Who Makes U.S. Foreign Policy?

The President

The president is very influential in US foreign policy, and directs the nation's war-waging, treaties, and diplomatic relations.

Learning Objectives

Explain the President's authority as Commander-in-Chief of the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Throughout the course of their time in office, most presidents gravitate towards foreign policy. It is often argued that the president has more autonomy in foreign policy as compared to domestic policy.
  • The president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but only Congress has authority to declare war and provide funding. The War Powers Act attempted to limit the president's war-waging powers.
  • The president has the power to make treaties, with a two-thirds vote of the Senate, and has the power to make international agreements.
  • The president is the chief diplomat as head of state. The president can also influence foreign policy by appointing US diplomats and foreign aid workers.

Key Terms

  • treaty: A binding agreement under international law concluded by subjects of international law, namely states and international organizations.
  • War Powers Act: A federal law intended to check the President's power to commit the United States to an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.
  • congressional-executive agreements: An accord made by joint authority of the Congress and the President covering areas of International Law that are not within the ambit of treaties.

The President's Influence on US Foreign Policy

Presidents have more power and responsibility in foreign and defense policy than in domestic affairs. They are the commanders in chief of the armed forces; they decide how and when to wage war. As America' chief diplomat, the president has the power to make treaties to be approved by the Senate. And as head of state, the president speaks for the nation to other world leaders and receives ambassadors.

Presidents almost always point to foreign policy as evidence of their term 's success. Domestic policy wonk Bill Clinton metamorphosed into a foreign policy enthusiast from 1993 to 2001. Even prior to 9/11, the notoriously untraveled George W. Bush underwent the same transformation. President Obama has been just as involved, if not more, in foreign policy than his predecessors. Congress—as long as it is consulted—is less inclined to challenge presidential initiatives in foreign policy than in domestic policy. The idea that the president has greater autonomy in foreign than domestic policy is known as the "Two Presidencies Thesis."

The President and Waging War

The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces and as such has broad authority over the armed forces. However, only Congress has authority to declare war and decide the civilian and military budget.

War powers provide a key avenue for presidents to act in foreign policy. After the 9/11 attacks, President Bush's Office of Legal Counsel argued that as commander in chief President Bush could do what was necessary to protect the American people. Since World War II, presidents have never asked Congress for (or received) a declaration of war. Instead, they relied on open-ended congressional authorizations to use force, United Nations resolutions, North American Treaty Organization (NATO) actions, and orchestrated requests from tiny international organizations like the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States.

Congress can react against undeclared wars by cutting funds for military interventions. Such efforts are time consuming and not in place until long after the initial incursion. Congress's most concerted effort to restrict presidential war powers, the War Powers Act, passed despite President Nixon's veto in 1973. It was established to limit presidential war powers, but it gave presidents the right to commit troops for sixty days with only the conditions being to consult with and report to Congress—conditions presidents often feel free to ignore. Since Vietnam, the act has done little to prevent presidents from unilaterally launching invasions.

President Obama did not seek congressional authorization before ordering the US military to join attacks on the Libyan air defenses and government forces in March 2011. After the bombing campaign started, Obama sent Congress a letter contending that as Commander-in-Chief he had constitutional authority for the attacks. White House lawyers used the distinction between "limited military operation" and "war" to justify this.

The President, Treaties, and Agreements

Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution grants power to the president to make treaties with the "advice and consent " of two-thirds of the Senate. This is different from normal legislation which requires approval by simple majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives..


President Wilson: Wilson had disagreements with Congress over how the peace treaty ending World War I should be handled. Presidents often have a wide range of influence on US foreign policy.

Throughout U.S. history, the President has also made international "agreements" through congressional-executive agreements (CEAs) that are ratified with only a majority from both houses of Congress, or sole-executive agreements made by the President alone. The Supreme Court of the United States has considered congressional-executive and sole-executive agreements to be valid, and they have been common throughout American history.

The President and Diplomacy

Another section of the Constitution that gives the president power over foreign affairs is Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the United States Constitution, known as the Appointments Clause. This clause empowers the President to appoint certain public officials with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. This clause also allows lower-level officials to be appointed without the advice and consent process. Thus, the President is responsible for the appointment of both upper- and lower-level diplomats and foreign-aid workers.

