In 1904 a British scholar Halford Mackinder delivered a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society called “The Geographical Pivot to History.” Among other important points he made in the lecture one is very relevant to the topic of this essay. Namely, Mr. Mackinder stated that at the beginning of the 20th century the world became the fully interconnected system. There were no more blanks and white spots on the map of the world. Everything was already known to man. Pushing forward, the scholar said that compared to the previous period in history of mankind when developments happening in a given part of the world influenced only that particular region and did not have many chances to penetrate and influence others, it was no more the case at the beginning of the new époque. From that time on, to the contrary, according to Mackinder, as everything in the world became interconnected, there was no more a chance that a happening in a given point on the map could stay limited in its consequences to that point. A challenge emerging in one spot would appeal many actors of the world politics at once. The reason of this was that in the closed up world interests of states – of which at that time there were approximately eighty in the world – overlapped constantly and cruelly, so challenges did not dissipate in the no man’s geopolitical space, but always led to collisions, wars, conflicts and rivalry.
In these circumstances foreign policy became an instrument the value of which can hardly be overestimated in the modern world. Foreign policy is the mechanism the principal leverage of which consists in negotiations and talks; in minimizing losses and striving to avoid conflicts, on the one hand, and striving at all cost to give up no single inch of a given country’s interest. If there were no foreign policy, there would be no incentive for states to compromise and to settle issues – of which there is an incalculable variety in today’s globalized world – in a win-win way.
Therefore, he in whose hands the creation and implementation of the foreign policy of a state is concentrated, is always a mighty politician and an influential person. For state leaders to control foreign policy, disputably the most important sphere a head of state deals with is always both the most responsible task and the biggest opportunity to become a remarkable politician. The reason for this is the fact that dealing with foreign policy ensues acting both within the state and internationally, which makes both the responsibility and benefits double.
The most obvious (though no less correct in virtue of that) answer to the question outlined in the title of this essay would be this: it depends. Now, I presume, that to whoever will read this the answer will seem somewhat baffling. To say “It depends” means both to say everything and nothing at the same time. That is why I will dedicate all of the following text to deciphering everything I put into these two small words.
The algorithm I chose is the following. One has to keep in mind that diversification in the question of the extent to which state leaders influence the foreign policy of their states depends on several variables. Here they are:
The form of the state. What regime rules in a given country influences very much the extent of the role state leaders play in politics, and in foreign policy within that number. It is no wonder that democracies, autocracies and totalitarian regimes shape the discussed issue differently. Examples to illustrate this point will follow.
The system of checks and balances present in political systems of different states. Although this point touches mainly upon democracies without having too much to do with the other previously mentioned regimes – authoritarian and totalitarian, there is still much space for diversification as to how one democracy may be different from another in terms of their leaders’ authority in foreign policy.
External factors. To elaborate a policy is one thing. To implement it is another. And whereas the first thing depends mostly on inner processes – passing legislative procedures, considering interests of a state and so on and so forth – its implementation depends too much on what place a state already has in the existing system of international relations. Will other actors allow a specific state go the way it wants to? Are their counterparts who are ready to go belligerent to stop the given country from implementing concrete foreign policy steps? Are there any norms included in specific legal instruments within the framework of international law that could restrict a state from certain undertakings? All of that to be illustrated.
The extent of influence in foreign policy depends on the regime existing in the state. As an example of authoritarian regime let’s take Cuban leader and till not so long ago the President of this country – Fidel Castro.
Fidel Castro came into office – if the word “came” is the right way to put it, but that’s not the issue discussed in this paper – in 1959, having toppled the regime of Batista. This drastic change in the Cuban leadership led to the 180-degree turn in the foreign policy of the country. Cuba became the first and only communist state in the Western Hemisphere and, moreover, in the dangerously immediate proximity from the United States – only somewhat 160 miles away from it. Whereas Cuba aligned with the United States of America in the period of the rule of Batista, Castro chose to align with the Soviet Union. From every point of view that was right on his part because ideologically and potentially the USSR seemed to be the best ally. Now, ever since 1959 Fidel Castro was the only person influencing the Cuban foreign policy. He was the only person who defined which way Cuba will go. He invited Khrushchev to deploy missiles in Cuba, he was the one not to give up on communism even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Let us remember in this respect that this led to the loss support, primarily financial, Cuba had been enjoying for decades before that. This means that there was enormous pressure on Castro but he did not give up on his ideas and nobody – what is important for the purpose of this paper – managed to make him to. And even the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States of America which happened only about a year ago, though formally carried out under the rule of Fidel’s brother Raul, was implemented only with the initiative and consent of Castro. When it comes to Cuba we never hear any other names, including the one o the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This is because in authoritarian regimes leaders are free to entitle themselves to be literally unlimited in their powers. They accord themselves more and more functions incrementally, which happened to Castro as well. And frankly speaking, for the very beginning, in 1959, it was clear that he would not: revolutions are not made to accord democracy a possibility to diminish the gains of a revolution at once. This is how authoritarian regimes emerge and how they increase the power of the leader, including in the foreign policy.
