Policy expert William Polk gives three-part talk at Yale

william r polk

William R. Polk, a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor of Middle Eastern studies, spoke on Monday, February 5th about the evolution of the United States’ civil-military relationship. This was one of a three part series Polk delivered entitled, “America Confronts the Post-Imperial World” and was coordinated through the MacMillan Center as part of the Henry L. Stimson Lectures on World Affairs.

William R. Polk’s lecture this past Monday, “How, from Our Earliest Days, We Have Been Beset by Fear of Violence and Have Increasingly Put Our Faith in Military Force,” seems based on its title to portend an anthropological or philosophical discussion. Instead, Professor Polk draws from both his diplomatic and academic backgrounds to deliver an insightful presentation on the intersection between constitutional history and U.S. foreign policy.

The United States Constitution, he argues, was drafted in a climate of great fear and uncertainty. On the one hand, the Articles of Confederation had rendered the government ineffective, leading the United States to verge dangerously upon what modern theorists would characterize as a failed state. On the other, the vivid memory of British tyranny meant that, above all,the drafters of the Constitution sought to prevent the unchecked concentration of power in a single set of hands. These two extremes gave rise to one of the most important, and most understated, check on executive power: the President was installed as commander-in-chief, but can unilaterally exercise military authority only in response to an attack and only in a defensive manner.

Congress alone would have the power to declare war. This standard held until a 1936 Supreme Court ruling by George Sutherland in the U.S. v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp. which identified the President as the “sole organ” of foreign policy. Sutherland reasoned that the nature of the executive branch enables it to conduct foreign affairs in a manner which would be impossible for congress. Polk identifies this singular act of judicial activism as the turning point the U.S. approach to warmaking and the power of the presidency.

Since 1936 an increasingly “imperial” presidency has developed. No longer was explicit congressional authorization required for the deployment of military force abroad, with Congress instead approving sweeping authorizations for military force such as the resolution passed in 2001 as part of the “Global War on Terror” and which was later used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Crucially, Congress no longer declares war, perhaps an antiquated notion in an era where non-state enemies are ascendant, but nevertheless one which indicates a turn away from legislative oversight of the executive’s military powers. It seems, says Polk, that as a country the United States has adopted a securitized mindset, willing to cede authority to a single body in exchange for assurances of protection.

This represents a remarkable shift in thinking from that of the Constitution’s drafters who regarded the armed forces themselves almost as a necessary evil which required strict regulation in order to prevent them from becoming the tool of a would-be despot. While the system of checks and balances remains strong in the United States, Polk’s words urge caution and an appreciation for the historical forces which have shaped our current political environment. Therefore, we would do well to regard with a critical eye any attempt to place greater control over the nation’s military resources with the executive in the name of security. As Polk reminds us, often it is not war itself, but merely the threat of war which has countenanced the deprivation of civil liberties.

Throughout his lecture, Polk is careful to frame each of his points in the historical context of the United States as a former colony. In this way he argues that many of the challenges facing post-colonial societies can be found throughout American history as well. Although significant differences persist, questions of how to retain civilian control over the military, or establish an effective democracy are held in common by nations around the world. With the United States assuming both colonialist and anti-colonial stances throughout its history, this framing introduces a unique and nuanced perspective to the analysis of U.S. foreign policy.
Find upcoming events with the MacMillan Center here.