For example, the United States Secretary of State is the Foreign Minister of the United States and the primary conductor of state-to-state diplomacy. Both the Secretary of State and ambassadors are appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate.


Hillary Rodham Clinton: Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State, which is the US's Foreign Minister. The President has the power to appoint diplomats (such as the Secretary of State), giving him or her substantial influence in US foreign policy.

As head of state, the President serves as the nation's top diplomat. Presidents are often depicted as speaking for and symbolically embodying the nation: giving a State of the Union address, welcoming foreign leaders, traveling abroad, or representing the United States at an international conference. All of these duties serve an important function in US foreign policy.

The Cabinet

The secretary of state and secretary of defense play key roles in assisting the president with foreign policy.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the roles of the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense in U.S. foreign policy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The secretary of state assists the president in foreign affairs and advises him on representatives and international relations.
  • The secretary of defense, among other things, advises the president on military affairs and hot spots throughout the world.
  • Since 9/11 many functions of the secretary of state has been shifted to other departments so the secretary can focus on pressing foreign matters.

Key Terms

  • commander-in-chief: A commander-in-chief is the person exercising supreme command authority over a nation's military forces or significant element of those forces.

The presidential cabinet has several secretaries who aid the president in foreign affairs. This includes the secretary of state and the secretary of defense.

The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, which is concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence. The current Secretary of State is John Kerry, the 68th person to hold the post. The specific duties of the Secretary of State include:

  • Organizes and supervises the entire United States Department of State and the United States Foreign Service.
  • Advises the President on matters relating to U.S. foreign policy, including the appointment of diplomatic representatives to other nations, and on the acceptance or dismissal of representatives from other nations.
  • Participates in high-level negotiations with other countries, either bilaterally or as part of an international conference or organization, or appoints representatives to do so. This includes the negotiation of international treaties and other agreements.
  • Responsible for overall direction, coordination, and supervision of interdepartmental activities of the U.S. Government overseas.
  • Provides information and services to U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad. Also provides credentials in the form of passports and visas.
  • Supervises the United States immigration policy at home and abroad.
  • Communicates issues relating the United States foreign policy to Congress and U.S. citizens.

Most of the domestic functions of the Department of State have been transferred to other agencies. Those that remain include storage and use of the Great Seal of the United States, performance of protocol functions for the White House, and the drafting of certain proclamations. The Secretary also negotiates with the individual states over the extradition of fugitives to foreign countries. Under Federal Law, the resignation of a President or of a Vice-President is only valid if declared in writing in an instrument delivered to the office of the Secretary of State. Accordingly, the resignations of President Nixon and of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, domestic issues, were formalized in instruments delivered to the Secretary of State.

As the highest-ranking member of the cabinet, the Secretary of State is the third-highest official of the executive branch of the Federal Government of the United States, after the President and Vice President. The Secretary of State is fourth in line to succeed the Presidency, coming after the Vice President, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Six Secretaries of State have gone on to be elected President.

image Flag of the Secretary of Defense: The flag of the secretary of defense.

As the head of the United States Foreign Service, the Secretary of State is responsible for managing the diplomatic service of the United States. The foreign service employs about 12,000 people domestically and internationally. It supports 265 United States Diplomatic missions around the world, including ambassadors to various nations.

The Secretary of Defense is the head and chief executive officer of the Department of Defense, which is an Executive Department of the Government of the United States of America. This position corresponds to what is generally known as a defense Minister in many other countries. The Secretary of Defense is appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the senate. The individual is by custom a member of the cabinet and by law a member of the National Security Council.

The Secretary of Defense is in the chain of command and exercises command and control, subject only to the orders of the President, over all Department of Defense forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps) for both operational and administrative purposes. Only the Secretary of Defense (or the President) can authorize the transfer of operational control of forces between the three Military Departments and between the combatant commands. Because the Office of Secretary of Defense is vested with legal powers which exceeds those of any commissioned officer, and is second only to the Office of President in the military hierarchy, it has sometimes unofficially been referred to as a de facto "deputy commander-in-chief. " The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the Secretary of Defense and the President. While the Chairman may assist the Secretary and President in their command functions, the Chairman is not in the chain of command.Secretary of Defense is a statutory office. It is the general provision in administrative law that provides that the Secretary of Defense has "authority, direction and control over the Department of Defense. " The Secretary of Defense is further designated by the same statute as "the principal assistant to the President in all matters relating to the Department of Defense. " Ensuring civilian control of the military, an individual may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular (i.e., non-reserve) component of an armed force.

