also worked quietly behind the scenes with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev to minimize any violence and bloodshed. At the same time, Bush engineered an extraordinarily effective international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. He was a president who both recognized the potential strength of the United States, but also the limits of its power.

James Lee Ray:

His take: George H. W. Bush is surely the most highly qualified foreign policy president in the history of the country. He had been a Congressman, head of the CIA, ambassador to the United Nations, envoy to China and vice president of the United States for eight years by the time he became president.

And that experience seemed to pay off.  He did launch a gratuitous attack on Panama in 1989.  But then he put together the greatest, most powerful coalition ever (compared to its enemy), to push Iraq (and its million man army) out of Kuwait in 1991. He avoided the temptation to go into Baghdad. (Had he not, the hardline Communist coup in the Soviet Union in August of 1991 would have succeeded.)

Bush faced a situation in Germany after the end of the Cold War whose potential for disaster is also still under-appreciated.  The Soviet Union still had 300,000 troops in East Germany. It did not want to see Germany united, and it considered a united Germany as a member of NATO totally out of the question. But President Bush managed to pull that off anyway, without creating a very messy crisis in the middle of Europe, with a desperate Soviet Union in its death throes.

James M. Lindsay:

His take: George H. W. Bush did not enjoy the FDR’s electoral success. But during his one term he successfully handled some of the stiffest foreign policy challenges of the last half century. He helped manage the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union and pushed for the reunification of Germany against the advice of close U.S. allies. He also liberated Kuwait and resisted calls to send the U.S. military onward to Baghdad. No, the elder Bush never figured out what the “new world order” would look like. But then again, neither have his three successors.

RONALD REAGAN

Danielle Pletka is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Her take: Measuring the relative success of American presidents in foreign policy is an almost impossible task. Even narrowing the task to the 20th and 21st centuries demands almost ridiculous comparisons. What are the metrics?  Lives lost? Lives saved? American interests served? But which ones?  Many might argue that Franklin Roosevelt was one of our nation’s greatest foreign policy leaders, ushering in the era of American global leadership, ridding the world of a vile dictator. But World War II was also a tale of missed opportunity; of lives lost because the United States would not act.  Can any war that ends with the death of six million Jews be considered a “success”?

Then too, there are contests, many partisan, for the title of worst foreign policy president. Was it Lyndon Johnson, who failed to successfully prosecute the Vietnam War and sacrificed tens of thousands of American lives only to see us leave a few short years later? Was it George W. Bush, scourge of liberals for beginning the Iraq War, a conflict supported by the United States Congress but long and complex in its undertaking? Or Jimmy Carter, for whom ideology was paramount, therefore allowing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Islamist takeover of Iran?

There are no serious answers to the question because American leadership doesn’t lend itself to a neat, nonpartisan dissection of our presidents. Different Americans want different things for our country, and even those Americans aren’t divided into neat partisan lines. There are Republicans and Democrats for retreat; conservatives and liberals for internationalism.

Still, two men vie for the title of best and worst, though each has many competitors. Each governed at a seminal moment, and saw the United States through a crossroads, determining a path that would govern our future for many years.

Ronald Reagan had a vision for America in the world. Importantly, his ambitions for America’s role on the world stage were not shaped by our enemies, but rather shaped by his own view of American exceptionalism.  Reagan hastened the end of the defining battle of the 20th century, the fight between those who believed in freedom and those who embraced communism. True, there were bad choices of allies (Pinochet, Savimbi), but in the aftermath of the Carter era – dominated by a president who believed American power was an embarrassment to be lived down – Reagan knew not only what the United States opposed, but what America supported: freedom in all its iterations.

More: What can history teach the next president?

Honorable mention

JIMMY CARTER

David Ryan is professor of history at University College Cork, Ireland and author of Frustrated Empire: US Foreign Policy from 9/11 to Iraq.

His take: Jimmy Carter reflected in his second State of the Union that it was “sound.”  The troubles of 1979 had yet to compound his presidency. Carter reflected that on his watch, not one American service person had died abroad. He asked his audience, in words that now seem incredibly ironic, what sort of world the early 21st century would be as that generation of kids grew up – would America be at war?  “Our children who will be born this year will come of age in the 21st Century.  What kind of society, what kind of world are we building for them?  Will we ourselves be at peace?  Will our children enjoy a better quality of life? Will a strong and united America still be a force for freedom and prosperity around the world?” Little did he realize that it would witness two presidents trying desperately and ineffectively to withdraw from two theaters of combat with mixed results.

