Every year, the U.S. holds a national holiday called Presidents’ Day. Presidents’ Day, which is located in the month of February (this year, February 17, 2014) between the birthdays of two of the country’s most famous presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, celebrates the contributions these leaders have made in service of the nation.
The responsibilities of the President of the United States of America are many. But while a president’s focus is often on domestic issues, his (and hopefully someday, her!) powers with respect to foreign affairs are quite significant. As commander-in-chief of America’s armed forces, he has the power to intervene to a very significant degree in matters involving foreign countries. And pursuant to the “Treaty Clause” of the Constitution, the President is also empowered to act as the primary negotiator when it comes to agreements with other nations. As a result, a president’s foreign policy is often a key issue during his campaign for election.
Once elected, a president can have a major impact on international law. Working through international institutions or leveraging the economic and military power of the U.S. to bring about various agreements, a president can shape international relations to a tremendous degree. The U.S. presidents selected for this slideshow are those that have had a significant effect on foreign affairs, as well as the legal relationship between the U.S. and other nations. Over the course of American history, these presidents have, for better or worse, left a mark on the world that extended far beyond U.S. borders.
Some were wartime leaders, while others preferred to pursue primarily diplomatic means to achieve their goals, but all will be remembered for a long time to come for their impact on the world at large.
President: 1789–1797 (1st)
Little introduction is necessary for the man who was already an important American leader in the years when America’s very existence was still a matter to be resolved. After his successful military campaign as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War against Britain, Washington voluntarily resigned his position while the first United States government was formed, pursuant to the Articles of Confederation. When they were replaced with the current Constitution, Washington was elected as the first president of the newly incorporated United States.
From a foreign policy perspective, Washington strived to stay neutral in the war between the French and British, but did enter into a minor trade treaty with England, provoking French allies. He also entered into treaties with Algiers (to protect American ships from piracy) and Spain (to gain access to the Mississippi River and improve relations with natives in Spanish-controlled Florida).
President: 1817–1825 (5th)
In the early 1800s, President Monroe pursued important treaties that shaped the borders of the still-forming United States. One agreement with Britain, made to resolve disputes linked to the War of 1812, led to significant disarmament in the Great Lakes region. Another set the northern border of the western U.S. at the 49th parallel. He also presided over an important treaty negotiated by John Quincy Adams with Spain, which led to the sale of Florida to the U.S. in exchange for assumption of debt and relinquishing of claims to Texas.
Ultimately, Monroe is best remembered for the Monroe Doctrine, the policy that the U.S. would not tolerate further colonization or re-colonization in the Western Hemisphere by European powers (but would not seek to intervene in existing colonies, either). This policy would guide America’s ascent to becoming the dominant power in the West.
President: 1861–1865 (16th)
Abraham Lincoln’s impact on domestic law — leading the charge on the abolishment of slavery — is without doubt his greatest legacy. However, as a wartime president striving to subdue the Confederacy and remake the United States, Lincoln’s foreign policy was also important. By blockading the Confederacy as an act of war, he legitimized the nascent power, leading other nations to adopt formal positions on the Confederacy as well. Also, in accordance with certain international laws adopted pursuant to the Crimean War, the Confederacy thus was also entitled to take out loans and purchase arms on international markets, and enjoy safe harbor when in foreign ports.
These actions provide an important case study for those seeking to understand the historical underpinnings of modern international policies regarding formal recognition of rebel powers in countries torn apart by civil war.
President: 1897–1901 (25th)
William McKinley is often thought of as the president who initiated American overseas imperialism. Through conflict with Spain during his presidency, he ultimately brought the U.S. into the Paris Peace Treaty, which provided for the American acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. He also oversaw the taking of Hawaii, and establishment of a U.S. protectorate in Cuba. In addition, his Open Door policy in China, by which all nations would be accorded equal economic footing there, and the Chinese would remain independent, is still one of the most significant statements ever made by the U.S. Department of State. He also arguably expanded presidential power significantly when he dispatched troops during the Boxer rebellion in China without prior congressional approval.
President: 1901–1909 (26th)
Known for “speaking softly” but for also “carrying a big stick,” Teddy Roosevelt used force as he saw fit, but was also an active arbitrator of many disputes, making him the first U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He helped put a civil government in place in the Philippines, gained the Panama Canal through military and economic means, and also put forth the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Ostensibly to prevent the need for European intervention in the Western Hemisphere, the Roosevelt Corollary stated that the U.S. would intervene in Latin countries if they displayed critical economic problems. This cemented the U.S.’s role as the “policeman of the West,” a policy which would be heavily criticized over the years.