The Bureaucracy

Prominent bureaucratic organizations shaping U.S. foreign policy include the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the roles of the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The State Department 's responsibilities include protecting and assisting U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad; assisting U.S. businesses in the international marketplace; and coordinating and providing support for international activities of other U.S. agencies.
  • The Department of Defense is the executive department of the U.S. government concerned directly with national security and the U.S. armed forces.
  • The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is an independent civilian intelligence agency of the U.S. government that provides national security intelligence assessments to senior U.S. policymakers.

Key Terms

  • diplomatic immunity: A diplomat's immunity to prosecution and/or litigation under local law.
  • tactical: of, or relating to military operations that are smaller or more local than strategic ones

There are several bureaucratic organizations that are actively involved in shaping U.S. foreign policy. Prominent among them are the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency.

The United States Department of State (DoS), often referred to as the State Department, is the U.S. federal executive department responsible for the international relations of the United States, equivalent to the foreign ministries of other countries. The Department was created in 1789 and was the first executive department established. The Department is led by the Secretary of State, who is nominated by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and is a member of the Cabinet. As stated by the Department of State, its purpose includes:


U.S. State Department: The State Department is one bureaucratic agency that shapes U.S. foreign policy

  • Protecting and assisting U.S. citizens living or traveling abroad;
  • Assisting U.S. businesses in the international marketplace;
  • Coordinating and providing support for international activities of other U.S. agencies (local, state, or federal government), official visits overseas and at home, and other diplomatic efforts.
  • Keeping the public informed about U.S. foreign policy and relations with other countries and providing feedback from the public to administration officials.
  • Providing automobile registration for non-diplomatic staff vehicles and the vehicles of diplomats of foreign countries having diplomatic immunity in the United States

The Department of Defense (also known as the Defense Department, USDOD, DOD, DoD or the Pentagon) is the executive department of the U.S. government charged with coordinating and supervising all agencies and functions of the government concerned directly with national security and the U.S. armed forces. The Department – headed by the Secretary of Defense – has three subordinate military departments: the Department of the Army, the Department of the Navy, and the Department of the Air Force. The Military Departments are each headed by their own Secretary, appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is an independent civilian intelligence agency of the U.S. government. It is an executive agency that reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence with responsibility for providing national security intelligence assessments to senior U.S. policymakers. Intelligence-gathering, a core function of the agency, is performed by non-military commissioned civilian intelligence agents, many of whom are trained to avoid tactical situations. The CIA also oversees and sometimes engages in tactical and covert activities at the request of the U.S. President. Often, when such field operations are organized, the U.S. military or other warfare tacticians carry these tactical operations out on behalf of the agency while the CIA oversees them.


Two constitutional clauses, the Constitution and Foreign Commerce Clause and the War Power Clause, give Congress foreign policy powers.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the War Powers Clause and how the United States' process of declaring and entering into war has changed over time, identifying the general role that Congress plays in making and coordinating foreign policy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The War Power clause states that only Congress can declare war. This has been evoked five times in American history.
  • Sometimes, this clause directly conflicts with what the president wants to do. As a result, the president will create a " police action " in a hostile territory instead of declaring war.
  • Trade is also an important policy -making tool. Congress has the power to regulate foreign trade.

Key Terms

  • police action: Police action in military/security studies and international relations is a euphemism for a military action undertaken without a formal declaration of war.

Congress is given several powers to engage in foreign policy, but also to check the president's actions foreign policy, especially in the event of war. Perhaps the most important powers are in the War Power Clause which was given to Congress in the Constitution and Foreign Commerce Clause. This clause provides Congress with the power to regulate commerce overseas. Five wars have been declared under the Constitution: the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, and World War II.

In the instance of the Mexican-American War, President James Polk explained that Texas was about to become a part of United States of America. Mexico threatened to invade Texas. The President gathered troops near Corpus Christi. U.S. troops moved into an area in which the new international boundary was being disputed. Mexican troops moved into the same area and the two forces clashed. The President claimed that Mexico had passed the boundary into the United States. Some individuals in Congress, including Abraham Lincoln, wondered if this was true.

