Foreign Policy Blogs

Back to School on Foreign Policy

Back to School on Foreign Policy

Late August means back to school. Parents know it, kids know it, you know it and so do I. In a modern and rapidly evolving world we know that there is much to learn.The skills we develop during the first few years of school -reading and basic arithmetic- are important parts of everyday life. In the years that follow, school helps us develop skills like critical thinking and problem solving which allow us to take on higher level challenges. 

If we have learned these lessons well, we also learned one additional thing- our intellectual skills will grow sharper if we use them frequently, or, they will wither away if we leave them untended.

With that context in mind… pop quiz! 

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, how many hearings had the House Armed Services Committee with a direct focus on the conflict?

Once a month maybe? That would make for eighteen hearings on the matter at the time of this publishing. Once every other month perhaps? Or even seasonally? The House Armed Services Committee, one of the legislative bodies responsible for overseeing American foreign policy, held one isolated public hearing dedicated to the war in Ukraine back in February of 2023.

Surely the Senate, famously the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body, would take foreign policy more seriously than the “hot tea” tempest of the House. The Senate Armed Services Committee manages to double the House’s output- two public hearings with an explicit focus on the conflict in Ukraine. Admittedly, these two hearings do go alongside an additional five focused on the 2024 NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) during which determining funding for Ukraine’s defense was a regular topic- the House held similar hearings on defense appropriations where Ukraine was discussed.

If you are taking the time out of your day to read this article, I’d be very comfortable making a wager that you have had more than three serious conversations about the fighting in Ukraine around the water cooler with your co-workers, dinner table with your family, or coffee with your friends or classmates. I’m sure that you are a super star, but the combined efforts of the House and Senate should exceed the foreign policy thinking that you do in your own life.

You’ve had conversations about the continuing conflict in Ukraine not only because you want to learn from the perspective of your peers but also because the events that are taking place today are critically important to the future. America’s decisions (and the decisions of Ukraine’s other partners) will shape the outcome of the conflict. The outcome of the conflict will shape the peace that follows. The nature of that peace will either hasten the next conflict or allow for peace. These things matter!

Whether you support continued funding for Ukraine or believe that the United States needs to reconsider its priorities is, for the moment, not entirely relevant. What is important is continued discussions and debates about these pressing issues.

As I, and others far wiser than I, have previously written, the House and Senate have been failing in their constitutionally appointed responsibility to conduct serious foreign policy oversight for decades. The legislature conducts foreign policy hearings at a historically low rate, and when these hearings do take place they are more often used as an opportunity to generate sound bites than for conducting the sort of serious oversight that might inform the citizenry or motivate policy change. 

Unfortunately, none of this is new. Even when American lives were directly on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan the legislature failed to conduct serious oversight. The United States conducted 41 separate military operations in 19 countries around the world over the span of 20 years on the back of a single vote in each chamber- the 2001 AUMF. For comparison, the United States declared war on Germany and Japan individually when fighting against the Axis powers in the Second World War.

Individual Americans have a responsibility to stay informed about pressing foreign policy matters. That is one of the obligations we take on by living in a democracy.  The legislators who we elect to represent us in the House and Senate take on that responsibility even more acutely than private citizens. Unfortunately the behavior of our legislators does not live up to the seriousness of their task.

These matters will only become more pressing, and our responsibility will be increased, as the global community works towards resolving the conflict in Ukraine, avoiding a multination war in west Africia, and navigating great power competition. As our elected representatives have been skipping classes, the challenges faced by the United States have continued to evolve.

It is time for the legislature, House and Senate alike, to go back to school on foreign policy.


Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association.