Of course, Carter was weak! Or so the conventional narrative ran. He received constant advice that he had to hit someone, somewhere. Americans were confused about the direction of his foreign policy. Americans had been taken hostage, the Soviets had moved into Afghanistan, the Sandinistas had succeeded in Nicaragua and Carter moved around the White House in indecision: such is the caricature.

Yet Carter realized that the use of force in each of these instances would be counterproductive.  On Iran especially, he confessed to an interviewer that bombing Tehran might make the country feel good, perhaps if timed well, he might have even been re-elected. But in terms of local and specific objectives, he would not have advanced the agenda much. Despite his early rhetoric, his was a more cautious and realistic presidency. After a decade and more of the atrocious use of force, he recognized the limits of U.S. military power and the power of the country’s appeal.  That it did not work is in part due to the domestic discourse that straitjacket presidents in so many ways, limiting their choices, generating expectation, frequently of a pugnacious sort, and most insidiously questioning their “credibility” should they fall short.

THOMAS JEFFERSON

Bruce Jentleson:

His take: Thomas Jefferson gets my second nomination, principally for his deft diplomacy in pulling off the Louisiana Purchase. These 820,000 square miles, encompassing an area that eventually would include all or part of 14 new states and provide the gateway opening the Far West, transformed our small Atlantic Coast country into a vast continental one. Despite blustery urgings from Alexander Hamilton to try to seize these areas militarily, Jefferson got it done through skilled statecraft. He played French-British-Spanish rivalries off one against the other. And when he and his emissary James Monroe saw how much Napoleon needed the money, they savvily shifted from their original plan to buy just the port of New Orleans for $10 million to dealing for all that territory for just $15 million.

None of the above:

Scott Lucas is a professor of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Birmingham, England.

His take: I don’t think there is a best, at least in the post-1945 world, because each of them has been limited by the demands of American power. Franklin D. Roosevelt might have prevailed with a vision of the “international” had he not died in office, but Truman and Eisenhower were both caught up in the confrontation with the Soviet Union – the good of the Marshall Plan has to be set alongside not-so-good U.S. interventions outside Western Europe. Kennedy’s inaugural address is one of the most aggressive speeches ever delivered and partly-implemented, Johnson sank in Vietnam, and Nixon complemented “détente” with a cynical U.S. policy that rampaged through much of the world from Cambodia to East Timor to Chile. Reagan? Overrated – the fortuitous economic exhaustion of the Soviet Union saved him from a less-exalted reputation built on the excesses of U.S. power, such as Iran-Contra and the aftermath of 1980s Afghanistan.

Jimmy Carter could have made a difference, but his well-intentioned attempt to shift U.S. policy to international justice and rights was sabotaged by the Soviets, Congress, and an inability to deal with cases like Iran.

But the one lost chance of “best” that sticks with me is seeing the last overseas speech of Bill Clinton, given in December 2000 in Warwick, England. He spoke in a tired but eloquent voice of the necessity to meet the challenges of climate change and global warming, epidemics and basic health care, and the vast divide in living standards. And I thought, “Great speech. What have you been doing for the last eight years?”

What do you think? Which president set the bar when it comes to U.S. foreign policy? Who would you argue in favor of? Against? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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soundoff (712 Responses)
  1. Reasonably

    GHWB? Really? That's funny.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
    • jim111506

      Reasonably with AIDS is funnier.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  2. Ratt

    I can say who the worst is; Barry Soetoro aka Barack Hussien Obama.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  3. open400

    Best president foreign affairs: Harry Truman.
    Worst president foreign affairs: George Bush Jr.
    If you really understand history, Reagan is a very overrated president in foreign policy. The convention wisdom is that Reagan ended the Cold War, in reality it was the PC/telecommunications revolution that needed the Cold War. The USSR knew it needed get involved in the world market economy or would end up hopeless behind. How bad were the economies of eastern Europe that the USSR was willing to leave without firing a shot? After the Berlin Wall fell, we found out that there were a number of false alarms in 1983 that actually had us going closer to war than the Cuban Missile crisis. There was also a great deal of pressure in the West from the international peace movements to avoid a showdown.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  4. IceMan

    Best president overall: Jefferson is my pick.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  5. quiet Profi

    Considering Reagan's weakening of the military by funding useless programs instead of common sense and the fact his senility almost got us nuked at a time when his administration’s incompetence left us with no possible way to respond. I am surprised he is even included.