However, U.S. presidents have not sought formal declarations of war often. Instead, they maintain that they have the Constitutional authority, as commander in chief to use the military for "police actions. " According to historian Thomas Woods, "Ever since the Korean, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution — which refers to the president as the 'Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States' — has been interpreted to mean that the president may act with an essentially free hand in foreign affairs, or at the very least that he may send men into battle without consulting Congress. " Some people have argued this could pass as offensive actions, although historically police actions fell mostly under the purview of protecting embassies, U.S. citizens overseas, and shipping such as the quasi war.

The Korean War was the first modern example of the U.S. going to war without a formal declaration. This has been repeated in every armed conflict since that time. However, beginning with the Vietnam, Congress has given other forms of authorizations to declare war. Some debate continues about whether the actions are appropriate. The tendency of the Executive Branch to engage in the origination of such a push, its marketing, and even propagandizing or related activities to generate such support is also highly debated.


Johnson and His Advisors: Johnson being shown a map of an area in Vietnam. The police action spiraled into a war-like situation quickly, although it was one war never waged by Congress.

Therefore, in light of the speculation concerning the Gulf of Tonkin and the possible abuse of the authorization that followed, Congress passed the War Powers Resolution in 1973. It requires the president to obtain either a declaration of war or a resolution authorizing the use of force from Congress within 60 days of initiating hostilities with a full disclosure of facts in the process. The constitutionality of the resolution has never been settled. Some presidents have criticized it as an unconstitutional encroachment upon the president.

Some legal scholars maintain that offensive, non-police military actions, while a quorum can still be convened, taken without a formal Congressional declaration of war is unconstitutional. They believe this because no amendment with two-thirds majority of states has changed the original intent to make the War Powers Resolution legally binding. However, the Supreme Court has never ruled directly on the matter and to date no counter-resolutions have come to a vote. This separation of powers stalemate effect creates a "functional," if not unanimous, governmental opinion and outcome on the matter.

The Commerce Clause in the Constitution also give Congress the power to regulate trade between nations. The Commerce Clause is an enumerated list in the United States Constitution. The clause states that the United States Congress shall have power "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes. " These powers are sometimes discussed as separate powers, but they are essentially important because trade is considered to be an important form of economic diplomacy between the United States and foreign nations.

Interest Groups

Foreign policy interest groups are domestic advocacy organizations which seek to influence the government's foreign policy.

Learning Objectives

Illustrate how interest groups influence U.S. foreign policy

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In order to build and maintain their influence, they use tactics such as framing the issue and shaping the terms of debate, offering information and analysis to elected representatives, and monitoring the policy process and reacting to it.
  • Foreign policy interest groups often overlap with so-called "ethnic" interest groups, as they try to influence the foreign policy of the United States for the benefit of the foreign "ethnic kin" or homeland with whom respective ethnic groups identify.
  • Though ethnic interest groups have existed for many decades, they have become a particularly influential phenomenon since the end of the Cold War.

Key Terms

  • advocacy: The act of arguing in favor of, or supporting something.

Foreign policy interest groups, which are domestic advocacy organizations seeking to directly or indirectly influence the government 's foreign policy, are a key player in U.S. foreign policy.

According to U.S. scholar John Dietrich, these interest groups have mobilized to represent a diverse array of business, labor, ethnic, human rights, environmental, and other organizations. In order to build and maintain their influence, they use tactics, such as framing the issue and shaping the terms of debate; offering information and analysis to elected representatives (who may not have the time to research the issue himself or herself); and monitoring the policy process and reacting to it through disseminating supplementary information, letter-writing campaigns, calling for additional hearings or legislation, and supporting or opposing candidates during elections.

Foreign policy interest groups often overlap with so-called "ethnic" interest groups, as they try to influence the foreign policy and, to a lesser extent, the domestic policy of the United States for the benefit of the foreign "ethnic kin" or homeland with whom respective ethnic groups identify. Though ethnic interest groups have existed for many decades, they have become a particularly influential phenomenon since the end of the Cold War.

