You frequently hear critics of US foreign policy such as Mearsheimer or Chomsky say that the US president has rather little power over it and that well-established officials and bureaucrats actually run the foreign policy of the US instead.

There certainly seems to be some evidence for that claim. For example, both Obama and Trump promised in their election campaigns to radically change foreign policy. Almost none of that happened in practice.

Especially looking back at past presidents like Eisenhower and Nixon or past Secretaries of State like Kissinger, there seems to be a decrease in politicians' ability to control US foreign policy.

Indeed, America's foreign policy seems pretty homogenous regardless of the party that comes into power. Putin himself has also made repeated comments to that effect (e.g. in an interview with Oliver Stone). This has also been pointed out by Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov on numerous occasions.

Mearsheimer has frequently mentioned the so-called "BLOB". Chomsky has mentioned the bureaucrats in place, while Oliver Stone has insisted upon the influence of neo-conservative elements at the time from the late 90s to the 2010-ish. Are they correct in stating that the apparent homogeneity of US foreign policy is the result of the entrenched power of the various offices, or perhaps also (as Chomsky points out) the influence residing with the "associates in the concentration of private economic power"?

If so, which are the specific offices that have the greatest influence and how has their power changed over time?

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    Looks like conspiracy theory peddling to me - "The BLOB". VTC. There is plenty of international relations theory that, between their self-interests and their populace's emotional affinities (say US electoral loathing of Cuba), countries have reasons to be stable in their FP. It would be more intriguing to talk about causes behind cases of radical shifts in FP, which seem much more the exception than this supposed "cabal of BLOB". Also, anyone familiar with Ch. knows that he's got plenty of axes grinding re. USA so while it doesn't make everything he says bad they do merit critical thought. May 14 at 18:19
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    Vote to close. As with any other bureaucracy, policy is set at the highest levels but implementation is delegated down through the hierarchy to autonomous professionals. Assuming there's some 'blob' of lower-level bureaucrats running things is as simplistic and naïve as assuming that the top leader has absolute power and control over everything. Pure conspiracy theory... May 14 at 19:20
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    FYI: I didn't invent "BLOB". I have encountered it specifically from Mearsheimer. Shouldn't be hard to find the references. However, that is not the core part of the question.
    – Bendemann
    May 14 at 19:50
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    Well, since you put it in the title, "the blob" seems a rather core part of your Q.
    – Fizz
    May 14 at 21:05
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    Mearsheimer or Chomsky are hardly reliable sources: both have rather extreme agenda. It has been pointed by many mainstream figures (e.g., Robert Gates, Condolezza Rice, Henry Kissinger) that there is significant inertia of State and Defense department bureaucracies - which is not surprising, given that these are organizations of thousands of people. Moreover, one shouldn't expect a president or a Secretary being able to turn the policy 180 in a second (even if media portray it this way) - the policy of a democratic country is supposed to be based on a broad consensus and long-term vision. May 15 at 7:35

3 Answers 3


both Obama and Trump claimed in their election campaigns to radically change US FP. Almost none of that happened in practice.

This, I would argue, is due to a rather specific issue that both Obama and Trump had in common: they won as a result of a protest vote, first inside their own party. (Recall that Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries. I need say even less about Trump.)

As Mann's book argues in a nutshell "Their inexperience and their reliance on others hampered the Obamians' ability to bring about change." And he illustrates that across multiple foreign policy events and appointments (Gates, Petraeus, H. Clinton herself! etc.)

The same is true for Trump's administration in some way considering all sources of influence for foreign policy he had: Bolton, Kushner etc. Just recall's Trump saga over withdrawal from Syria, for instance. To say nothing of the public fallout with Bolton etc.

As Mann recounts a lesser known event in the Obama camp, his slow public response to Russia's invasion of Georgia was due to disagreements between his foreign policy advisers--there wasn't a dominant figure in the Obama camp in that regard (according to Mann). To mention another matter, on Afghanistan, Obama was torn between advice/requests he got from the Army to increase the COIN effort, and Bruce Riedel's strategy to screw all that (including Pakistan) and just get bin Laden, in a laser-focused effort like the US had to defeat the Soviet invasion of '79, no matter the side-effects. (Riedel had worked on the latter early in his CIA career.)

And mindful of the Vietnam-war era experience, VP Biden argued against the troop surge, essentially siding with Riedel on demanding a counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency focus. One of Biden's somewhat informal FP advisers [Leslie Gelb] even went public that "eliminating the Taliban threat is not achievable" even with the troop surge. But officials in the opposite [essentially Clinton] camp like Michèle Flournoy were publicly arguing the opposite--that a resurgent Taliban would mean a resurgent Al Qaeda etc. And you'd be mistaken to think Obama's own campaigning had been far from that. Speaking to the American Legion he had vowed to "finish the job against the Taliban".