    It will take decades before we recover from Reagan /Bush, and longer for the GOP to recover from the Tea Party Traitors and Benedict Allen west.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
    • Colonel Smith

      I think you mean Benedict ARNOLD

      September 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
      • quiet Profi

        No I meant Allen west, he has lied to the troops to further his own career while destrpoying moral and getting the ones who believed his lies q=courtsmartialed and even given bad discharges, and the worst part is he iknows he is lying.

        Seditionin a tme of war is treason, and the tea party are traitors, otherowse why the aversion to the truth?

        September 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  6. james

    How could they forget to mention JFK? In my opinion John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the best American president to have ever lived.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
    • quiet Profi

      what did JFK do tha was good? His fatehr was a NAZI and he was was an anti semite, we are still argueing about who eliminagted him, I can only think of one group who could do it and leave so many questions, Israel will never let an antisemite in the white house.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  7. Mike davis

    Truman ended WW11'started N.A.TO.,contained communism,established the UnitedNation,Dept of Defense,C.IA.,re-built western Europe...to you Reagan lovers..PEEP!

    September 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
    • Rob

      Errr, you mean he completed FDR's accomplishments.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  8. Karaya

    History is filled with myths...
    Jefferson was the great thinker and revolutionary – and also one of the most inept presidents of the United States, who nearly ran the country into the ground. He weakened the military and then recklessly got into war with the Great Britain. Brits sacked and burned the US capitol on his watch, and it was pure luck they were to busy in Europe to finish the job here.
    As for the Louisiana Purchase – it was done on the spot by the US envoys to France, without Jefferson knowledge and approval. He learned about it post-fact, and has no choice but to approve it.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
    • huh?

      The attack on the White House happened on Madison's watch, and it was Madison that started that war. An absolute disaster foreign policy wise.

      September 20, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  9. Todd

    President Wilson should be on the list. If it wasn't for an isolationist congress we may not have had WWII

    September 20, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • Orygunduck

      The extreme right hates Woodrow Wilson. They think he is behind all of the progressive elements in our society. Hurts my fellings since I went to Woodrow Wilson High School in Portland.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  10. disgustedvet

    Only CNN would include FDR and " gasp " Jimmy Carter on a list of Best Foreign policy Presidents. FDR was a socialist pig who was forced into foreign policy and Carter is a peanut brained m o r o n .

    September 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • Orygunduck

      .Carter had a distinguished Navy career, unlike most GOP types who seem to avoid the military even as they want to expand it.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
      • disgustedvet

        I must have missed the part of the story about Carters Navy career. Although i do remember his being attacked at " Sea" by a killer rabbit.

        September 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  11. uwgb

    We could not have gone on to the remarkable achievements our country has produced without the revolutionary ideas implemented by Thomas Jefferson, as well as his visionary addition of the Louisiana Purchase! What a remarkable man.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  12. Diana Friedlander

    Good Article!!

    September 20, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • IamAmazed

      Are you high?

      September 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  13. IamAmazed

    During my lifetime Carter was the one with the worst foreign policy until Obama got elected.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  14. Orygunduck

    There was a good PBS special I saw once that basically gave credit to The Beatles for ending the Cold War. While you might think that is crazy, you have to consider how influence Western pop culture had on the youth of the USSR.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  15. alpg49

    GHW Bush! Too bad he engineered the GOP's hard turn to the Right. Also, Harry Truman. Both of them carried out the end games of more fabled presidents. But w/o the end games both achievements would have gone for nothing.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  16. FROST

    SARAH PALIN BECAUSE RUSSIA IS BY ALASKA LMAFO

    September 20, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  17. huxley

    My vote would go to Eisenhower, the last US President to keep the country entirely out of international conflicts. He ended the Korean War and resisted intervening in Vietnam. For a few short years, the United States had no boots on foreign soil, anywhere on Earth.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • X

      Ike sent the marines into Lebanon in what was one of the more ridiculous moves in US foreign policy...