William Howard Taft
President: 1909–1913 (27th)
President Taft is best known for his policy of “Dollar Diplomacy,” or seeking to advance American economic interests internationally, especially through the use of government officials abroad. He also sought to stabilize Latin American powers when rebel forces or economic instability threatened the peace there (e.g. Honduras, Nicaragua). When he positioned troops outside Mexico, but then withdrew them, he earned the nickname “Peaceful Bill.”
President: 1913–1921 (28th)
President Wilson is remembered for pursuing a more moralistic, and less materialistic, approach to international law and relations. He encouraged many nations to become self-directed, especially in Latin America, although he was criticized for demanding that they do so through democratic systems. He presided over U.S. involvement and success in checking the Germans in World War I and is remembered for his “Fourteen Points” speech. In it, he called for open treaties (not secret alliances), reduction of imperialism, disarmament and increased freedom worldwide. He also helped create the League of Nations, but unfortunately suffered heavy compromise of his desired goals in the process, and the U.S. never joined the organization, which would ultimately be replaced by the United Nations.
President: 1933–1945 (32nd)
While battling the economic crisis of the Great Depression absorbed much of F.D.R.’s attention in his early years as president, his actions in World War II would become equally important to his legacy. After pursuing non-intervention agreements with nations in the Western Hemisphere, he ultimately had to turn his focus to the conflict in Europe and the East. He ultimately helped lead the Allied Powers to victory, even as his health was failing, and also laid the groundwork for the United Nations, which plays a key role in international law to this day.
Harry S. Truman
President: 1945–1953 (33rd)
In Truman’s presidency are many of the roots of modern American foreign policy. He will always be known, however, as the decision-maker who first unleashed the tragic power of the atomic bomb. After the end of World War II, much of Truman’s influence on international matters was directed at Soviet and communist containment (the Cold War; the Korean War) and solidification of the United Nations. Truman also made the U.S. the first country to officially recognize the existence of Israel.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
President: 1953–1961 (34th)
Eisenhower’s foreign policy was to some extent a continuation of previous principles — the Cold War still simmered on, while key alliances were strengthened where possible. An inability to put issues with Russia and China to bed was also undermined by further expansion of the U.S.’s nuclear and spy programs. Covert actions in Latin America, and involvement in the affairs of countries in the Middle East would set the stage for coming phases of American internationalism. Lastly, Eisenhower’s commitment to support of South Vietnam would ultimately lead to a painful disaster that would unfortunately be something of a template for several problematic international occupations and interventions by the U.S. in the decades to follow.
John F. Kennedy
President: 1961–1963 (35th)
Kennedy’s impact on international issues and international law largely arose from his attempts to check Soviet expansion in the Western Hemisphere and with respect to nuclear weapons. A Soviet buildup of troops and materiel in Cuba led to a tense event known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the U.S. blockaded the island and threatened invasion. Fortunately, Kennedy’s administration was able to resolve the standoff through diplomatic means — the Soviets withdrew and the U.S. blockade was lifted.
J.F.K. created the humanitarian volunteer organization known as the Peace Corps by Executive Order, and also founded the Alliance for Progress to improve relations with Latin America. He considered an agreement with Great Britain and the USSR to limit nuclear testing to be his greatest achievement as president, however. The agreement would be one of several that the world would see over the years as leading powers negotiated over the issue of nuclear disarmament.
Lyndon B. Johnson
President: 1963–1969 (36th)
President’s Johnson’s legacy abroad is largely defined by the Vietnam War. As a matter of foreign policy, the reason for America’s heavy involvement in the conflict between North and South Vietnam was generally explained to be the containment of the spread of communism and Soviet influence in developing nations. Johnson and his advisors subscribed to the “Domino Theory,” which stated that if one nation “fell to communism,” its neighbors would become more likely to do so as well. The policy deeply divided the nation and the world at large.
Johnson did, however, ultimately make further progress on reducing nuclear activity through the Outer Space Treaty with the USSR (banning nuclear weapons in space), and the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (prohibiting the sale of nuclear weapons and the provision of nuclear assistance to non-nuclear nations).
President: 1969–1974 (37th)
Nixon is often remembered for commencing the warming of relations with China and the USSR. His Strategic Arms Limitation and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties were not aimed at stopping further buildup, but laid the groundwork for future, more meaningful disarmament treaties. Nixon also presided over the completion of the American ground campaign in Vietnam with the Paris Peace Accords.