If you dive into the history of almost any [somewhat protracted] war the US fought after WW2, you'll probably find dissent like that, from within the ranks of the administration, on what strategy to follow, at least in some respects. Kissinger for example was opposed to the strategy of Vietnamization. Nixon ultimately listened to Melvin Laird in that regard.

In 1969, Kissinger fought Laird over the direction of Nixon’s Vietnam strategy and lost. Kissinger did everything he could to slow or stop Vietnamization’s troop withdrawals while convincing the president to escalate the war in Indochina and threaten Hanoi’s destruction. For his part, Nixon entered the White House without a plan (secret or otherwise) to end the war though he too preferred military escalation to Vietnamization. Laird was Vietnamization’s only advocate. He forcefully recalled, “[Nixon] had no plan. I developed the plan.” Laird took advantage of the administration’s formative months to advance his strategy and establish a program of regular reductions over Kissinger’s dissent. As Kissinger relentlessly attacked Vietnamization and prepared Nixon to “go for broke,” Laird shrewdly used the domestic context to persuade Nixon to choose “the long road” over a violent gamble to end the war quickly.4 Without Laird’s moderating influence, Vietnamization would have never become a legitimate option in 1969.

[...] Beyond a token reduction to test Hanoi’s sincerity and prepare the American home front for further escalation, Kissinger believed a Vietnamization program of regular withdrawals would undermine any chance of a negotiated settlement, especially as Congress and the public steadily turned against the war. Lawrence Eagleburger, an assistant to Kissinger in 1969, recollected, “I don’t know when Henry ever would have been prepared to see withdrawals start.”

So, which are the specific offices that matter most (e.g. the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State), and how has their specific optimization power varied over time?

If you're looking for a more systematic answer, it might be alas hard to find one. There is one 1986 paper which suggests that until then the trend had been a loss of influence of the State Department in favor of the more immediate White House staff like the National Security Advisor [APNSA], coupled with the rising prominence of the NSC. Kissinger simultaneously wore both hats of APNSA and Secretary of State for a few years.

That paper mostly focuses on the feud between SecState Cyrus Vance and APNSA Zbigniew Brzezinski during the Carter administration, essentially won by the latter (who declaratively at least saw his job as part of the foreign policy "triad", i.e. par at least with the SecState). According to Leslie Gelb, the feud between the NSC and the State Department had become more institutionalized by then.

The feud became even more public during the Reagan years. Secretary Haig managed a bit of a comeback for his office. He forced the hand of Reagan in one of these spats to publicly declare Haig his "primary adviser on foreign affairs". But Haig's tenure was short lived. Also, Reagan went through a fairly high number of APNSAs too; Wikipedia lists 6 appointed and one acting. But Haig's appointed successor [Schultz] lasted 6+ years.


First, I am not sure, and this question makes remarkably little effort to clarify, what "optimization" means in this context. But I will hazard a guess that it is unlikely that Chomsky's opinion on that matter would be shared by more than a quite small part of the US electorate. More on Mearsheimer at end.

Second, there are a number of theories in international relations about what motivates states: realism, constructivism and liberalism for example. While it's not the purpose of this answer to go into them ( Constructivism's wikipedia writeup is a shining example of impenetrable jargon, with nary a concrete example), it seems clear that all indicate a certain inertia in how a state relates to any given other state. So... once arrived at, FP would continue more or less in the same direction.

OK, now let's get on to the bones of the question. Here are some groups I can think of (I'll concentrate on early 2000s Bush administration for examples):

The President

Obviously, the president's worldview has a huge input. But many POTUS are not internationally minded by nature and experience until they get the job (anyone remember Sarah Palin's coastal FP experience?).

Or Obama being unsure about how to proceed in Afghanistan early in his career (to +40000 troops or not to 40000+ troops?) and thus relying on his advisors.

At the same time, POTUS's do have primary responsibility for high-level FP and their frequent lack of expertise going into the job can yield thing like Trump ditching the JCPOA or Paris Agreement, without any better alternatives and also lowering the world's already low opinion of US capacity to durably bind itself to international agreement.


Normally, the Secretary of State has the lead here, but not always.

People more qualified than me can chip on what Bush's FP views were before 9/11. But the Bush administration is clearly identified with the neocons, from Cheney to Rumsfeld to people like Feith (an excellent book to read about the hubris animating the neocons even though Feith is oblivious to their own naivety).

Paradoxically, the person most in charge of FP, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, did not align enough with the neocons so got sidelined (post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan governance was largely Pentagon-driven).

This group can have an outsized influence on US FP, illustrated by jumping into the Iraq invasion without ensuring a stable Afghanistan first, which was a decision arrived at by a small group. But that circle tends to change from administration to administration.