Now let’s take a totalitarian regime. The perfect example in this respect is Kim Jong Un of North Korea. We know that the line this country is pushing in foreign policy – arrogance, non-alignment, constant threatening and accusation – is due to the ideology that has been implemented for more than seventy years now by the three rulers from the Kim family. The political line is being elaborated not in legislative organs or through any other collective channels but by a single person that has all the power. The reason this is possible in a totalitarian country is that the ruler exercises enough violence, intimidation and propaganda not to admit not only diversification but also an attempt of diversification of political mind. And trough fear and physical power – this works, unfortunately. A totalitarian regime differs from an authoritarian only with one conceptual thing in terms of foreign policy. Authoritarian countries usually seek to adhere to some bigger ideological concept or to align with some state – like it happened in case of Cuba who aligned with the USSR or in case of Libya whose leader Gaddafi invented his own close-to-socialistic ideology of Jamahiriya – whereas totalitarian regimes are arrogant enough not to seek for anyone’s support or ideological justification for their actions in the international arena.
Finally, democracy admits the lowest range of possibilities for a head of state in foreign policy. The reason for this is the fact that in every democracy, even imperfect ones, there is a system of constraints absent from autocracies and totalitarian regimes. The division of power into three branches is always present and this ensures the impossibility for a single person, the head of state, namely, to carry out foreign policy single-handedly. Democracies always have what is called the system of checks and balances. And this is what leads me to the next point made previously.
Systems of checks and balances are different in different countries. In the United States it provides a certain range of powers for each branch of power whereas in Germany this division differs significantly. These differences depend primarily on the fact that forms of state in these two countries are different. The United States have a President who is the head of government whereas Germany’s principal statesman is Chancellors in spite of the fact that President also exists in the German political system.
Let’s take the US and how the head of state can carry out foreign policy in this country. On the one hand, the US President cannot declare wars and sign treaties on the part of the United States. However, Americans have found a way to circumvent these obstacles. For instance, notwithstanding the fact that only Congress can declare the war (like it happened after the assault on Pearl Harbor in 1941, for instance) the War Powers Resolution passed by the Congress in 1973 allows the President to send troops abroad single-handedly for a period of no more than 60 days with a condition of notifying Congress about that. If Congress does not declare war eventually, the President will have to withdraw troops after the expiration of 60 days. But this time is enough to win an entire war! Or, another example – treaties can be ratified only by the Congress, But American legislature know better than that: President may conclude congressional-executive agreement on the part of the country which do not differ that much in the nature of their legal power from treaties but do not have to be ratified by the Congress. Therefore, we can see that every given system of checks and balances gives a different extent of powers for a head of state in carrying out foreign policy.
Finally, let’s talk about what touches upon external factors. The first one deals with legislative constraints, so the good example here is the European Union. Notwithstanding that European Union is a supranational body it consists of separate states that have their own foreign policies. However, numerous treaties regulating the European Union existence do not allow address every issue of an EU-state foreign policy freely enough. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (just like any other head of state or head of government of an EU state) cannot take an own line of policy towards Syrian migrants, because such line would affect the issue of the Schengen zone, border controls etc. which lies within the framework of the EUs common foreign policy. The hands of Mrs. Merkel are tied here.
The second external factor deals with purely political motives. Let’s take Ukraine. President Poroshenko is definitely willing to lead his country to the EU. But he cannot lead it at a pace he would like to do that. It sufficed for him to bring Ukraine to just Association agreement and it was an enough incentive for Russia to go belligerent and annex Crimea. These steps on the part of Putin were to warn Ukraine from further motion towards the EU. Therefore, Mr. Poroshenko cannot be as brave in his actions as he would like to because that could result in further loss of territory and further warfare in the East of the country.
Having said all of the above and having analyzed the outlined factors I once again come to a conclusion that there is a great variety of variants of how far-reaching a head of state’s influence on the foreign policy of a given state can be. Different regimes show us different tendencies in this respect. And even within a single type of regime there can be a great diversification of possibilities enjoyed by the state ruler. Also, it is not only about who is who within the state as per the elaboration of foreign policy. External factors can also be restrictive enough for a head of state in how far he can allow himself to go and lead his country.