      September 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  18. A VOTE FOR OBAMA IS A STEP TO DESTROY USA

    I liked Regan and Kennedy. I think Romney will be like Regan.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
    • ohioan

      Please get help and maybe a prescription for some reality pills.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  19. Ali

    Check out a blog by a young hardworking Mom, Wife, Student and PROUD Democrat! Personal, Political and Powerful!
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    September 20, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  20. thenewfirstinternational

    check out the new news site!

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    September 20, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  21. AJL

    Nixon was pretty good at foreign policy.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  22. jim111506

    Truman was the greatest because he dropped the Bomb. I wish more presidents would do that.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  23. Reagan Zombie

    How quickly we forget that if not for Ollie North taking the fall for Iran-Contra, Reagan would have been impeached.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  24. oldoc

    I think JFK would be an excellent "role model" for Obama in terms of foreign policy and pentagon-related issues as well as general outlook for the country.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  25. Bennie

    What good does this article do? The media is the cause of ignorance being spread. I will celebrate the day educated people realize that CNN is just as divisive as Faux. The U.S. is going down hill fast, thanks to so-called- credible cable channels like CNN. I just wish it would stop.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  26. glades2

    Nixon was very good, but JM would have been even better...

    September 20, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
    • helen1233

      Reagan making the short list is what I find funny. If we had given Carter a second term instead of switching to Dr Feelgood Reagan, the world would be a far better place today. We are still paying the price for the disastrous Reagan admin, in so many ways.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
      • Rob

        You must be joking. Carter would have failed miserably the next four years and we would probably have already paid the price.

        September 20, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  27. AndriconBoy

    This is where people simply vomit up the name of the president they like the most – no matter how bad those policies may have been – because they don’t really know anything about foreign policies of any other president.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  28. Baadman

    What’s going on here? We thought George W. Bush was the problem. Isn’t that why our bumptious young president promised, in his victory speech, to restore regard for the US?
    In the Middle East, President Obama has lost whit little credibility he had. The promises he made in his 2009 speech – intended as a “reset” to our relations with the Muslim world - have come back to haunt him and us. In his speech, President Obama said he sought “a new beginning” in our relations with the Muslim world. He confirmed that the US was “not at war with Islam” and professed sympathy for the plight of Palestinians. He apparently thought that decades of failure could be overcome by a few well chosen words, but since then, there has been little to no progress on the ground.
    The appalling events in Libya, Afghanistan, and Egypt, together stiff-arming the Israelis signal grave times for America, but the Pres seems to be too busy attending campaign fund raisers or relaxing on the links.
    Just like Americans, people in the Muslim world were suckered by fine speech-making; we, and they, are disappointed in the follow-through. For Arabs, the let-down has been grave, partly because the build-up was out of proportion. Americans have suffered a similar disillusionment – on jobs, on education, on our finances – and on foreign policy. Now, President Obama’s failure to keep his promises – both at home and abroad – should cost him his job.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
  29. Bhawk1

    Ronnie could talk but no walk. He made token responses to 200 marines killed in Lebaon and Pan Am flight over Lockerbee. He could yell and shake his fist at the Russkies and the Wall. So, what all the Presidents talked of the wall coming down. He did nothing about it just talk. He was President at the end of the Soviet Union falling from trying to occupy their colonies called the Soviet Bloc, just as the colonial period ended for all the European Nations. And RWR had nothing to do with it. History will eventually show he dealt with Iran making a deal so he could be President. Sold them weapons after they held our people hostage for 444 days. You people never could see the true RWR, worthless as a President and should have been impeached and removed.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • ohioan

      Exactly. But to listen to Republicans, one would think old Ronny was the second coming.

      September 20, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  30. Larry G.

    I agree with all your comments about the best presidents concerning foreign policy except I don't think Ronald Reagan was an especially good president on foreign policy. I feel he was just lucky to be in office when all good things related to foreign policy happened. He did not personally make them happen.

    September 20, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
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