No, Congress has no direct role in US FP. Aside from ratifying treaties that is, which they rarely do. If JCPOA had been constructed as a more formal, congress ratified, agreement, perhaps Trump's mess could have been averted.

Congress is strongly motivated by fairly static electoral considerations and will not go out on a limb. This again brings a certain consistency, perhaps sub-optimal, but not nefarious as implied by this question. Relations with Cuba, Iran and Israel come to mind - they are all fairly frozen (hard to see Congress backing Bush Sr in his squabbling with Israel about Palestinians late in his administration, for example).

Congress can also be penny-wise and dollar-foolish. Like when Afghanistan aid plummeted after the USSR was booted out and the country was essentially left to poverty and warlords, thus setting the stage for Taliban 1.0 in 1994.


The US State Dept has two sorts of ambassadors: career and political appointees rewarded for supporting the POTUS. The political appointees can be out of their depth, but one of the most famous blunders, not warning Saddam to back off Kuwait was a professional diplomat's.


Below the ambassadors, career State staffers will try to implement US FP decisions. There is both considerable bureaucratic inertia - as can be expected. And also the need to actually deal with the situations as they exist, not as the other political actors wish they were.

This will, again, stabilize FP. Like any bureaucracy and real-world challenges, really.

US interests

Not a group per se, but certainly an influence.

In the past they've included such things as countering Communism, securing oil supplies, promoting trade beneficial to the US and, mostly, promoting democracy abroad (both for ideological and self-interest reasons).

That also promotes a certain "stickiness" in US FP, at least from its foreign counterparts: the unethical ways the US used to suppress Communism in Latin and Central America have poisoned relations with many of those countries.


Last, but not least, US FP is influenced by the views of the US electorate. Bush very well may have won his 2000 election due to a little Cuban boy named Elian Gonzalez. US reluctance to tackle climate change - except by throwing subsidies at it - stem directly from how unpopular it would be to do so.

Many of these factors apply, to lesser or greater degrees, to the US's democratic peers. The US is not that unusual, except in its self-identified exceptionalism and its relative importance on the international scene.

Last, while it's popular to criticize the US, the behavior of Western nations in places like Africa (arms selling by the UK and France to dirt-poor nations for example) leaves much to be desired.

And that's before we get into FP luminaries like China (support for Myanmar, North Korea, border clashes, Taiwan, the Nine Dash Line).

Or Russia. Whose leadership is apparently worth quoting on good governance here.

p.s. I've only read The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy by Mearsheimer. While I mostly agree that the US does not benefit all that much from the alliance - note for example the near total absence of US bases there - it is rather obvious that following his guidance in that matter would be electoral suicide. The, justified, sympathy warranted to Israel, after Europeans essentially tried to wipe Jews out during the Holocaust and the lack of sympathetic Palestinian leaders certainly keeps US FP going in a certain direction, without much need for a "BLOB".

Nor does his tolerance and excuse making on behalf of Putin since his aggression on Ukraine indicate that his "optimization" would be necessarily all that ethical. Or productive.

p.p.s. Oliver Stone.

Like Chomsky, any person following international relations would know that Stone has made a long, and lucrative, career out of criticizing the US. Without much apparent qualifications to do so and with a strong tendency towards conspiracy theories:

“I wonder if the U.S. is setting a stage of a low-yield nuclear explosion, of unknown origin, somewhere in the Donbass region, killing thousands of Ukrainians. Of course… to blame Russia… regardless who launched the device.”

Citing him is doing this question no favor and bolsters the case for calling it out for aim to discredit.


What is the BLOB?

It appears that "the blob" was originally a (mildly derogatory, I'd say) term devised by the self-styled "Obamians" who wanted a quick US withdrawal from Iran and Afghanistan, and who used "the blob" to designate their opponents on that foreign policy matter.

After that, the term was applied [ever] more broadly whenever someone didn't like some bipartisan consensus in Washington on some issue and sought to change it, e.g. around 2020 on Israel or Saudi Arabia, and more recently (2022) on Ukraine, of course.

As such, it generally refers to someone who isn't an isolationist ("liberal hawks" + "unrepentant neocons" to quote the 2022 piece), which is most people who do want to work in foreign policy, outside of specific think tanks. Although people who do use the term, (usually) think it doesn't apply to themselves.

And speaking e.g. of Mearsheimer, he might not consider himself part of "the blob" on Russia, but others would definitely see him that way on China.

Even when the Biden administration defied establishment opinion by withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, it did so in service of a project the Blob prizes more: bolstering America against its great power rivals, especially China.

And yeah, Chomsky has endorsed Donald Trump's plan to solve the war in Ukraine. But Chomsky probably sees Trump as part of the the blob on China, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.

  • There are some questions one should avoid answering. This is one of them. May 14 at 20:56
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    @DavidHammen: why?
    – Fizz
    May 14 at 20:57

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