According to political scientist Thomas Ambrosio, this is a result of growing acceptance that ethnic identity groups have the right to mobilize politically for the purpose of influencing U.S. policies at home and abroad. Prominent examples of these organizations include the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Cuban American National Foundation, the Armenian Assembly of America, the U.S.-India Political Action Committee, and the National Iranian American Council.


the American Israel Public Affairs Committee: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee is a prominent foreign policy interest group

The Media

The media has changed how citizens perceive and approach about U.S. Foreign Policy in the 20th century.

Learning Objectives

Explain the media's role in setting the agenda for foreign policy debate

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The media is most influential when it covers foreign policy that directly affects Americans, especially affairs with which Americans are not acquainted.
  • Vietnam was a time when many people watched the horrors of war on television. This helped the popularity of the war sink.
  • After these viewings, the military founds itself involved in politics and having to do damage control to ease the public's and the politicians' concerns.

Key Terms

  • media: Means and institutions for publishing and broadcasting information.
  • media bias: A bias in journalistic reporting, in programming selection, etc., in mass communications media.

Agenda -Setting in Foreign Policy

One way in which the media could set the agenda is if it is in an area in which very few Americans have direct knowledge of the issues. This applies to foreign policy. When American military personnel are involved, the media needs to report because the personnel are related to the American public. The media is also likely to have an interest in reporting issues that have substantial effects on American workers, such as major trade agreements with Mexico during the NAFTA negotiations in the 1990's.

David McKay, author of American Politics and Society, lists as one of the three main distortions of information by the media, "Placing high priority on American news to the detriment of foreign news. And when the U.S. is engaged in military action abroad, this 'foreign news' crowds out other foreign news. "

News Media and the Vietnam War

In the media's most famous case in involvement on foreign affairs was its involvement in the Vietnam War. From 40 press corpsmen in 1964, the number in South Vietnam had grown to 282 by January 1966. By August that number had jumped to 419. Of the 282 at the beginning of the year, only 110 were Americans. 67 were South Vietnamese, 26 Japanese, 24 British, 13 Korean, 11 French, and seven German. The media caught many combat events, usually on live television, which prompted many American citizens to be concerned about foreign policy.


Soldier in Vietnam: Graphics like this helped contribute to Americans' concern over foreign policy in Vietnam.

The U.S. Mission and the MACV (Military Assistance Command) also installed an "information czar," the U.S. Mission's Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs, Barry Zorthian, advised General William Westmoreland on public affairs matters. He had theoretical responsibility under the ambassador for the development of all information policy. He maintained liaison between the embassy, MACV, and the press; publicized information to refute erroneous and misleading news stories; and sought to assist the Saigon correspondents in covering the side of the war most favorable to the policies of the U.S. government. Zorthian possessed both experience with the media and a great deal of patience and tact while maintaining reasonably good relations with the press corps. Media correspondents were invited to attend nightly MACV briefings covering the day's events that became known as the "Five O'Clock Follies. " Most correspondents considered these briefings to be a waste of time. The Saigon bureau chiefs were also often invited to closed sessions at which presentations would be made by a briefing officer, the CIA station chief, or an official from the embassy who would present background or off-the-record information on upcoming military operations or Vietnamese political events.

According to Daniel Hallin, the dramatic structure of the uncensored "living room war" as reported during 1965–1967 remained simple and traditional: "the forces of good were locked in battle once again with the forces of evil. What began to change in 1967 was the conviction that the forces of good would inevitably prevail. " During late 1967 the MACV had also begun to disregard the decision it had made at the Honolulu Conference that the military should leave the justification of the war to elected officials in Washington. The military found itself drawn progressively into politics, to the point that it had become as involved in "selling" the war to the American public as the political appointees it served. This change would have far-reaching detrimental effects.

Media Bias

A self-described liberal media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), in consultation with the Survey and Evaluation Research Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University, sponsored an academic study in which journalists were asked a range of questions about how they did their work and about how they viewed the quality of media coverage in the broad area of politics and economic policy. "They were asked for their opinions and views about a range of recent policy issues and debates. Finally, they were asked for demographic and identifying information, including their political orientation." They then compared to the same or similar questions posed with "the public" based on Gallup, and Pew Trust polls. Their study concluded that a majority of journalists, although relatively liberal on social policies, were significantly to the right of the public on economic, labor, health care, and foreign policy issues.

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