Nixon and his top advisor, Henry Kissinger, also expanded the U.S.’s military and economic support of Israel, and also continued to negotiate with nations in the Middle East over energy issues. These matters would become very significant to American foreign policy and international law in the coming decades.
President: 1974–1977 (38th)
During his presidency, Ford pursued a number of diplomatic initiatives aimed at easing longstanding tensions. First, he signed the Helsinki Accords, which cemented European boundaries and included human rights acknowledgements. His efforts to produce the Vladivostock Accords also furthered the objectives of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty regarding disarmament, but did not lead to a new agreement during Ford’s administration. Activities in Vietnam were limited to humanitarian aid only, and the final phase of Vietnam War came to an end while Ford was in office. Unfortunately, however, war in Angola, in which China, Russia and the U.S. would remain in conflict through local factions, further established the template for proxy conflicts that are still taking place in many other locations worldwide.
President: 1977–1981 (39th)
Human rights worldwide were a focus of President Carter’s administration, and he also sought often to avoid military conflict where possible. While he suspended military and economic aid for human rights reasons in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Uganda, he chose not to take a similarly hard line in the USSR and Iran. A heavily criticized agreement to give Panama control over the Panama Canal also left Carter looking somewhat vulnerable.
He redeemed himself significantly with the Camp David Accords, which ended a military conflict between Egypt and Israel, and reaching de facto agreement with the USSR regarding SALT II disarmament. Blame apportioned to him during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, however, would further tarnish his international legacy, despite ultimately reaching an agreement concluding the matter.
President: 1981–1989 (40th)
Reagan’s early policies served to combat and antagonize a number of powers around the world. His military buildup and the nickname, the “Evil Empire,” provoked the Soviets as the nations argued over compliance with disarmament objectives. The Reagan Doctrine of military support for any forces fighting Marxist or leftist regimes or factions in nations around the world also led to a number of controversial international incidents during his term. These activities reached a public peak in the Iran-Contra scandal. By the end of his presidency however, Reagan had reconciled measurably with the Gorbachev-led Soviet Union, leading to a warming of the ongoing Cold War.
George H.W. Bush
President: 1989–1993 (41st)
Before the rosy glow of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall had subsided, the first President Bush’s foreign policy would take the country in a far less genial direction. After the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, President Bush sought to build an international coalition and gain the approval of Congress prior to military intervention. These steps would, for later presidents, not be considered preconditions to major actions, a significant point from an international law perspective.
Success in the Persian Gulf, however, at least bolstered the credibility of America’s military strength, for a time. Bush also used U.S. troops in Somalia to ease a humanitarian crisis, which served as precedent for considering small-scale interventions in a variety of countries around the world. He did not, however, commit the armed forces to action in Yugoslavia, where fears of “another Vietnam” may have played a role in staying his hand.
President: 1993–2001 (42nd)
Failure to intervene aggressively in a crisis in Rwanda marred the early years of Clinton’s presidency from a foreign policy perspective, but he remained committed to America’s role as an international activist. This “doctrine of enlargement” was aimed at bringing additional nations into the free market, but also required the U.S. to continue to intervene in various world crises where necessary. Clinton oversaw the finalization of both NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the revised GATT (General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade), which both had major international economic impact. From a military perspective, President Clinton achieved meaningful consensus on certain actions internationally, most notably the combined U.S./NATO actions in the Balkans.
The tension between unilateral action by the U.S. internationally and consensus building would play a major role in U.S. interventions in later years.
George W. Bush
President: 2001–2009 (43rd)
Most of the world is familiar with the event that crystallized George W. Bush’s foreign policy — the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2011 — as well as his response. Internationally, Bush conducted military campaigns in Afghanistan (to interdict terrorist activity) and Iraq (to overthrow a controversial regime). American intervention reached something of a peak during his administration, as large numbers of forces were committed to significant action in each country. The issues of torture, violation of the Geneva Convention, war crimes and the holding of prisoners without proper process or representation in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, all played a large role in Bush’s heavily criticized presidency.
President: 2009– (44th)
President Obama inherited the prior administration’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and campaigned on plans to complete the transitions of power in both countries to more stable governments than previous regimes. He oversaw the withdrawal of large numbers of troops from both locations, and has since been able to turn his attention to other matters, like the New START arms reduction treaty signed in 2010 with Russia. In addition, the killing of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden by U.S. Special Forces was a key success of his administration internationally. U.S. activities relating to international spying, data collection and drone attacks are expected to play a significant role in his ultimate impact on international law.